Lego’s Hidden World augmented reality app. (Source: Lego)

LAS VEGAS – CES can be grueling. One of my conference survival mechanisms is to find a session to attend that isn’t likely to be all that challenging – or even all that interesting. This allows me to pretend to be working and yet still actually kinda work. I found a likely candidate: “Enhancing Sales with AR, VR and Video.” I was mostly looking just for someplace to sit. Instead, I found myself riveted. I can’t remember ever having seen a group of people so proud of their success manipulating people.

I already knew that retailers use every resource available to them to get people to buy things – we all know that. It’s obvious when retailers adopt floor plans that purposefully make us travel through the entire store (e.g., Ikea, Bed Bath & Beyond). We’re all cognizant that grocery stores put items next to the cash register that we shoppers are apt to buy on impulse. We’re aware that advertisers target specific audiences by carefully placing their ads in specific web sites, or mail ads only to certain neighborhoods, or insert them in specific TV shows being viewed in specific zip codes.

It isn’t Christmas for me unless I’ve seen “A Charlie Brown Christmas.” Snoopy remains endlessly amusing, and like many others I aspire to be able to dance as well as that kid in the orange shirt. But one of the two main hooks of the episode – one of the things that makes “A Charlie Brown Christmas” timeless – is Charlie Brown’s lament about “crass commercialism.”

I’m with Charlie Brown on that, but in the end, I have to concede that most of what retailers do to induce people to buy is fair game. That includes using AR, VR, and video.

And AR and VR in retail is legitimately entertaining. During the CES session they showed videos documenting several instances. Johnny Walker did a promotion with “Game of Thrones” in which an image of a dire wolf sprang up, all to encourage the purchase of a “Game of Thrones Limited Edition” bottle of scotch. Lego did a promotion in which Lego “ghosts” appeared to float through the store; “catch” them all and the shoppers’ reward was to get to play with a new Lego set IRL (in real life – if you haven’t seen that one before, you will be seeing it more and more often).

In a third, Walmart did a cross-promotion with DreamWorks in which they loaded up a bus with VR pods, parked it in a Walmart parking lot, and invited families in to don the goggles and enter a virtual world filled with dragons from the latest “How to Train Your Dragon” film. Walmart was selling toys tied to the movie. The video concluded focusing on a child clutching a dragon figurine. An off-camera interviewer asked, “Why do you like this dragon?” and the kid responds, “Because it carried me through the game.”

A boy engages with the immersive How to Train Your Dragon VR experience

Walmart and Dreamworks collaborated on a promotion in which kids could enter a virtual reality based on the film “How to Train Your Dragon: Hidden World” to prime them to buy toys tied to the movie. (Source: Walmart).

AR and VR are just new methods to accomplish the same old goals: get people to look at a product, get people into a store, keep them in the store as long as possible, get people to make a purchase.

What was appalling was the enthusiasm the session panelists had for manipulating people into buying things they might otherwise not have purchased. The moderator brought up the goals of using AR/VR. Were they to “drive commerce,” or to target “specific demographics – kids who are approaching this at a young age with no preconceived notions of what AR/VR might be,” she said.

The line was more of a conversational prompt than a question. Of course it was to drive commerce and target “specific demographics.”

I think it’s appalling that using such sophisticated techniques to deliberately manipulate children is an achievement that should be celebrated.

One panelist talked about how, that very morning, someone had asked him what was the consumer benefit of AR. His response was that the consumers got experiences – experiences they otherwise would not have had. He cited that kid clutching his toy dragon.

A novel experience? Yeah, okay. A novel experience used to induce a child to buy a toy? That’s simply out of line.

Or should be. And yet it isn’t. In fact, quite the opposite. Later in the session, another panelist expressed shock that someone would even ask the question. “I’m a bit confused that you were asked about the additional value of augmented reality,” he said, “…It is obvious that it … increases a shopper’s willingness to pay.”

We all aspire to do our jobs well. Even better when we love what we’re doing, which is more of a privilege than most people will admit. Taking pride in a job well done is merited.

Up to a point. And that point is fluid, and it depends on what you’ve actually achieved. Being effective at sales? That’s a skill I admire, perhaps because it’s one I mostly lack. But being proud – in fact, being downright gleeful – about manipulating children?

It’s just wrong.

And this is not just about salesmen and their technology arms dealers going too far. We all have a responsibility to think about the effects of what we’re doing. It’s why we here at EE Times keep hammering the automotive industry for failing to consider the consequences of having autonomous vehicles.

It’s why we take Boeing to task for failing to remember that, with commercial aviation, safety must come first.

It’s why we applaud when the employees of big tech companies revolt against being asked to develop technologies that don’t just undermine our privacy but are designed in such a manner that they will inevitably be used to violate it.

It’s why we cover chip vendors and OEMs who are putting extraordinary effort into building devices and systems that consume as little energy as possible, because (as Aart de Geus recently pointed out) climate change is real and the electronics industry needs to do its part to minimize it.