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What Does Virtual Reality Mean for Beauty?

Why virtual reality might just be beauty’s most transformative technology yet.

Imagine entering a beauty store, checking out the various departments, chatting with a saleswoman who’s paying attention only to you, trying on lipstick shades from every brand carried, purchasing one exactly right for you and doing it all while never leaving your house.

That’s a peek into the future of the beauty industry from inside virtual-reality goggles. The next frontier beyond augmented reality, which has brought digital makeup try-on to the fore with apps like L’Oréal’s Makeup Genius, Perfect365 and ModiFace, virtual reality promises to captivate consumers on an individual level in a way that few technologies before it have.

“You feel like you are in a different environment. You can look around and everything moves as you look around. Everything is so fluid that it seems real even though you know it’s not. It’s certainly believable,” says ModiFace chief executive officer and founder Parham Aarabi, who has tried Oculus and Samsung Gear VR goggles. “Virtual reality, especially for gaming, is great for immersive experiences. It’s attention grabbing.”

With virtual reality in its infancy, not many beauty brands have taken the plunge. Two that have are Charlotte Tilbury and Matrix, a hair-care brand from L’Oréal that has used the technology for training purposes. In a first-of-its-kind effort, Charlotte Tilbury created a virtual-reality film featuring Kate Moss tied to the launch of its fragrance Scent of a Dream. In it, customers soared into space with Moss and participated in a wild, glamorous party.

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“I knew that this incredible 360-experience would perfectly channel the perfume’s magnetism,” says Tilbury. “It was all about bringing to life the qualities of the scent for every user in a multisensory capacity. I wanted to intensify the senses to give the perfume’s spell-binding power a tangible quality.”

While Charlotte Tilbury’s virtual-reality project was mainly for marketing, there are plenty of possible applications. As Matrix has shown, training and education, both involving staff members and the general public, are ripe for virtual-reality initiatives. “They are doing it in the medical world with surgery right now. In beauty, you could have one makeup artist training 700 employees on how to do something,” says Robin Raskin, founder and president of Living in Digital Times. Segueing to consumers, she gives an example from the car segment that could easily translate to beauty, especially with complex products such as hair or skin-care appliances. Instead of relying on manuals, she says, “You will sit with your goggles on and learn the features of your car up close.”

Virtual reality can also animate social media. Spencer McClung, executive vice president of media and partnerships at Ipsy, foresees interactions between YouTube beauty personalities and their fans going virtual. “There’s a ton of potential with VR in the beauty business,” he says. “It’s another avenue to get to know our creator community and to bring our audience and creators together, whether it’s go-shopping-with-me, go to a GenBeauty [event] with me or a 360-talk show where you have a group of creators sitting around and you are a part of the discussion.”

In a completely different beauty arena, dermatologists, hairstylists and others providing transformational beauty services could tap virtual-reality programs to effectively illustrate transformations clients might undergo. Raskin envisions them being especially impactful for salons. “Instead of guessing what you might look like, you will actually see it ahead of time,” she contends, adding hairstylists could let “you see how you would look as a blond or with straight hair, curly hair or extensions. That is going to be absolutely huge.”

For customers hungry for personalization, Raskin reasons the highly tailored experiences virtual reality can deliver are appealing. Those customers are principally Millennials and their younger cohorts—and they’re just the customers that are adopting virtual reality and that beauty brands want to reach. “Think about who would actually be using this stuff. It’s probably not going to be your mother and grandmother,” says Cara Harbor, who works in marketing for Perfect365.

Even though the customers that might experiment with virtual reality are attractive to beauty brands, that doesn’t mean shoppers will immediately flock to VR, especially with the technology nascent. Raskin underscores VR is still new and may not be as refined as it will be in years to come, perhaps compelling customers to wait for advancements. “It is not fine enough for makeup. Google has a virtual reality paint program. You can paint a picture with your hands and then step through the picture. That’s on a grand level with broad brush strokes, but soon you will be able to do more surgically precise things,” she details.

Today, virtual-reality goggles can be clunky, expensive and their content offerings limited to primarily games. Although virtual reality is on pace to hit $1 billion in sales this year, including about $700 million from hardware with 2.5 million headsets being snapped up, according to Deloitte Global, it’s definitely a niche business. “[Brands] are in the beginning stages of exploration. To take it one step further with virtual reality, there is a lot of development that needs to happen.

Virtual reality does require more investment in equipment and space. We are pretty sure it is going to get there some day, but it will take a little time,” says Perfect365 director of marketing Vickie Wei. “Meanwhile, augmented reality is something that you can do right now.”

At present, introducing virtual-reality goggles in a store environment to drum up excitement is a practical and possibly smart move. Depending on customers to view virtual-reality experiences on their own is not. “I don’t know if people want to wear a headset at home versus going to a store,” says Aarabi. “There are not many beauty shoppers that have them, so it would be in stores or at events where you would be trying headsets out.”

Tilbury says that, partially due to the virtual reality film, hundreds of people lined up outside Selfridges in London when her brand unveiled its fragrance. On top of those crowds, she noted that the film has drawn more than 1 million views on Instagram.

Ultimately, virtual reality may only succeed in beauty if cost of the goggles is equaled or outmatched by the consumer experience they supply. “The goggles now require you to be tethered to computers. It is an in-store experience mostly and not personalized. It’s not so much about putting you in the picture, but letting you explore a world, but as they get cheaper and they process more, you could go on a Sephora shopping spree with your goggles,” says Raskin. “Virtual reality may be an in-store experience now, but it will eventually trickle home.”