The future of the high street is augmented reality shopping

Virtual sneakers and blurred out brands
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Blade Runner. Minority Report. Back to the Future II. They all have one thing in common. In the high streets of tomorrow the adverts come alive. Sharks are projected leaping into the air, lasers read our DNA and seduce us with bargains, and escorts ply their trade with the finesse of the 40-foot woman. We’ve got a while to go before consumer fairy tales such as this become retail reality. But we’re on that journey and we have been for some time.

Long before Apple and Google put money into the augmented reality sector, tech was charged with, first, killing the high street (with e-commerce), and then bringing it back to life (with numerous in-store high-tech solutions). AR has been, on numerous occasions, listed as the saviour of the shopping mall, the modern vanguard of the bricks and clicks business model. Not without reason.

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Back in 2011, Topshop announced an AR fitting room. A year later, American Apparel revealed an app delivering digital overlay of product details, including customer reviews, in-store. These would be the first forays into what soon became known as the ‘try before you buy’ element of modern shopping.

Virtual makeover is making waves in the beauty industry; the motor trade is getting involved too, with Land Rover giving the keys to customers in order to ‘drive’ their SUVs by clicking on a banner ad; IKEA’s AR solution (created using Apple’s AR development platform ARKit) lets consumers use an app to place any of the company’s 2,000 products in its catalogue to-scale, in a room in their home, via the camera on their phone; and only last year, Gap revealed ‘Dressing Room’ at CES, an app created with Google’s Tango software giving customers the chance to ‘flick’ through clothes in a smart mirror instead of returning them to the rack.

We’re certainly starting to see the world with new dimensions as AR begins to establish itself in retail spaces, sparking consumer experiences and engagement with a new style of tech-savvy shopping.

Changing channels

Matt Key, managing director at Engine Creative, has been working with AR for everything from magazines to shops since 2011.

Key knows all too well about the art of adding an extra layer of content with the help of AR – Engine Creative are currently creating an app for Argos. He calls AR “the new channel” because it does things no other medium can and it could, he says, create a buying experience for customers that could revitalise the retail environment for decades to come.

“It began with product description, images, and video. AR-enabled shopping is the next logical step. Everything will have a digital layer on it. The barriers are no longer there, they’re getting knocked down and this will only increase as the tech develops and we start to see head mounted displays on glasses for example.”

This extra layer certainly has currency. Digi-Capital predicts the AR industry will reach $90 billion in revenue in the next five years. And by 2020, the digital-first Generation Z will account for 40% of all consumers. A generation for who AR isn’t sci-fi; it’s the norm.

The potential for this new market was realised for Key when Engine Creative built an AR app for Lacoste to enable customers to try a new range of trainer, the LCST shoe model. To use the app, shoppers put their feet on the in-store floor graphic and scanned it with a smartphone to view the sneakers on their feet. They could also swipe to try out another shoe. Key says that more than 30,000 users engaged with the app and nearly all of them were the young demographic for which the LCST model was created.

Today’s innovations…

AR apps are aplenty. From those that use the tech to guide shoppers at a physical location, to those used to display details of a product, to those that allow the customer to learn more about the product at home, AR has already changed the way we buy, online and in person.

But AR isn’t just about helping buyers make a purchase. It’s about creating an environment that people want to explore. AR specialists Lemon&Orange have been one of the pioneers of this new approach to the retail space. They’re the people behind wild animals walking through a shopping mall in Warsaw for Visa; one of the biggest interactive AR based campaigns in the world.

The project’s manager, Karolina Nowicka, says AR “brings a unique way for the consumers to interact” with a product. Whether it’s an in-store solution, such as animated store windows, or a mobile app that allows them to scan a product and display its extra features, “the consumer has an opportunity to explore the product beyond the regular means,” she says.

“What makes AR special is its ability to bring a little magic to the world. In Warsaw everyone was amazed, entertained and engaged. People rarely walk by AR unfazed. The opportunities for AR are boundless.”

In the US, we’re starting to see that mix of wow factor and practical, tech-enabled solutions. Target has robot shop assistants that monitor the shelves in order to make sure everything is stocked up, and Amazon Go (a second store opened in Seattle this week) is making human staff redundant, scanning and charging for food with a network of cameras and sensors that bill you automatically on an app as you hit the exit. Similar AR enabled solutions aren’t far behind.

Tomorrow’s toys

The future of the high street is augmented reality shopping

Mathew Chylinski, UNSW Business School, Australia, is lead researcher at Augmented Research, a team of academics funded to explore the potential of AR technologies for consumers, for better and worse.

“AR changes how consumers process information,” explains Chylinski. “It can make us see sound, for instance, so information that’s not in the environment that our senses can’t naturally see, with AR we can generate it. From a virtual overlay to digitising paintings, AR is flexible and fluid.”

But he says it’s not just digital billboards in the sky where AR will excel. Once the tech has miniaturised and becomes unobtrusive – part of our sunglasses for example – AR will then be able to add or take information away at the touch of a button.

One of the studies Chylinski has worked on pertains to healthy eating choices. A customer could state that they want to eat less sugar and program this into an AR application. That app would then only highlight products in a shop that are low in sugar. As if by magic, the customer reduces choice and from a tech-enabled pre-selection, they can make a healthier one.

“AR could influence a consumer’s behaviour right at the point when they’re making a purchasing decision,” Chylinski says, and such consumer agency could have huge impacts on advertising and marketing, with brands essentially being blurred out of our vision if they don’t fit our personal tastes.

Chylinski warns, though, that such a consumer welfare approach would need customer sovereignty – because if tech is “developed and controlled by a retailer the goals of the retailer and the customers won’t always align.” As long as we don’t have to dodge virtual man-eating sharks in the high street, I’m happy.


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Gareth is a freelance tech, food (and sex) journalist. 

He writes about tech & food for Metro, The Telegraph, Wareable, The Independent & Great British Food magazine.

His favourite kind of food is British heritage (so, er, just British) and his favourite tipple is sake. His spirit animal is Sonic the Hedgehog.


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