Retail businesses continue to discover creative ways to improve their customers’ experience through augmented reality devices. Using devices once considered science fiction, retailers can entertain and inform potential customers inexpensively. It’s a trend that should only grow. According to Digi-Capital, the market for augmented reality business applications will be US$90 billion ($120.7 billion CAD) by 2020.
Augmented Reality 101
Augmented reality merges digital (computer-generated) experiences and real-world experiences. Through an augmented reality device, you might be able to see digital directions projected on your automobile’s windshield or use your phone to see how you’d look with a different hair colour. The first big-name business application of augmented reality was the Google Glass experiment back in 2013. Google was probably ahead of the curve by a few years, but smaller businesses have found successful ways to incorporate augmented reality into their products and services.
How Augmented Reality Is Different than Virtual Reality
Augmented reality grew out of virtual reality. The two concepts share more features than they have differences. For example, VR and AR both use digital projections to entertain or assist users. Both industries are relatively young. In fact, the same technology may be augmented or virtual depending on its application. Virtual reality relies on blocking out the outside real world and replacing it with generated images or effects; think of the Oculus Rift goggles. By extension, virtual reality devices must find ways to block out the sights and sounds that might otherwise distract a user from his or her VR experience. Augmented reality uses digital images to enhance the real world. Consider the Pokemon GO phone app. Users can point their phone cameras at a spot in the real world, and the app displays digital creatures on the phone screen and allows users to interact with these creatures.
Business Applications of Augmented Reality
Retail businesses leverage AR technology in many ways, but most applications fall into one of a few distinct buckets:
- Helping customers visualize a product.
- Helping customers navigate to find new products.
- Giving customers remote guidance and tips about using products.
Businesses can leave display tablets around their stores that offer direction instantaneously and without the need for an assistant. Downloadable apps provide customers with a similar convenience. Realtors have even adopted this technology to give virtual tours. AR-powered kiosks let customers visualize products and even arrange them, like furniture in a room, to see how they might fit. The beauty and cosmetics company Sephora uses tablets as mirrors that project different eye shadow and lipstick colors onto the viewer. These processes save consumers time and effort, and they don’t place physical inventory at risk. For complex appliances, AR-assisted virtual guides can show users how to construct, use, or troubleshoot products. This keeps the customer from taking a product back to the store or waiting on the phone for support to find a solution. Keep in mind that augmented reality is still a very new technology, but its potential for customer-facing retailers is already evident. In the future, AR-guided devices may be as commonplace as checkout counters. Today’s innovative product sellers might be able to differentiate themselves by adopting the technology before their competitors.