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Augmented Reality: 6 Use Cases for eCommerce & Retail

Posted by Darpan Munjal On December - 5 - 2009
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There hasn’t been a lot of game changing innovation in the retail and eCommerce space lately. However one of the technologies that has a significant potential in this space is Augmented Reality. Although this technology is still in infancy, it is good to think about the potential opportunities because it is likely that next few years will see more and more viable applications within the retail space. What exactly is it? It is a term used for live view of a physical world environment whose aspects are merged with virtual content, creating a mixed reality. Users can view it coming to life on a computer screen by holding an object or a marker in front of the camera or shooting it with a mobile device. If that sounds too technical, watch this video for an illustration of this technology:

You are probably thinking it sounds cool, but does it have any practical or commercial uses in the retail and eCommerce space? Several retailers are already testing ideas with this concept. Although none have been widely successful so far, I see too major catalysts that could help take this technology mainstream.

First, the latest generation of mobile phones such as iPhone and Droid have all the necessary ingredients to help take this technology mainstream -  a compass and GPS to plot position, 3G mobile internet access and high resolution cameras. Second, the much anticipated launch of Microsoft’s project Natal can take this technology into the households. If you haven’t read about Project Natal, you must watch this video.

This is all good you say, but what about retail and eCommerce? I think this opens up several opportunities for multi-channel as well as online retailers. This technology has the potential to bridge the gap between the offline and digital world in a way that was not possible before. Ability to touch & feel products in the online context or the ability to see digital content such as product reviews in a physical store are all possibilities that are very real with this technology. Here are 6 use cases, along with some examples that would help visualize some of these opportunities:

1. Touch & Feel products while shopping online

One of the key deterrents to online shopping is the concern that users are not able to touch and feel the products. This is a concern especially for apparel items where looks or fit play a significant role in a shopping decision. How about a virtual fitting room where shoppers can see the garment on them, without actually trying it on.  The idea is to take some of the mystery out of buying clothes online — will it fit? Will it look good on me? — and let shoppers see how the garment might look on them, albeit on a computer screen.

Tobi has made a decent attempt at a virtual fitting room concept. Although it needs a bit of improvement to be able to see the exact fit and look, this is an excellent start and definitely has good potential for online apparel retailers.

Rayban has also done a good job in applying this technology so users can virtually try different sunglasses in front of their computer, as if the computer screen was a virtual mirror.

The common theme in both of these examples is that you get an online equivalent of taking your friends to the mall to check out some new products, all from the comfort of your own PC. Still not impressed? Here is another video from Cisco for more inspiration around virtual fitting rooms.


2. Bring the product to life in user’s context

Imagine if you are shopping for an item, and you are able see what’s inside the box in a life like 3D view. This is what Lego did in their stores by installing Augmented Reality kiosks. You can hold up a box in front of kiosk and it shows you what the set would be like, assembled. Not all retailers can afford setting up these AR kiosks in their stores, nor do I think the investment would pay off anytime soon, other than generating a coolness factor. However I do think leveraging cellular phones as an alternative to Kiosks could open up significant amount of opportunities that allow customers to “look inside” a box.

If you sell Furniture or Kitchen counter tops, you should take a look at how Ikea is using AR to try virtual furniture within the context of your own room! No more guessing about whether that mocha coffee table will go with that leather couch you already own. See it virtually, in the context of your own room, without leaving your house.

Another AR tool generating buzz right now is the USPS Box Simulator. Of all the examples I mention, this one has the most practical implementation of augmented reality that creates value for users. Basically, it allows consumers to virtually see what size box their shipment will fit in without buying the box

3. Bring digital product content to offline world

You are shopping in a physical store and would like to know about customer reviews, installation videos or other rich content that would help influence your decision. What if you point your iPhone at the product, and you immediately see all the digital content (reviews, videos etc.) layered on top of that object?  Layar recently launched a new Augmented Reality browser for iphone that seems to have significant potential in this space. The camera lens identifies the product, then serves up the contextually relevant digital information layered on top of the physical product.

4. Product Finders and Store Finders

At its simplest form, you could use an AR application such as Yelp Monocle from your iphone to find different type of stores around you.  This is a relatively straightforward application of augmented reality. However, imagine if the same concept could be applied to product finders within a store. You are standing inside a Bestbuy store and your iPhone app highlights all top rated products in the store which are currently on sale for more than 40% off.   Basically, the concept is to add a rich context by highlighting only the products that appeal to you. Whether you are shopping for a cocktail dress or looking for top rated toys for your kids, your mobile device  could make this a personalized experience by highlighting the products and the shelves that match your interest.  The below video from Thundre shows some additional product finder opportunities.

5. Interactive Product Catalogs For multi-channel retailers such as Bestbuy or Sears, this could be a significant opportunity in future. Allowing users to see a 3D rendering of the product from a paper catalog could bring this channel much closer to a engaging, digital experience. I would love to see a Sears Wishbook catalog where the toys come to life using this kind of technology:

6. Interactive Marketing

Several retailers and product manufacturers have started testing this concept to enhance the effectiveness of their marketing campaigns. Some of the current use cases are very rudimentary but seeing the examples below would help you imagine the future possibilities in the area of internet marketing.

Toy maker Mattel has added augmented-reality technology into a range of action figures released to tie in with Avatar, the forthcoming 3D film. Each toy will come with an iTag – a small plastic card that children can hold up to their webcam. When the card is recognized by the computer, a three-dimensional digital image is superimposed over the card on the computer screen, giving the child the ability to “manipulate” the character or vehicle on-screen by pushing virtual “buttons”.

BMW Mini tested a marketing campaign late last year using simple black and white print ads that would bring the car to life in a 3D view when held next to a web cam.



It is too early to say what kind of impact this technology would have on our day to day lives. I do think a lot of above examples would lose their appeal in some time once the “shiny” effect of this technology fades off. It is important to think about applications of this technology that minimize any extra work from end user perspective, and provide a utility or value that would otherwise not be possible. Even though above examples may sound too impractical or costly to implement, I do think that the stage is being set for a future that would see game changing and practical implementations of this concept in the retail and eCommerce space. Perhaps, the boundaries between offline and online channel will no longer be as rigid as they are today, giving a new meaning to the phrase multi-channel retailing.

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4 Responses to “Augmented Reality: 6 Use Cases for eCommerce & Retail”

  1. Vivek says:

    Hi Darpan,

    Excellent post!

    Amazing what technology can do for you.

    What next? Thought controlled Remote controls :-)

    Best!
    Vivek

  2. Idris says:

    AR is still in its infancy and many online retailers are not sure about this technology. AR will surely enhance shoppers buying experience as it gives the virtual ‘Touch and Feel’ factor. I think merchants who sell life style products like apparel, accessories, furniture, gadgets, etc will have to employ this technology along with useful product content.

  3. Surjendu says:

    Wonderful post Darpan. Technology is no doubt growing in leaps and bounds. The question, specifically for India is, whether the adoption process is growing that fast? It is the adoption process which would matter and technology to a certain extent fuels that. As some one pointed out in the earlier post that AR,is still in its infancy. I personally feel that AR would help bridge the online offline experience(http://indianecommercestory.blogspot.com/2010/01/bridging-gap.html), but how fast is still unknown.

  4. Subodh says:

    Hi Darpan,
    Great post.
    Do you know there are lot of brands using this technology in india already? I recently met with telibrahma who have executed several interesting campaigns for Ford, Nike, Idea and others.

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