Now the iPhone X is out, the doors are wide open for augmented reality to march through and stake a claim for itself at the centre of our digital lives. Whilst AR glasses and contact lenses are still a couple of years away from adoption, smartphone-enabled augmented reality is here, and retailers are ready.
It’s stating the obvious to say that shopping is all about digital now. Omnichannel marketing, tying together in-store, online, and mobile shopping for a streamlined purchase experience is now do-or-die for retailers, particularly in areas such as fashion and cosmetics. Customers want more value and attention from brands now than they ever have, in no small part due to the pervasiveness of social media, which has created an increasingly self-centred, identity-obsessed culture.
Think what you will about this change, but it certainly offers ample opportunity for marketers and advertisers of retail brands to innovate in previously unimaginable ways.
Omnichannel and Augmented Reality
An example of good omnichannel marketing in action is global fast-fashion brand H&M. The brand’s ‘H&M Club’ functions from a smartphone app, and is very popular with the millennials and generation z’ers that make up the brand’s key customer base. Members receive discounts in store and online, free delivery, and the opportunity to collect points to be redeemed against future purchases. Members are also presented with exclusive offers and ‘sneak peeks’ into upcoming lines. This is great on its own, but imagine how much better it will be when it incorporates augmented reality.
When (not if) H&M enables AR functionality in its smartphone app, the possibilities for consumers and the brand itself are huge.
For the consumer, it’ll look a little something like this: In store, you hold up their smartphone and hover over a jumper they like. On the smartphone screen, more information will spring up about the jumper – where it was manufactured, what it’s made of, and so on. It will also tell you what sizes are in stock and, if none are available in your size – offer you the opportunity to order it online. You can select to add the product to your wishlist to look at again later at home.
Select another option and a catwalk model appears on the shop floor (on your phone screen) modelling the jumper. In later iterations, your own photorealistic 3D avatar may appear in the model’s place, giving you an accurate idea of what it will look like on you without the need to go to the fitting room. It will even suggest other products to go with the jumper, based on your own style (ascertained from data gathered on your previous purchases).
For the retailer, all this interaction with the consumer, pulling data from their in-store experience through to their mobile, in addition to the mobile interactions themselves, offers rich pickings. Through the use of deep learning systems for in-depth data analysis, retailers can gain unprecedented levels of information on consumer preferences, right down to the individual level. This information feeds not only the company’s ongoing product offering, marketing and ad campaigns, but also allows them to deliver ever-more targeted service to individual customers. The result is a substantial increase in sales conversions, as the consumer gains more value from their interactions with the brand.
The brands that leverage the power of augmented reality on mobile in collaboration with machine learning are those that will thrive in the coming years.
If we move beyond the smartphone screen, however, we see even more ways for retailers to improve customer experience with augmented reality.
Mirror, Mirror On The Wall
Designers such as Tommy Hilfiger and Ralph Lauren have been using smart mirrors in fitting rooms for a while now, which allow users to try on whole different outfits without dragging the entire store’s stock into the cubicle with them. Upon the customer’s body in the smart mirror appear items of clothing, which users can mix and match from the brand’s whole catalogue of products. It’s a bit like Cher’s wardrobe in Clueless – but even cooler.
What when we have smart mirrors in our own homes, though? Yes, that’s on the cards, in case you were doubtful. I experienced it first hand at the Unruly home of the future at their offices last year (see here for podcast and article). Your smart mirror is linked up to your calendar and the internet. It has a record of all the clothes, shoes and accessories in your wardrobe (again, like Clueless) and can cross-reference your wardrobe items with events in your calendar and make suggestions as to the outfit you may wish to choose for a certain occasion in your calendar.
Smarter than this, however, is that the magic mirror on the wall can also suggest items you may like to purchase for particular events, such as a new bikini for your holiday that suits your tastes, or a pair of walking boots for that upcoming hiking trip. Like the smart mirrors in designer stores, the mirror in your home will allow you to try on AR versions of clothes before you buy, then allow you to purchase them directly through touchscreen, voice command, or even with a simple look in the right direction.
Augmented Reality Glasses: Not Just For Glass-holes
As we move to an AR-enhanced world. From the smartphone, augmented reality will make the leap to smart wearables, with AR glasses becoming the next big thing.
Right now, it’s hard to imagine everyone walking around in tech specs, but attitudes change – just a decade ago the sight of a whole coffee shop full of people staring at their phone screens would have seemed eerie, and now we’re used to it. Rather than gazing down into our hands, our digital lives will be visible all around us, which should put pay to those laments that everyone’s missing the world around them because of their phones.
One of the main reasons we are so dubious about AR glasses is perhaps because of the catastrophic failure of Google Glass, which really did make people look like twats. The next iteration, equipped with far better AR (and AI), will not have the same problem, though.
There are already designers willing and eager to offer frames for AR glasses. Again, an opportunity for retailers to invoke the power of AR for their own gain.
So AR glasses will look good, have great capabilities, allow us to look up at the world (both real and virtual) again, and transform the way we live and shop. Without putting too fine a point on it, imagine all of the above examples of smartphone-enabled AR for retail, then take away the smartphone and replace it with glasses.
Eye Tracking in VR & AR
Eye tracking is seriously big. In virtual reality, we are seeing a shift for the next round of head-mounted displays coming with eye-tracking hardware embedded as standard.
Eye tracking vastly improves user experience in VR, not least because it allows developers to use foveated rendering to improve bandwidth use and thus offer higher quality visuals with less resource drain. It creates a more intuitive experience of negotiating virtual spaces and selecting options within a VR environment. However, retailers know that eye tracking is a data treasure trove.
Market researchers in retail already use virtual reality with eye tracking to assess how in-store displays and store layouts perform with users. This allows them to choose the best shelf placement for products of different kinds and to test designs for a new physical store with minimal cost and resources.
Monitoring how test subjects look around a virtual space using eye tracking combined with deep learning algorithms allows researchers to ascertain powerful information about how best to direct customer attention within a store. The use of deep learning here allows researchers to uncover hitherto unseen relationships between data points at a deeper level than is perceptible to the human mind. That, in itself, is something quite incredible.
Applying the same method to augmented reality glasses worn by consumers is the next logical progression of this. However, it’s not without its downsides.
Firstly, the use of data captured on citizens ‘in the wild’ is a legal and ethical minefield. With people already wary about the ways corporations and organisations use their data, tracking our very eye movements and feeding back an endless stream of intimate data about people is not going to fly well with the majority of consumers.
Though it might not be a data free-for-all, there are some ways that eye tracking in consumer AR glasses could be used by companies and retailers without too much hoo-hah. At this point, it’s fair to say we don’t know for sure what AR glasses will mean for eye tracking and consumer data collection. It’s one of those pressing ethical concerns that needs working out as the tech grows in adoption.
It would be silly to discuss augmented reality in retail without a nod to gamification. Turning the shopping experience with a brand into a leisure activity, i.e. a game, is a great way of building brand image.
Back in 2016, during the Summer of Pokemon Go, many stores and other establishments eagerly hosted ‘Pokestops’ in their buildings, noticing what a great method it was to drive footfall. It’s surprising, really, that there’s not been a corresponding ‘Pokemon Go moment’ for smartphone-enabled AR in the retail space since. The chance to leverage AR to provide secret offers to users of a branded app has been sadly underused. Indeed, gamification, on the whole, is not, in my opinion, really used to its full capacity on mobile full stop, let alone with AR. You could argue that sponsored Snapchat filters are an example, but they’re basic AF and offer very little in terms of real value.
That needs to change, and perhaps as AR in smartphones grows, and when AR glasses kick off, we will see this powerful opportunity come to fruition.
Augmented reality offers some really great opportunities for brands to offer more with their packaging. Hover over a box of eggs and see a bunch of free-range chickens enjoying space and sunshine (just as they do on the farm from which these eggs come). Show your phone a chocolate bar and find out about where the cocoa came from and the process through which it got to you. Ingredients lists and other important information could be communicated via AR, meaning that companies may be able to use less packaging – a win for cost saving and for the environment.
Augmented reality is coming, and it’s going to change everything. Its uses in Healthcare, Construction, Design, in industrial uses, Gaming, and in Retail will be wide-reaching, allowing us to bring the internet out of the screen into the world around us. This may be unsettling to some, but for others, it means an enhanced world for the future, one in which we are not stuck staring at a screen for hours of our day, but can combine our digital lives with our real lives easy and with minimal sacrifice of either.
Ecommerce, now an integral part of the way we shop, took a number of years to come to fruition, but now most of us could scarcely go without it. This change to Retail altered so many facets of the way the industry worked, and now AR is set to do it all over again.
I am conscious that I have given very few direct examples in this piece. This is partly due to few real-world examples being readily available. I would really welcome it if you are able to offer any insight here as to companies I should link to that are doing good work in the areas mentioned. Drop me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org and let me know.
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