Walmart’s cavernous stores apparently aren’t large enough to hold the Hidden World in DreamWorks’ latest How to Train Your Dragon film. Instead, the retailer announced today that it will use its parking lots to host free five-minute VR dragon-riding experiences — and the expected significant lines of people — in an effort to spur merchandise sales at matching gift shops.

Developed by Walmart-backed Spatial& in partnership with DreamWorks, the endeavor looks more like a theme park installation than a traditional retail experience. Visitors as young as 8 years old are allowed to participate in the action, which starts with a character greeting at an onboarding tent before moving into a VR world powered by headsets and motion VR chairs. Since the goal of the free ride is to sell merchandise, guests are led directly to a themed gift shop right after they take off the VR gear.

A YouTube video of the experience shows fully computer-generated fantasy scenes that look as if they could be straight out of a modern video game, though kids and adults aren’t handed controllers or actually playing anything. Instead, they get to see 360-degree videos and high-resolution images with VR head tracking, all designed to elicit emotional responses.

Walmart and Spatial& specifically expect that people will want to buy items “featuring the characters they befriended and created deep connections with during the activation,” including toys, DVDs, and video games. The immersive virtual tour of the Hidden World includes How to Train Your Dragon characters such as Astrid, Hiccup, Hookfang, and Toothless, with greetings during onboarding by Ruffnut and Tuffnut.

“Collaborating with DreamWorks Animation and its iconic How to Train Your Dragon franchise is such an exciting way to bring Spatial&’s first ever activation to the public,” said Spatial& CEO Katie Finnegan. “Spatial& was founded based on the belief that VR will transform merchandising and retail and we can’t wait to finally share this uniquely immersive shopping experience with consumers across the country.”

Though the collaboration certainly isn’t the first to leverage VR to sell things, it’s a particularly interesting experiment in that correlations between the experience and purchases will be fairly easy to track, and the promise of free VR experiences based on a well-liked movie franchise could be enough to draw crowds. It’s also somewhat unique in that Walmart has chosen to site the project outside of its stores — in winter, no less — rather than utilizing space inside.

Walmart will start offering the experiences over several days at multiple stores in one city before moving on to another city. The seven-city run begins at noon February 15 in Los Angeles, California, and concludes in Bentonville, Arkansas on April 9.

Last year, Amazon used VR to create virtual selling spaces inside Indian shopping malls where it wasn’t operating physical stores. Similarly, retailers such as Macy’s have started to use VR inside their stores to let customers browse inventory that would otherwise be too broad or large to stock locally.


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