And its answer can determine if the tech endures — or is a flash-in-the-pan.
Here’s the key question marketers face when it comes to augmented reality (AR): What kind of reality wants to be augmented, and why?
Certainly, there are many ways in which reality can be wowed up, the equivalent of lasers in a shopping center parking lot. Pokémon Go, for instance, is an instance of wow, but how often can marketers create such a find-it-yourself phenomenon?
You could create a virtual Super Bowl using AR, as The Thinkwell Group has done, or some similar museum-like attraction. But after people get over the novelty, it pales compared to the real experience.
If AR is going to become a long-term tool for marketers, it needs to find some reality that wants to be augmented day after day.
“Solve a real problem, if possible,” Thyng founder Ed LaHood pointed out to me via email. His company offers AR tools for adding anything as a virtual layer on top of a real space.
Although directly from the Department of Obvious Advice, his wisdom is nonetheless essential for AR. He added:
“When IKEA launched its [Place] app that lets people put virtual furniture into a customer’s realworld space – be that an apartment, home or office – they created the AR app to solve a real problem: before you buy a piece of furniture, it helps to be able to visualize what it will look like in your place after you buy it.”
In another example of adding utility, here’s an image of a recipe video — built with Thyng’s tools — placed on top of the related product:
“Things go faster and better,” LaHood recalled from working with clients, “if the [AR] project is positioned to overcome a business challenge, rather than just marketing wanting to try something cool.”
In addition to removing another item from your to-do list and making it easier to get executive signoff, problem-solving has one other major argument in its favor. When AR’s uniqueness has worn off, and all your competitors are using similar tech, your investment still wears well.
Such longevity can be critical to AR success for retailers, Lionesque CEO Melissa Gonzalez pointed out. Her New York City-based retail consultancy specializes in creating pop-up stores for brands, which have sometimes included AR.
AR “doesn’t make sense for short-term engagement,” she pointed out, because it often requires integration into a brand’s inventory and other systems.
Erik Murphy-Chutorian, founder and CEO of AR toolmaker 8th Wall, noted that retailers don’t yet have their inventory of products available entirely as 3D, and even if they do have a sufficient percentage ready to go, they often don’t complete the experience. In Ikea’s Place app, he noted, after you place the 3D furniture in your real home and are ready to buy, you go to the web and shop in 2D.
But when the inventory is ready to go in the AR app, the tech can make a product line immediately accessible, plus offer a new kind of customer experience that promotes the product.
A four-day pop-up store that Gonzalez’s company created for nail and beauty products retailer Sally Hansen, for instance, included what she described as a kind of “vending machine.” Shoppers could insert their hands, their skin pigmentation was scanned, and the device showed the shopper’s fingernails with a variety of virtual nail polishes.
In a pop-up store being developed for an unnamed furniture brand, she said, an AR application on a computer allows the shopper to see how a bed looks with different kinds of sheets, blankets and pillow cases — a visualization for which, previously, the store would have set aside a large enough sample of linen products, plus bed-making time.
Like Ikea’s AR tool, the nails and the linen applications expand the physical store, or, as Gonzalez puts it, creates “an endless aisle experience.”
Similarly to Ikea, Australia-based artists’ showcase Redbubble released an AR application for iOS devices (top of page). Its key uses: visualizing virtual pillows on your couches and chairs so you can compare colors and sizes against your surroundings, testing out virtual stickers on an image of your laptop cover or seeing what various types of artwork might look like on your wall.
These kinds of applications, where your product is shown in the context of how it will actually be used, are probably the ground-level use cases for how marketers can use AR. Plus there are special utility cases where AR can be used in a practical way that enhances your product offerings, such as Lowe’s tape measurer.
There are also AR “magic mirrors,” where shirts and other clothes are shown on the actual individual, but they begin to cross a threshold where the depicted experience is not exactly like the real thing. After the wow factor has worn off, the AR version might actually do damage to sales.
How well a shirt fits, for instance, also involves the feel of the fabric and the hang of the clothing, a unique adaptation to your body shape that AR can’t always replicate. Similarly, AR experiences that purport to give you a preview of a new car or a trip to Hawaii are — at least with foreseeable tech — destined to fall short of the actual experience.
Someday, when AR applications are as old hat as your brand’s once-shiny website, they can still show the kind of utility that your venerable site has. But, to get there, they will first have to earn their keep by doing something useful.