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The North Face Is Hoping Virtual Reality Will Sell Hiking Gear

A new in-store experience gives you a virtual tour of a few of the country’s national parks—conveniently next to all the hiking gear.

The North Face is really hoping he’ll buy some hiking shoes when he’s done looking at Yosemite.   Photo: Courtesy of the North Face

Ever wanted to get a bird’s-eye view of our country’s national parks, or scramble up one of Yosemite’s rock faces right next to pro-climber Sam Elias? Head over to The North Face store in the John Hancock Center and you can—sort of.

This week, The North Face debuts their latest and coolest in-store experience at select stores in Chicago, New York, and San Francisco: a totally immersive 3-D virtual reality video, so realistic that you’ll find yourself craning your head (inside its virtual reality helmet) to see where that bird call came from. Walk into the store and you’ll spot an egg-shaped chair that you can “check out” from a sales associate as though you were renting a DVD from your local library. You’ll watch a three-minute video, during which you’re encouraged to move your head and swivel the chair as much as you want in order to see as much as you can. “When people put it on for the first time, they don’t move around as much, because we’re conditioned to view in a rectangle,” says Eric Oliver, Director of Digital Marketing at The North Face. “But we encourage people to look around a lot, and then you realize you can literally turn your head like an owl and see the entire scene.”

The North Face teamed up with Jaunt technology to capture gorgeous footage of Yosemite and the Moab desert experienced alongside Elias and fellow climber Cedar Wright. “It’s a new way of filmmaking,” says Oliver. “Jaunt captures 360-degree video and stitches that together in a seamless sphere. When you combine that with virtual reality—so the screen in front of your eyeballs and the audio in your headphones mimic the real world—it’s transporting.”

This experience is part of a broader retail trend: using gadgets and gimmicks to bring customers offline and back to brick and mortar. See Under Armour’s in-store “optojump experience,” for example. “Any big brand is trying to figure out how experiences in the real world can make a visit to a store a different experience than you can deliver online,” says Oliver. “[Virtual reality] is the most visceral or emotional or impactful way we’re trying to augment our in-store experience.”

Of course, the in-store experience has to be brand-appropriate, or customers will be awfully confused when they emerge from that egg-shaped chair. For The North Face, virtual reality is a means to an end: real-world reality, the vista for which their gear was designed. If the 360-degree video inspires you, you’re already surrounded by base camp duffels, specialized hiking belts, lime green sleeping bags, and even tents, all available for purchase—as well as associates who can hook you up, both literally and figuratively, with the gear that’s best for all your exploratory needs. “We’re not looking to replace the real world because we love it, and there’s nothing like standing on the rim of the Grand Canyon to be in awe,” he says. “But if this challenges you to book a ticket to see these places in real life? That would be a great result.”

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