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Walmart Eyes Virtual-Reality Shopping System, Patent Filings Say

Trekking through a crowded, cavernous Walmart supercentre isn’t much fun. But what if you could do it from the comfort of your own home through virtual reality?

The world’s biggest retailer wants to find out, according to filings with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office.

The company has applied for two patents that detail a “virtual show room” and fulfilment system that would connect shoppers clad in VR headsets and sensor-packed gloves to a three-dimensional representation of a Walmart store. Customers could wander digital aisles from home and “grab” items, which would be immediately picked and shipped from a fully automated distribution centre.

“Walmart knows that its stores are too big and unwieldy for people,” Zoe Leavitt, a managing analyst at patent researcher CB Insights, said.

The filing is part of Walmart’s recent push into virtual reality, an area that holds promise for brick-and-mortar retailers struggling with the massive costs associated with store upkeep and labour. In February the retailer acquired Spatialand, a startup that makes software tools to create virtual-reality experiences.

Spatialand is housed inside Walmart’s in-house tech incubator, Store No. 8, which last year hosted a “v-commerce gala” in Los Angeles, a gaudy affair (by Walmart standards) that celebrated the five winners of a Walmart competition to find the best ideas in the space.

Walmart is moving aggressively into the digital realm at the same time that Amazon.com Inc. and other technology companies are looking to establish a brick-and-mortar presence. Amazon acquired Whole Foods Market last year and is also opening cashier-less stores while Google is planning a retail flagship store in Chicago, the Chicago Tribune reported Friday.

Walmart has filed for more than a dozen virtual-reality patents, Leavitt said, but its focus has shifted from using VR for its internal business — say, virtual conference calls — to more external, shopper-focused applications. For example, it’s also sought a patent for an “unattended retail storefront” that would give shoppers access to items from a portal installed in their home.
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