Virtual reality has been on the cusp of mainstream adoption for decades, but augmented reality has surpassed it to become the technology with the most immediate promise.
Many people’s first taste of augmented reality was provided a few years ago by the Pokémon Go fantasy game, where players had to hunt down animated monsters using the camera app on their phone.
The superimposition of imaginary creatures over real-world settings like park benches and pathways allowed developer Niantic to demonstrate AR’s potential to a huge audience – literally and metaphorically putting it on the map.
The technology underpinning Pokémon Go also established the principle that AR content can be valuable to businesses, helping them to increase market share and position themselves ahead of less forward-thinking competitors.
The AR market is expected to be worth $160 billion by 2023, with companies in numerous industries adopting it to promote products and services.
Some hardware manufacturers are pinning the future on wearable headsets containing integral speakers, projecting data in front of the wearer’s eyes. These could either be flat 2D presentations like the head-up displays in modern cars, or freestanding 3D holograms that provide a sense of depth and scale.
However, wearable AR headsets are tomorrow’s technology, with limited adoption in foreign markets and no products on sale in the UK.
The current focus is on AR services which exploit existing technology, just like Pokémon Go. Examples include product information displaying when an item or QR code is recognised by the device’s camera, checking whether a piece of furniture would fit into a room in your home by superimposing it, and walk-through tutorials for making or repairing things.
Although most AR experiences are conducted through a smartphone, there’s obvious appeal for web-based AR which doesn’t require app installation or registration. Instead, services are available simply by visiting the relevant webpage.
These five brands are already using AR to improve the customer experience on their desktop websites, providing inspiration to smaller businesses across numerous market sectors…
The vast majority of beauty and cosmetics apps run through smartphones, but L’Oréal has also harnessed the power of desktop computers. Viewing cosmetics on their website provides an option to ‘tap and try’ the products on your own face, by granting permission to use the device’s in-built camera app. Once that’s done, intelligent software projects colours and textures onto the relevant facial features – eyebrows, hair, lips, and so forth. Any device with a decent-quality webcam should provide a clear indication of whether a chosen product matches someone’s skin tone, and whether it complements their appearance.
Despite encouraging consumers to install either its Android or iOS app, international beauty brand Sephora supports a number of services through a desktop Virtual Artist interface. Users can take a photo with their device’s camera or upload a selfie from storage, though the latter can be glitchy. The software responds far better to live images, repositioning everything from lipstick to lashes in real time and offering a one-click ‘delete all’ option to start again. It’s even possible to take a photo while ‘wearing’ one set of make-up, and then save it to compare with another live creation.
Snack food manufacturer Pot Noodle sponsored a virtual careers fair earlier this year, replacing a real-life event which had to be cancelled due to Covid-19. Accessible through a normal desktop browser, web-based AR technology was used to create a variety of employer-specific 3D booths, which students could roam between as they wished. Each stall hosted introductory videos offering an overview of the company in question and their recruitment opportunities. The interface was highly intuitive – tapping a stack of virtual application forms opened an application process for graduate vacancies.
The Covid-19 lockdown has also had unintended consequences for the fashion industry this year. Back in May, Asos added AR technology to many of its product pages, superimposing hundreds of products onto six models to demonstrate the style and fit of key product lines. By reducing the level of returns from online orders, Asos can minimise shipping costs and ensure higher levels of customer satisfaction. It also mitigates the impact of changing rooms being closed, and clothes having to be set aside or disinfected after being tried on or returned in-store.
The jewellery industry has been another unintended victim of the current focus on hygiene, and trying on earrings is strongly discouraged by jewellers who then have to disinfect or quarantine these items. Online retailer Kendra Scott has tackled this by developing a service through the Safari web browser on smartphones. This previews each pair of earrings based on size and appearance, while chosen items move in tandem with the user’s face. Other products are expected to be added to this innovative AR service in the coming months, from necklaces to bracelets and rings.