Why retail hasn't embraced AR yet (and why it should)

If current estimates hold, 2020 will be a huge year for augmented reality (AR). One of the most obvious industries to benefit is retail. Next year, an estimated 100 million consumers are expected to use AR to shop. The technology has led to some high-profile success stories (see: IKEA, Adidas, Warby Parker), yet despite the potential, less than half of global retailers plan on utilising AR.

The reason? Fear. Fear of making the wrong content, or getting in too early. However, the starter's pistol has gone off. The runners are already down the track, which means that smart companies have to figure out how to get over what has been holding them back. 

Challenge one: fear of being an early adopter

Being the first to embrace the latest tech is great for bragging rights, but most retailers are wise to avoid the problems associated with early adoption. However, if you are only seeing AR through that lens, you are missing an opportunity. 

What else carries the ability to reach 3.3 billion people right now? AR is primed for smartphones, so the infrastructure is already there. Pokémon Go clearly exploited this to the tune of more than 28.5 million U.S. users a day. Retailers have too: Converse found acclaim as far back as 2010 with their Sampler app, while IKEA Place blew up a few years ago by helping people try out 25,000 products in their homes. The interest is there.

Or is it? There’s still a major hurdle companies have to deal with: Most people aren’t looking to download a new app. In fact, studies have shown that 61% of consumers would refuse to download a new app on principle (especially if it includes ads). That’s where a lot of brands go wrong. They create a fleeting experience instead of designing to the question “How can we make your life easier?” The truth is that people are happy to engage with AR... if they find value in it. 

Kayak gets this. Their luggage app helps travellers see whether their bag will fit in a plane’s overhead lockers. Lowe’s does too. Their in-store app takes your shopping list and highlights the best walking path through the store. These ideas aren’t revolutionary. They’re just incredibly helpful. They speak to how people actually think and reason within a space, which is the point of AR in the first place. 

They also illustrate a key way to minimise risk as firms start experimenting with AR. When you solve a problem, you build goodwill. Entertainment has its place, but people are always drawn to function, and when things are off, the results are cumulative. They drag you down, which presents a perfect opportunity for retailers to step in and solve the grievances of shoppers. 

Great apps make people talk. They also build loyalty, recognition and revenue. The good part is that since so many aggregators are investing heavily in 3D, retailers don’t always have to do it all themselves. They can piggyback on someone else’s infrastructure and focus on design. But working for yourself – or someone like Wayfair or Houzz – means content has to come first. And nine times out of ten that means finding a good 3D team to create it. Which brings us to another challenge...

Challenge two: maximizing content across channels

Let’s say you’ve bought into AR. You want to go for it, and have even been creating 3D models for a while now. What you’ll likely find is that the content you’ve built isn’t optimised for AR. It’s something we hear again and again from TurboSquid clients, and the culprits are the lack of a universal file format and a lack of knowledge about how 3D assets can be prepared for more platforms during the initial design phase.

To solve this problem, TurboSquid has joined with companies like Target, Google and Adobe as part of the Khronos 3D Commerce Working Group. The group’s goal is to create a set of standards retailers can use to make 3D content work wherever it lives. TurboSquid has been working independently on this for a long time, creating the StemCell method for 3D artists. Right now, it’s the best way to prep models for a wider range of 3D applications and game engines.

Once assets are created, companies also need to make sure they stay organised. If you can’t find your models, it’s going to be hard to stay agile around AR. You’d be surprised how fast models can disappear if you don’t have a good system in place. A big reason for this is that 3D starts as an ad hoc proposition for most companies. Models get developed internally, or by contractors, under the guidance of different departments; companies see some success, and suddenly they have hundreds, or even thousands, of assets scattered across drives, continents, and desktops.

This is a big reason why we built Kraken. Major retailers were reaching out, asking if they could have access to the tools we use to manage the world’s largest 3D marketplace. So we created a custom version of our platform that could be used by our customers. Because if we could help them keep everything in one place, it would become a lot easier to be responsive or know where to find the right AR-ready assets when they have their next great idea.

The Time Is Now

The potential of AR is far more than just offering a new way to scan through SKUs. It’s an experiential gold rush, where the right ideas will build brand loyalty and help companies understand their customers’ needs at a much deeper level. And like a gold rush, this comes with some risk. Not everything will work. It might take some experimentation. But the companies that dive in and discover what people want are the ones that will be on top when all is said and done.

Matt Wisdom is co-founder and CEO of TurboSquid, the world’s leading 3D marketplace, which services a diverse list of customers from Disney to Boeing in film & television, retail, gaming, news media, advertising, architecture, engineering, simulation, and defence

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