Alibaba is working to bring virtual reality into its e-commerce services

Alibaba has formally thrown its hat into the virtual reality ring after the Chinese e-commerce giant announced its own VR research lab, dubbed GnomeMagic Lab.

The company invested in red hot augmented reality company Magic Leap earlier this year, in a deal that put Alibaba vice chairman Joe Tsai on the board, and it has tinkered with 360 degree panoramic video for Youku Tudou — the Chinese video site it invested in and is in the process of acquiring for $3.5 billion — but this is its official entry into the space.

Alibaba, which claims 400 million users across its services, said that GnomeMagic Lab will work with its shopping businesses with a view to integrating VR into the shopping experience while exploring other applications, such as video with Youku Tudou and entertainment via Alibaba Pictures.

In a press announcement, former Facebook engineer Zhao Haiping, who is on the Alibaba’s GnomeMagic Lab team, said VR could enable customers to shop virtually on New York’s Fifth Avenue from the comfort of their own home. On a more practical level, Alibaba wants to help merchants use VR to sell on its sites, it said it has already created VR visuals for hundreds of products.

That’s the plan for where Alibaba believes that VR is going, or could go, in the longer term. For now, the company is setting up a store dedicated to VR hardware to help companies tap into its vast audience.

VR is the hot topic of the moment, and it’s more a case of which tech companies aren’t getting into it. Samsung has already shipped a headset. Facebook bought Occulus, which is about to launch its Rift VR and an initial 30 games. HTC’s is arriving imminently and Sony’s effort is also on its way. On the content side, Facebook, YouTube and — today — even British broadcaster Sky are opening themselves up to the virtual future.