The Role of Augmented Reality in the Future of Retail

Technological advancements are impacting every industry in a profound way. Some of these advancements are felt more in some sectors than others. One such sector that is seeing some advancement, resulting in an improved customer experience, is Retail. The single most important technological advancement that would truly change the future of retail can be summed up in two words: Augmented Reality (AR). Augmented reality is a live, direct or indirect, view of the real-world environment whose elements are augmented by computer-generated input. AR in the context of retail entails a customer’s ability to physically interact with virtual products. So why is AR important? And what implications does it have for the retail industry?

Customers and retailers alike are limited by the boundaries created between the physical world and the digital world. Online shopping is a very lucrative market segment for retailers, but customers are typically skeptical to buy products that they cannot physically interact with. Augmented reality offers a solution to this problem by providing users with a tangible experience that combines the two spaces. For example, if you wanted to buy a shirt online, you would first need to feel the material, find the right size and understand how it would fit you before you purchase it.

Jinha Lee’s presentation on TED Talks (shown below) is a key examination of such a relationship between the physical and digital worlds. In this video, Lee demonstrates the ability to interact with the digital world by using a physical object such as a pen or even your fingers. The ability to interact with the digital world removes any limitations and allows users to get a more tangible perception of the object that they are interacting with. Another key component of AR is imposing the digital representation of objects onto the physical world. When digital objects are combined with the physical world then our ability to perceive will not only be enhanced, but will also be influenced by this augmented reality.

An interesting video that tests the concept of AR in the retail space showcases a woman shopping for clothes without actually trying them on. In this video, the customer stands in front of a mirror, which combines digital objects with the physical characteristics of the person to display an augmented reality. In this augmented reality, the customer can select an item, change the color of that item and even purchase a product with simple hand gestures.

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Although augmented reality is still in its infancy, there are companies that are starting to adopt AR technology. A great example AR usage in the retail space is currently being implemented by a marketing firm called Holition. Holition uses 3D designers and innovative augmented reality technology to create interactive digital platforms that showcase various products. Using AR in such a manner is complicated on the back end, but it allows customers to try on virtual goods in front of their computer. This breakthrough in AR could allow retailers to offer their customers a true shopping experience without a customer having to leave their homes.

Holition’s brand director Lynne Murray states, AR clothing is the “holy grail of augmented retail experiences”. However, the ability to see a product is merely half the battle; true AR would integrate all sensory perceptions similar to a real product. If customers can see, touch, feel and smell virtual products then AR will have truly bridged the gap between the digital and the physical worlds.

As Lee states in his video when you remove the boundary [between the physical and the digital spaces] then the only boundary left is our imagination. Augmented reality would remove such boundaries and would allow retailers to truly bridge the gap between both spaces. Lego retail is currently adopting such technology in their stores by offering an AR display that imposes a digital model of a product onto the physical packaging of that product. This technology allows children to see the “end result” of a Lego set before they buy it. Such an application of AR technology is a representation of the growing trend that augmented reality has brought to the retail space.

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