How We're Thinking About Commerce and VR With Our First VR App, Thread Studio

3 minute read

Hey everyone! I’m Daniel and I lead our VR efforts at Shopify. 

When I talk to people about VR and commerce, the first idea that usually pops into their heads is about all the possibilities of walking around a virtual shopping mall. While that could be an enjoyable experience for some, I find it’s a very limiting view of how virtual reality can actually improve retail.

If VR gave you the superpowers to do anything, create anything, and go anywhere you want, would you really want to go shopping in a regular mall?

More than a virtual mall

It’s easy to take a new medium and try to shoehorn in what already exists and is familiar. What’s hard is figuring out what content makes the medium truly shine and worthwhile to use. VR offers an amazing storytelling platform for brands. For the first time, brands can put people in the stories that their products tell.

If you’re selling scuba gear, why not show what it’d look like underwater with jellyfish passing by? Or a tent on a windy, chilly cliff, reflecting the light of a scrappy fire? It sure would beat being in a fluorescent-lit camping store. In VR, you could explore inside a tent before you buy it, or change the environment around you at a press of a button.

VR can also represent scale better than any other medium. For many products — from sofas to bike frames to tents— seeing exactly how big it is is a key factor in deciding whether or not to buy it. I could show you a photo of a mug or a pencil, and you’d have a good idea of what it looks like in person. A sofa is different. You can see photos and measurements online, but only until you see it in front of you can you truly get its size.

It’s not just about shopping

Shopping is only one part under the umbrella of commerce. At Shopify, our customers are our merchants: the people who create and sell amazing products every day. We’re always looking for ways to make their lives easier and give them the right tools they need to succeed.

But in what ways can VR help with the creation and management of products?

We released our first stab at that, and it’s called Thread Studio. It’s an app that transports you into a virtual photo studio where you can lay out T-shirt designs on mannequins and easily adjust for size and position. The shirts look just like they would in real life. Once you’re set, the app can spit out print-ready files ready for Printful to do on-demand printing, or open a Shopify store with them.

It launched today, and is available for free on Steam for the HTC Vive (Rift support coming soon).

Exciting times ahead

The VR space is moving fast, and the time to be in it couldn’t be more exciting. It’s incredible to see just how far the Rift and Vive have come in the past two years, and how engines like Unity and Unreal are democratizing the creation of amazing VR experiences.
Other tech like WebVR and A-frame have even made it possible to run VR content within the web at 90fps with motion controller support. You could now jump into a VR experience right from an online store without ever leaving your browser or downloading an app.

That’s crazy.

VR hasn’t gone mainstream yet, but when it inevitably does in some form or other, Shopify wants to be ready for it. Part of that involves leaving a lot of what we know about online shopping behind, and figuring out what really works best in VR (and AR).

Our team is currently five people who focus on experiments and research in VR and its applications for our merchants and their customers—but VR is something lots of people across Shopify are interested in and have begun to contribute to, even if they can't devote to it full-time.

We're looking forward to sharing lessons from our work in the Engineering blog. Also, check out our newly-launched Medium publication where we’ll share all our virtual endeavours