The Augmented Reality revolution is here!

It’s a brave new world for retailers scrambling to keep up with the pace of change. Augmented Reality (AR) and Virtual Reality (VR) are infiltrating the mainstream, and merchants are experimenting with new technologies to see how to best leverage them to grow profits and the customer base while also improving the shopping experience. We’re still in the infancy of this retail tech revolution, but as more customers become familiar with technologies like AR, they are going to demand retailers provide shopping experiences that includes them. Meanwhile, tech giants like Apple and Google are empowering developers, who are in turn creating amazing experiences and ushering in a new era of mobile computing.

Focusing on AR: We’re in the early days of the Augmented Reality revolution. Public awareness is on the rise — Pokémon Go popularized the term (if not the actual tech) last year; Apple CEO Tim Cook talks up AR constantly — and a new generation of devices and software are now hitting the hands of consumers, who in turn will demand merchants use these tools as part of the sales process. Until recently, AR retail implementations had been simple, single-product visualizations — more proof of concept than must-have sales tool. But much like early e-commerce implementations would pale in comparison with current offerings from Amazon, AR campaigns are set to quickly morph from high-tech marketing efforts into full-service shopping experiences.

ARKit and ARCore are leading the way

A big part of the maturation of AR into a core technology is the creation of software developer kits (SDK) that make it easier for developers to build AR features into apps. Apple was first with the ARKit SDK, and the company has made AR a key selling point of the new iOS11 iPhone operating system and iPhone X. The release of iOS11 instantly made AR experiences available to tens of millions of Apple customers who owned even older devices like the iPhone 6s. (iPad Mini owners, however, weren’t so lucky.) Not to be outdone, Google announced their own AR SDK — called ARCore — which promises the same functionality as Apple’s tools. ARCore will have a much smaller installed user base at launch (initial support extends only to the Samsung Galaxy S8 and Google’s own Pixel smartphone), but it will quickly spread to the rest of the Android world.

Two generations of AR apps have already come and gone

With consumer-focused AR generating steady buzz, it’s important to remember that the “hot new thing” is a mature technology that has already gone through at least two generations of development. The first generation consisted of “marker-based” applications, which used a printed target (similar to a QR code) to produce 3D models and hold them in place within a scene. Early examples include the Moosejaw X-Ray Catalog and instaMOTION stationary, which were primarily “point and see” experiences with very limited interactivity.

The second generation of AR apps are now hitting the market, and they showcase the ways AR’s utility is growing. Applications like the Ashley HomeStore mobile app and Ikea Place are putting powerful visualization tools in the hands of users, allowing customers to bring the showroom to their living room with stunning realism and detail. These apps go beyond show and tell, and work to create a cohesive experience that takes shoppers from browse to buy, improves the overall shopping experience, builds brand loyalty and increases customer satisfaction. Here’s some examples of second generation Augmented Reality Retail apps now available for download in the iTunes App Store:

Ashley HomeStore mobile app

Ashley Furniture’s mobile application uses AR to enable users to preview furniture and homegoods in their own homes. The HomeStore app is one part of the company’s broader tech strategy, which also includes an in-store iPad room designer and Virtual Reality showroom that utilize the exact same 3D models as the AR app.

IKEA Place

In addition to partnering with Apple to have IKEA Place in the App Store at the launch of iOS11, IKEA got stage time at the widely seen Worldwide Developer Conference in June. IKEA’s app features clean models and impressive object stability courtesy of the ARKit framework.

Wayfair ARKit App

The Wayfair mobile app already had a “faux-AR” view, where users could pull up a flat-looking image of an item and view it in atop a video feed of the real space. With the addition of ARKit support, WayFair could showcase fully 3D models of products. The difference is stunning.

Coming soon to a smartphone near you

The third generation of consumer AR apps and WebAR experiences are now under development, and they will refine AR experiences even further by adding new features, interactivity, and use-cases. So what are the killer AR features of the near future? Expect to see these 5 concepts become must-haves for every AR application:

1. Diminished Reality

I could write a whole piece just on Diminished Reality (DR) — as a matter of fact, I already have. The amazing Dr. Ken Moser, PhD broke down DR for me, explaining: “Diminished Reality, in the most general sense, is the direct opposite of Augmented Reality. In AR, the goal is to augment, or add to, the real world. DR is the process of removing, eliminating, or diminishing the amount of perceivable stimuli from the world. DR can be used in conjunction with AR to provide unique visual experiences.” The rest of the Q&A is worth a read, too.

2. Reusable assets spread across experiences

There is simply no way companies are going to be able to maintain sales channels across multiple platforms without streamlining some of their content into reusable assets that can be served anywhere. The 3D Cloud™ platform is the industry-leading content management system for AR and VR applications and makes assets available across a wealth of different platforms and experiences

3. Astounding realism

We’re already at the point where 3D product models can be made indistinguishable from their real-world counterparts. The realism will improve, as brainiac developers continue to refine textures, lighting, and the polygons that go into creating lifelike doppelgangers of real things.

4. Procedural content generation

Procedurally generated content is assembled and rendered on the fly based on pre-set rules, rather than leaning exclusively on pre-baked 3D assets that are then downloaded from a cloud server. For example, a kitchen cabinet app will offer a wide variety of customizations — everything from wood type and color scheme, to hardware like handles and hinges. Creating 3D models of every conceivable product assembly would be cost and time-prohibitive, but a system capable of producing procedural content can handle billions of permutations in the blink of an eye. That increases efficiency and decreases the processing power necessary to deliver a first class AR experience.

5. AR Search to facilitate instant purchases

The possibilities inherent in AR search may sound to some like science fiction, but the technology already exists and will be publicly available soon. What do I mean by AR search? Imagine pointing your smartphone at an object, and having the device recognize what it’s seeing and display information along side it in real time — complete with a shop/buy now button? And I mean anything.

See a car you like driving by? Quick, show your phone and get instant make, model, options, price and dealer information.

Driving past a house for sale that catches your eye? Why not get all the details and take a virtual walking tour right there on the curb, before making the time commitment involved in contacting the listing agent?

Hey music fans: What if, at the next big festival you attend, you could simply point your phone at a band and immediately be greeted with their biographical information, website, social media accounts, and links to their music on Spotify or Apple Music?

What happens next?

Predicting the future is always hazardous business, so let’s dive right in! Over the next year expect to see a tidal wave of applications that attempt to incorporate AR into whatever their core features are. Also expect many (if not most) of these apps to be terrible. Why? Because Apple and Google keep insisting that their SDK makes it “easy” to develop an AR app, and many businesses are going to decide to “save money” by going it alone and developing an in-house solution. They may even have a brilliant idea for an AR implementation, but unless those businesses have a dedicated team of tech developers and database experts, partnering with an firm that specializes in AR is going to be key.

Expect 2018 to be a “shaking out period,” where consumers decide what experiences they like and find useful, businesses work out which solutions return real ROI, and the best AR solutions become viral hits that achieve huge mainstream adoption. After that: a massive wave of copycat apps and the commodification of AR.

Shall we begin?

Industry group participation

Home Furnishings Association
National Kitchen and Bath Association
City of Hope

Recognized by experts in tech growth and security

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VR/AR Association