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

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

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.


  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
    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.


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.


GM is working with universities to develop a smart
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…