Painting a thousand words
A flurry of activity around Augmented Reality has brought it to the foreground of retail again. Emma Herrod examines whether the time has come for retailers to take a serious look at the technology.
Augmented Reality (AR) has been on the periphery of retailing for more than a decade with retailers and brands occasionally dipping into testing and using the technology in marketing campaigns and product catalogues. Famously, Ikea used it as a visualisation aid enabling shoppers to place a virtual item of furniture in their home to see how the actual item would look in situ. In 2009, Lego used the technology in an in-store kiosk to show shoppers what the contents of particular kits would look like once the model was made up.
Other retailers and brands have also tested AR, using it in marketing campaigns and apps in which shoppers gather virtual Easter eggs in Asda supermarkets or interact with Pez packaging – which then informs the confectionery company of the best time to run TV advertising – as well as showing someone what a customised or bespoke item would look like in their home. Kitchen design, as with the Ikea implementation, is an obvious business application. “Over a third of people will not go ahead with an interior design or decor project because they cannot see what it will look like in their own living space,” says David Levine, CEO of computer vision and machine learning company Digital Bridge.
AR is also very good at helping consumers understand how electronics and technology work, explains Darren Savage, Chief Strategy Officer at digital agency Tribal Worldwide London. Sony, for instance, trialled an AR app which virtually placed a smart television on the wall in its customers’ homes in Germany. Shoppers simply swiped left or right through different sizes until they found the right one for their room. They could then double tap the virtual TV they’d selected for an explanation of its features.
This ‘rehearsal of ownership’ reduced the buying process from 2 months to a couple of weeks, according to Savage. Shoppers who used the app also bought a larger television than they otherwise would have. However, the cost of AR at the time meant the app was discontinued after a year.
The technology could replace brochures and AR screen shots can also be shared to add the social experience, explains Savage.
“It can dramatise why a product is interesting,” he says explaining how in a vehicle brochure, the manufacturer could use AR to show underneath a car’s bodywork and explain visually aspects, functionality or new technology – as well as changing the colour or material of extras or customisable areas. “An AR brochure could allow the car to tell the story of itself; it could pull apart, with videos, animation and voice-overs explaining why the car is particularly interesting.” He adds that it could also demonstrate how certain parts of the engine reduce emissions or how a new clutch or braking system works.
As with so many other technologies, it’s not until a high profile company such as Apple starts using it that it really take off. That may be what’s about to happen following its launch of iOS 11 and the iPhone X.
Apple put AR technology front of stage when it unveiled its latest iPhone, using it to demonstrate a competitive AR game called ‘The Machine’. It is also making it easier for retailers to bring the technology to consumers with its ARKit software development kit, which takes the hard work out of AR app development. The firm says: “With ARKit, iOS developers can take advantage of the TrueDepth camera and the rear cameras to create games and apps offering fantastically immersive and fluid experiences that go far beyond the screen.”
To place an item of furniture in a room, rotate a virtual product in a store or look around a car or sofa in the correct colour, ARKit uses the camera on the iPhone or iPad. It analyses lighting levels and searches for horizontal lines, such as where the floor meets a wall or where a coffee table is located in a room, so when virtual content is put in a room it is correctly lit and placed.
The first retailer to use ARKit is Ikea , which in September launched Ikea Place, a mobile app that lets people experience, experiment and share how different products will look in a space, such as their home or office. The app focuses on larger furniture for the living room that can be hard to scale, such as sofas, armchairs, footstools, coffee tables and the company’s best-selling storage products. In all, 2,000 products are included, all in a 3D format which is true to scale so customers can choose items that are the right size, design and function.
The company says the app will automatically scale products – based on room dimensions – with 98% accuracy and the AR technology is so precise that users can see the texture of the fabric, as well as how light and shadows are rendered on furnishings.
In addition to digitally placing Ikea products in a room, the app allows people to capture the setting and share an image or video to get a second opinion. Customers can then purchase the products directly through the Ikea website or in the app.
The company says that the app will also play a key role in the launch of new product lines.
“Ikea Place makes it easier than ever before to make buying decisions in your own space, to get inspiration and try out many different products, styles and colours in real-life settings – all with a swipe of a finger. Augmented reality and virtual reality will be a total game changer for retail in the same way as the internet. Only this time, much faster,” says Michael Valdsgaard, Leader, Digital Transformation at Inter Ikea Systems. “It is our mission to create a better everyday life for everyone, everywhere, and now that technology has caught up with our ambition, through AR, we will redefine the customer experience in the furniture retail space once more.”
Apple’s ARKit enables agencies and retailers to work on the UX side of AR without having to develop the underlying AR technology, and Google is aiming to do the same for Android with the launch of its ARCore SDK. Announced at the end of August, ARCore is designed to work on Android devices running 7.0 Nougat and above, such as the Google Pixel XL and Samsung’s Galaxy S8, with other manufacturers likely to adopt it.
According to Google, ARCore works with Java/OpenGL, Unity and Unreal and focuses on three things: motion tracking to ensure that virtual items are placed correctly; environmental understanding, so ARCore can detect horizontal surfaces that can be used as reference points for motion tracking; and light estimation enabling virtual objects to be lit to match their surroundings.
The firm is also releasing prototype browsers to developers so they can create and test AR-enhanced websites and run them on both Android/ARCore and iOS/ARKit.
AR technology has certainly moved on, integration has become easier and internet speeds have increased to make it more viable. Developers believe that there’s now a perfect storm of technology, cost and market readiness.
“AR has been exceptionally niche, execution has been poor. The hardware requirements have constrained the ability of retailers to do much and the compelling use cases have not been there,” says Levine. “What ARKit and ARCore have done is democratised the hard technology bit to make it easier for developers to build those AR experiences.”
He explains that ARKit and ARCore enable applications to be developed quickly and tested with consumers “to see what sticks”. However, there’s still UI, UX, experiments, measurements and use cases to be developed, too.
Savage says: “There’s a nice convergence of technologies becoming cheaper, more sophisticated and easier to integrate with other technologies. From an overall user experience point of view, it’s simpler for someone to play around with an AR tool or a visualiser, while for retailers it’s easier to develop these technologies and test them and develop an ROI model.”
Levine believes, though, that AR is still in its early stages. He expects there to be an initial flurry of tests, experiments and gimmicky AR apps, but it is likely to be a year to 18 months before there are any real innovations. This is partly down to having to wait for people to upgrade their phones to devices that support ARKit and ARCore.
It will also take time for retailers to incorporate AR into their apps in ways that appeal to consumers, ensure engagement and serve as a real business use case. Richard Corps, CEO of AR company Ads Reality, agrees: “AR is not the solution to everything; it needs to be part of an overall mobile strategy.”
Not only does there need to be a real call to action and a reason for a shopper to use AR, there also needs to be clear communication about how to use it, he explains. He adds that personalisation has worked well with AR, and the data collected enables retailers and brands to see what’s happening, what’s working and what isn’t, so the retailer can keep testing the AR element and content can be updated.
While AR has been around for a long time, Apple and Google have developed a brilliant sandbox for the developer community to play around with which will lead to further experiments amongst retailers. Those experiments may involve making things appear in a shopper’s home, educating people about a product, using the technology as a marketing tool or just dramatising in-store retail. Or it could be used for as yet unthought-of applications. AR can really solve some problems for retail by linking digital and stores in fun and practical ways. I look forward to seeing how the industry works to develop interesting use cases and to create retail theatre while increasing emotional connections with shoppers through visualisation.