In many markets, most notably in Canada, the sample bud jar and slick packaging have been entirely removed from the retail space. Regulations like these make it near-impossible for consumers to interact with the product they wish to purchase.
We started to hear a great deal about virtual and augmented options in cannabis as the Canadian regulations unfolded in 2018. It seemed a natural progression, which very practically skirted around the strict rules, yet still provided a unique and accessible experience to the end customer. Nearly a year later, however, few of these virtual realities (VR) or augmented reality (AR) options have made it in front of customers.
The excitement of the virtual weed world has fizzled, with customers settling into a dull, but legal, retail experience. To date, it's unclear how many cannabis-focused VR or AR experiences have really made it in front of the customer at all.
In Canada, this may be thanks to a strict reading of the Cannabis Act, which limits “hidden-items” on cannabis packaging. The failure of virtual-weed technologies to gain traction with customers is also thanks in part to technological barriers. Virtual reality is coming, but it's not quite there yet. Unless the technologies are provided free of charge to the end consumer, it will take a while before enough of us buy in to make VR in cannabis a reality.
Despite the failure of virtual or augmented reality to truly penetrate the cannabis industry in a meaningful way, there are a few applications worth noting. One is in packaging, and another is in education. Both applications circumvent the current barriers between consumers and product at the point of purchase.
Enhancing the Shopping Experience Through AR Packaging
Can of Bliss out of Oakland, California, connects customers to the product through an innovative QR code-triggered experience. With one quick scan using a mobile device, the QR code gives the consumer an all-access pass to the flower contained inside.
The Can of Bliss container has no see-through window but offers consumers a full visual of the container contents. The metal canister manages to meet all of California’s regulations on packaging (childproof, waterproof, aroma-proof, etc.) while giving the customer a real picture of the flower inside, as captured during processing.
The QR scan also provides customers with product-specific laboratory test results and a farm profile. Furthermore, producers may also choose to include the Scratch and Sniff add-on feature for terpene profile—as additional, and fun, interactive experience for the customer that solves the dilemma of instore handling of the flower itself.
As Can of Bliss CEO Mat Fogarty stated in a press release, “It is really important for the customer to know exactly what they are getting. We promise a 'mugshot match guarantee' – so what you see is what you get.” He explained, “This immersive experience makes it easy for customers to see the nugs, meet the farmer, check out the test results, and feel good about their purchase.”
Can of Bliss is currently only available in California. Augmented packaging technology is something that could hold significant potential for highly regulated markets if the law allows. Unfortunately for Canadians, Can of Bliss won't be entering into the market any time soon thanks to a new rollout of packaging stipulations.
The Canadian Cannabis Act has now excluded enhanced packaging features, which means hidden features that use technology to alter the appearance of the product or container (see Cannabis Regulations SOR/2018-144). The federal regulations also prevent packaging from emitting an aroma, which means no scratch and sniff options. As regional markets evolve with cannabis technologies, it will be curious to see how regulation adapts to AR packaging options.
VR For Educational Experiences
Augmented packaging and VR experiences enable brands to give the consumer “hands-on” brand exposure through the powers of technology. Even though the cannabis VR future has yet to unfold as expected, at least one company is betting big on crafting cannabis-specific VR experiences.
As announced earlier this year, NexTech AR Solutions Corp., in partnership with Cannvas Medical Inc, will use AR as a mechanism for improved customer education. The initial rollout of AR-equipped kiosks will begin in high-traffic retail locations in Canada.
These kiosks will “improve accessibility to free, and physician-backed education focused on the potential benefits of medical and adult-use cannabis.” Cannvas.me powers the information, with NexTech AR supplying the technology.
If all goes according to plan, this partnership will represent the first-to-market AR option in cannabis. With the platforms' integration with Shopify, WordPress, and Magento, there is room for growth beyond an educational angle. Theoretically, it's easy to imagine how an AR educational experience could roll out into AR product 'sampling' as well as eventual sales.
The Future of AR and VR in Question, with Evolving Legislation
Both AR and VR technologies have much to offer the consumer in highly regulated markets. With restrictions on advertising, in-store experiences, and container packaging, producers need to lean on these creative technologies to improve the consumer experience. The retail experience isn't what it once was, with the hands-on tactile approach stymied by legalization.
High regulation means it's not always possible for the customer to touch, smell, and experience a cannabis product before purchase. VR and AR can help fill the educational and experiential gaps for the consumer, but it's going to be a while before they reach market saturation.
For all they do for improved accessibility and reach, AR and VR technologies operate in a legally grey area. Legislation hasn't caught up to virtual technologies yet, which makes it a risky venture. Branded virtual reality walks a fine line between education and advertising, and over the coming years, it will be fascinating to see how some policymakers choose to address this blurry line.