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Augmented Reality (AR) is the next keyword wet dream for the online industry buzz word bingo enthusiasts. As social media becomes more ingrained in commercial planning and the excitement fades into practical solutions, it’s inevitable that the new kid on the block will start to make headlines.

I think AR is an exciting development. However, behind the pomp that surrounds another buzz word, is there a commercial model that could make AR a practical tool in the e-commerce armoury?

I’m going to stick my neck on the line and say yes....

What is AR?

At a basic level, AR is the enrichment of your physical experience with virtual information and interaction. The best example to conceptualise this is the overlaying of maps on your mobile phone with local information such as directions to the nearest train station, which happens contextually as you navigate the map. For a more encompassing explanation, check out the Wikipedia entry for augmented reality.

What’s already out there?

The technology has been around for years, just think of televised American Football games where the play markers are overlayed on the pitch for viewers at home. While the commercial application of AR may be relatively new, forward thinking brands have been busy experimenting.

Retail

  1. Benetton used AR in a 2009 Colors magazine edition – pages with AR symbols could be held up to a webcam to display films of the person on the page. Whilst this is a basic application of what AR can achieve, Charles Arthur’s article on AR in the Guardian goes further and is worth reading.
  2. Glasses Direct has a neat 3D tool that allows you to try glasses on using your webcam and what they call a virtual mirror. You can try the virtual mirror from their website.
  3. Over in the US, Zugara offers the Augmented Reality and Motion Capture Shopping App. The app allows customers to render clothing onto their own bodies using a webcam. An intuitive interface lets you browse items and styles and get a feel for how the clothes will look on you. It also integrates neat community features like sharing pictures of your outfits with friends to get their opinion. You can then buy direct from the app.

Publishing

Grazia tested the waters with an enhanced 3D magazine that used AR codes that could be activated by webcam or iPhone. GQ has followed suit.

Automotive

GM is working with universities to develop a smart windscreen that overlays important information on the transparent windscreen display to enhance the driver’s ability to see objects in their physical space. I’m a bit unsure about this one and whether or not it could distract drivers and actually decrease safety but the concept is worth reading about.

What will drive the uptake of AR?

Quite simply, the increased usage of smart mobile devices like the iPhone, Blackberry, Kindle, iPad etc. There is a lot of discussion about the shift from desktop to mobile and the prediction that in several years time e-commerce will be dominated by mobile browsing.

The latest data from ComScore shows a 30% increase in social networking traffic among smartphone users in the past 12 months – so mobile is already driving social media usage. Research from Forrester shows that iPhone users are more affluent than users of other smartphones, therefore have a high propensity to respond to relevant retail offers direct to their phone. The average internet usage for an iPhone user is 100MB, x30 larger than on other phones. And we all know about the obsession with the iPhone App Store.

Where can it be applied for retail?

Attention spans will only decrease as technology breeds laziness and the expectation of rapid solution delivery. This means people will expect everything at their fingertips when they want it. The savvy marketers will deliver content and solutions that people didn’t even know they wanted but subconsciously always desired. I think retail can tap into this latent demand in several ways:

  • High street retailers can develop a Store Finder mobile app that overlays local store information on interactive maps – perhaps an aggregation of all major brands would provide cost efficiency.
  • Dynamic contextual advertising that displays offers and promotions based on the location and profile of the mobile user (e.g. iPhone user gets different message than Blackberry user) – next step on from voucher code sites.
  • Serving customer reviews to mobile devices to facilitate decision making on the move.
  • Dynamically generating cross and up-sell recommendations based on scanning a barcode in-store on your mobile phone.
  • For the fashion industry, improving modelling of clothes from home to help make purchase decisions – increased accuracy should also help reduce returns.
  • For the DIY industry, enabling customers to create 3D maps of their own rooms and then visually render colour schemes and furniture to help with DIY projects.
  • Local tourist boards can create mobile maps of the region with key tourist hotspots, attractions and services – whilst free of charge they benefit the economy by encouraging spending.
  • Museums could create virtual tours so that visitors are not reliant on a guided tour/headsets – for a download fee, you can launch the virtual tour which overlays commentary and content based on your location within the museum.
  • In publishing, AR could be used to enrich the consumption of content to increase brand engagement, essential in such a competitive market.

So what do you think? Is AR powder puff or can it add real value to consumers and drive commercial value? I’m leaning to the latter because the increasing uptake of mobile devices gives me hope that AR solutions will catch the eye. I await the professional slaughter...

James Gurd

Published 24 March, 2010 by James Gurd

James Gurd is Owner of Digital Juggler, an ecommerce and digital marketing consultancy, and a contributor to Econsultancy.He can be found on on Twitter,  LinkedIn and Google+.

49 more posts from this author

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James Gurd

James Gurd, Owner at Digital JugglerSmall Business Multi-user

Hi Dennis,

Thanks for the comment. Layar is a good example of AR, one of the solutions Graham alluded to in his earlier post. It will be interesting to see how retail embraces this technology to boost mobile local search optimisation.

I know what you mean with clothing but what if you could combine 3D rendering of your body shape based on a series of dimensions you can set yourself (height, waist, chest etc) with the AR app that overlays the actual clothing and you can then change sizes and see how each size looks on your body shape?

When you start to add physical traits like skin tone you could build up a really powerful visualisation engine.

Might sound fanciful but take a look at what the Virtual Fitting Room do with their visualisation tool. Next step could be to adapt it into an AR app?

I think the social sharing potential of apps like that would be huge - I can see younger demographics going crazy for it which would suit brands like Lipsy, New Look, Boohoo etc.

Thanks

james

over 6 years ago

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Kasey Skala

I love the potential of AR. In fact, I'm a homer for it. I tweeted a similar comment out that retail would be a huge market for AR and was replied to with the following statements that I overlooked. First, retailers don't want to come together and collaborate. Especially if it's in a group setting - i.e. mall. If I'm retailer A, I want the customer to come to my store and only my store. I don't want to put effort and resources into an application that potentially drives traffic to other retailers. Second, and one I completely overlooked, is the functionality of AR indoors. This particular person simply indicated that AR can't work indoors due to concrete and other building materials that block can block the waves/signals. So if AR were to function indoors, it'd have to be configured appropriately. Granted this is only indoors and you can still focus on stand-alone retailers and usage outside. Again, I personally thing retail is a huge sector for AR. I also think tourism and government operations are a perfect fit for AR as well.

over 6 years ago

James Gurd

James Gurd, Owner at Digital JugglerSmall Business Multi-user

Hi Howard,

Thanks for the video link - short and sweet demo but it shows the potential if people think creatively. I personally think the term AR itself could be putting some people off embracing the potential - as with social media, there is a degree of resistance, almost a knee jerk reaction of "it's a fad, nothing to do with my business".

The use of mobile devices for decision making (whether that is a purchase, submitting an enquiry, making a subscription etc) is increasing whether we like it or not. Businesses have to decide whether or not they have a mobile audience and how to use technology to appeal to this segment. You have to move with the times not against them.

Influencing this are the basics of human behaviour and marketing psychology - making life easier and persuading people that they want something they could easily live without.

Thanks

james

over 6 years ago

Peter Maynard

Peter Maynard, Communications Supervisor at UPS

Hi James,

I'm really interested in how Augmented Reality will affect the retail platform in the future. I'm in the fortunate position to see snipits of how we're deciding our mobile future, and I can see all sorts of uses for AR, even if they are gimmicky.

Its certainly something I'll be trying to keep my finger on the pulse of througout 2010. An exciting prospect that we have is Galileo being developed, circa 2014. This will only increase the accuracy and usability of AR applications.

over 6 years ago

James Gurd

James Gurd, Owner at Digital JugglerSmall Business Multi-user

Hi Peter

Thanks for the comment. Can you elaborate on Galileo - I'm sure I could find something via Google but would be interested in your opinion as you have referenced it.

Thanks

james

over 6 years ago

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Luis Antezana

I'm a proponent of AR solutions, but at the same time I have to admit that the technology is just going to take some time to catch on. This isn't a bad thing, as it allows us to immerse deeper in advance of its exposure to the general public, refining and learning and developing, so that the product is better once the masses do arrive. And of course the better we do at the former the more it influences the latter to happen.

It's important to note that we need multiple technologies to be ready for prime time before we can experience a better realization of mobile empowerment.

In Howard's video, it's great that Layar can recognize the banner and retrieve contact information, but the ticket purchase mechanism is just a phone number. Chances are there's a visible number somewhere near that banner anyway. Not that getting a number through AR isn't good, and that storing it and auto-diaing it aren't the convenient things they are, but how much better would it be to have a link to purchasing those tickets at a mobile-optimized site which already has your stored payment info into which you log in using Facebook Connect, which also allows you the option to create an event that adds to your calendar and allows you to invite friends, all linked to an LBS-based app plugin to give you suggestions for nearby restaurants filterable by multiple criteria including friends' recommendations?

All of this is completely imaginable and even doable at this time, but the coordinated efforts between providers and the critical mass for reliable participation will take some time.

Just as important is that we don't mismanage the opportunity. A series of high-profile AR fails/false starts won't help much. Layered/filtered views owned by trusted providers (CitySearch/foursquare/etc) need to be established quickly so the spam/scam/abuser element doesn't take over the space.

AR will be the trigger for all kinds of location-based interaction, no doubt about it.

over 6 years ago

James Gurd

James Gurd, Owner at Digital JugglerSmall Business Multi-user

Peter - thanks for the intro to Galileo, will read further.

Luis - interesting comment. I understand your concern that a few high profile failures might be a PR headache for AR. However, I would argue that failure is the key to success. A few high profile mistakes by major brands in social media (United Airlines, Habitat etc) has not discouraged mass usage of and participation in social media, quite the opposite.

That said, I'm not advocating blindly going forth and to hell with the consequences, I just think that measured risk is the key to innovation and creativity and from early mistakes the bright stars of the future will emerge. 

AR technology is being used already, it's just nowhere near mainstream, mainly because most companies are still stumbling around trying to work out whether or not to have a mobile commerce strategy. Technology is always ahead of the marketers, so I wonder how many years it will take for commercial teams to catch up and start integrating AR into their marketing mix?

Those who have started early will surely be best place to reap the rewards when the mass market adopt AR for shopping and social sharing.

Thanks

james

over 6 years ago

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Gavin Norris

Hi

We have just created a suite of AR educational resources for UK schools. The product is called learnAR. The tools allows students to explore Biology, PE, Maths, Chemistry, English, Spanish, Religious studies and Physics using Augmented Reality. Check out the site.

http://www.learnar.org

over 6 years ago

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Nate Zano

James,

Nice article!

I am looking for a development library to get into some AR work on an android.  My issue with things like ARtoolkit, however, is that they are not able to be sold commercially.  Do you know of any libraries or other open source development software that is licensed under the GNU LGPL (or equivalent license)?

Any information related to augmented reality software that you think might be useful would be greatly appreciated.

Thanks

-Zano

about 6 years ago

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