I start out in a plain, boring and fairly grim-looking grey store. Like that famous scene in the Matrix, I have to make the right decision: grab myself a colourful can of craft beer – CoConspirators Brewing’s The Matriarch, to be exact. When I do, I'm swept away to a new reality.
This new world surrounding me is bright and vibrant, not too dissimilar from the desert in Homer's fever dream in that episode of The Simpsons where he eats too hot a chilli sauce and ends up talking to Johnny Cash.
Shelves filled with craft beer suddenly appear around me. I'm able to select different styles; I pick stout and grab one from Hawkers. The beer’s description and ABV are right in front of my eyes. I crack the can open and fumble, dropping it to the ground as I get my bearings. Chucking one into the air makes it disappear into dust, while aiming my hand towards a checkout area allows me to actually buy it.
I remove the Oculus Quest and I’m back in a small warehouse in Melbourne’s eastern suburbs where Tim Sullivan, founder of Sullivan Studios, has been building this experience for pioneering Melbourne booze retailer Purvis Beer. Tim has worked in the web development and e-commerce space for some time and has created this new concept alongside Craig Purvis, owner of the stores of the same name, for Purvis' online store.
Tim says he’s passionate about both craft beer and helping small businesses perform better online; for some time, he’s felt the future of e-commerce is through virtual reality.
“I also just love craft beer and VR so there’s an element of wanting to merge them together,” he says.
“One of the things Craig always said to me about the website when we started building it is, ‘How do we replicate coming to the store and seeing everything we’ve got in here on a website?’”
There’s a number of reasons Tim thinks buying beer and VR are a natural fit, not just because of the number of IT professionals connected to craft beer and those people into gaming, tech and drinking craft beer. What's more, when it comes down to the practicalities of design, the fact bottles and cans are cylinders makes things a little easier too.
Tim believes the Purvis experience will be the first virtual reality craft beer store in the world once it’s approved.
“Most beer sites are pretty good but it’s never the same as going into a store and we want to bridge something there,” he says.
Although he tends to steer clear of terms like “gamification” as it can make people think such things are for children, he says blending game-like experiences into a virtual reality console can be a strong tool to connect people with the world around them.
“Games are so powerful and in Esport, people spend so much money and the storytelling is really powerful,” he says.
As a concept, virtual reality is far from new, more one of those things like hoverboards and self-driving cars that seem to be part of near-future science fiction but never our actual future. And, while Tim says plenty of people dismiss the concept as something that’s still some way off or unlikely to be commonplace, he points to the rise in popularity of Oculus, one of a number of VR consoles, as proof of how big its potential is viewed.
The console company was founded in 2010; in 2014, it was sold to Facebook for a sum reported to be as close to $3 billion USD. Tim says it’s the highest selling tech item on Amazon; Facebook – a specifically sophisticated data company – has about a fifth of its entire workforce dedicated to it.
“Facebook has about 10,000 staff on just this alone,” Tim says.
“Google know what we search for, Amazon and Shopify know what we buy, but Facebook, which owns WhatsApp and Instagram, know what we’re talking about it.”
With the entry-level system costing a little above $400, it’s less than the newest PlayStation and comparable to a Nintendo Switch. Games are a big driver for people buying them, but they’re also used for watching streaming services and Tim has worked to turn plans for houses into realities you can walk through.
The question remains, however: will Oculus users who might have bought theirs to play games or watch Netflix want to buy something through the system rather than on their phone. From my personal experience, I’m happy to say it’s one of the most unusual and fun experiences I’ve had in a long time, even when you take into account I’ve been stuck inside my house for much of the last two years. But would I do it again and again?
“For me, the exciting part is you’re interacting with beer, or any product, in a way you never had before,” Tim says (who is pictured above), adding that the virtual shopping experiences he can create have the ability to bring people back in.
“You can have videos, 3D models, livestreams connected to individual beers,” he says. “Anything you’ve ever seen on web, or on a game, we can put in there.
“We’re running an experiment in a forest where we’ll hide beers up in trees, so if you’re there at the right time, you might find a bottle of Cantillon up a tree.”
Just like walking into your neighbourhood bottle or pub, you might run into one of your mates in there and ask them about what they’re buying. Down the line, you might have to battle for that bottle of lambic.
“We want to have an experience where you can talk with a brewer in there," he says. "Then it’s more of a social experience.
“If you were in there, you could have the head brewer from Deeds and walk around him, his voice would change depending on where you were. You could replicate a taproom and people would jump into that, I mean people jump into Zoom and that’s very boring.
“We know the tech will get better too, so I’m just building the content.
“When websites first started, there were plenty of businesses who didn’t understand the value because they were already in the phone book.”
As you head out of the Purvis shopping experience, there are further doors around you that, in the future, will lead to other shops too: buy some beer and, as your order is being filled, head into a camping store or buy some clothes.
Having experienced my first go at VR, it’s a feeling that sticks with me for a couple of days. I find myself telling everyone I see about this weird dream-like state in which I could buy some beers.
It’s not a dream, however. My order arrives from Purvis a few days later and I crack into my Hawkers Stout that night as I search through tech review sites and contemplate buying a headset.
Purvis Beer VR is expected approval from the app stores to come through the coming weeks. You can head here to be notified when it’s ready, with the launch including free shipping for any orders from the Purvis store.
Tim's keen to make sure he's got high-resolution artwork from all breweries as he continues to update Purvis Beer VR. If you're a brewer keen to be included, get in touch by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.