Has augmented reality finally reached a tipping point for retailers?

Instagram has thrown its weight behind augmented reality technology by opening up its Spark AR platform to everyone, while Apple is rumoured to be on the verge of a major AR play. 

Apple disappointed some tech enthusiasts by not unveiling its long-rumoured augmented reality glasses at last week’s iPhone 11 launch event, but the glasses are still believed to be in the pipeline. This comes despite the failed consumer launch of AR-glasses Google Glass, and Snapchat writing down $40 million for unsold stock of the first version of Spectacles, its foray into AR glasses.

Nevertheless, Ovum senior analyst, George Jijiashvili, believes a “landmark moment” for AR has already been reached thanks to Apple and Google’s work on their AR software development kits.

“I believe the AR experiences that are being built today using these tools will eventually serve as stepping stone for experiences on smart glasses in the future,” says Jijiashvili.

Ovum’s forecasts estimate there are already 2.3 billion AR-capable iOS and Android smartphones globally, and it expects this figure to rise to 5.3 billion by 2023.

Jijiashvili says the AR market has already reached a “tipping point” because of the huge amount of development of hardware and software technology in the AR space.

AR use in retail

With AR-enabled phones on the cusp of being ubiquitous, retailers are increasingly exploring how they can take advantage of AR.

Alice Oakford, head of social at Pretty Little Thing, says her company was the first fashion brand to take advantage of Instagram’s new AR filters via a campaign it ran to celebrate Pride. Oakford believes AR will be one of the next big things in marketing.

“Us older marketers don’t want to lean into it because we are used to it being a big scary thing to the left but I’ve really come around to it,” says Oakford. “There is so much opportunity, specifically in fashion.”

David Norris, UK lead of creative strategy at Snap, argues AR should be seen as core part of a brand’s media plan.

“If you execute AR correctly the potential impact you can have on your consumer is huge versus a print ad or an outdoor ad or even a simple piece of video because you know someone is engaged and participating in that branded experience that you created,” says Norris.

“If we can use technology to make things more accessible to people and educate them in a way that means they understand what frames we have available or what sight loss is really like then we will of course use more AR technology.”Helen Arnold, head of digital creative at Specsavers

The opportunities AR offers retail can go well beyond adding an extra visual layer to digital creative. Lego has already partnered with Snapchat to create a virtual store for the launch of a streetwear clothing range.

“The virtual store was the only place you could buy the Lego Wear collection for a while, which created an exclusivity around the range,” says Norris. “The Snapchat lens attachment can link direct to a product page online, leading people to go from camera to conversion in an instant step. It is a way of broadening access points to products.”

Another retailer that is experimenting with AR to good effect is Specsavers, which is using the technology to reach new audiences and educate consumers. Specsavers is running AR filters on Facebook and Instagram that put a different spin on AR by using the filters to limit what people can see rather than adding additional layers of imagery. It is designed to educate users about how it feels to suffer common sight loss conditions.

“You need to find new ways of meeting people where you would not really talk to them,” says Helen Arnold, head of digital creative at Specsavers. “If we can use technology to make things more accessible to people and educate them in a way that means they understand what frames we have available or what sight loss is really like then we will of course use more AR technology.”

Specsavers also plans to encourage customers to use the tech in-store to educate them about sight loss.

It is likely clever practical applications of augmented reality will only increase from now on. Snapchat expects the launch of 5G networks to accelerate the use of augmented reality for “utility”.

“It could be that you are building an experience that adds value in terms of utility and function, such as how to make a recipe,” says Norris.

Software maturity

Jijiashvili predicts Google and Apple’s software development kits will accelerate the use of augmented reality for practical applications.

“AR letting you virtually try on clothing and shoes has been talked about for many years as a use case, but now we are getting to a stage where the software is there and app developers can have a real option to start integrating these features into retailers’ shopping apps,” says Jijiashvili.

It is not only customer-facing use cases where AR comes into its own, according to Jijiashvili. He explains AR can be deployed by retailers to boost their logistics.

Jijiashvili points to Scandit as evidence, a vendor whose technology can allow a number of stock checking and order picking functions.

It allows the user to quickly scan a large number of products at once with their smartphone, and AR tech indicates what tasks the retail worker needs to carry out, whether that be restocking product, picking certain items, or correcting inaccurate prices.

All this negates the need for specialist handheld devices, and in the future it is likely tasks can be performed even more effectively using AR-enabled glasses.

The number of opportunities AR presents are manifold, but some retailers are still put off about preconceptions about the tech skills required to implement such technology.

Norris warns against retailers being scared off from augmented reality.

“AR is perceived as being really complex but what we focus on is how simple it is,” says Norris. “It is growing in momentum and more retailers creating and consuming AR is helping fuel the understanding of the different roles it can play.”

Those retailers that want to add a new dimension to their operations and marketing would be well advised to start experimenting with AR as it heads towards becoming ubiquitous.