Experiments in Augmented Reality Hint at Its Potential for Retailers

I first learned of augmented reality about four years ago when it started finding its way out of the research lab. Being quite excited about its potential I called a friend in California and asked him if he had heard much about this new technology. He laughed and said “Dave, I live in Los Angeles, I’m surrounded by nothing but augmented reality every day!”

The concept of building a bridge between the physical world and your web experience is now becoming far more common. You’ve probably heard of augmented reality, but beyond seeing a few examples like Google Glasses, you’re probably asking what’s this all about and how would I use this?

The explanation of how AR happens depends on the way you connect. It can be based on one of many ways to interact with the technology. But the one thing they all have in common is helping to erase that line between your real life and how you interact with the web. Right there, that’s where the potential of AR lives for the retailer. Any one of the variations that I’ll describe here can help you create a more compelling customer experience in the store and through your omni-channel presence.

‘A layer of Internet’

Augmented reality can be experienced in any location where a consumer can access the web; through a PC at home, a mobile device, a kiosk in the store, or, yes, out on the street with Google Glasses. It’s an interface that imposes a layer of the Internet on top of our perception of reality.

Two years ago, IBM worked with the organizers of Wimbledon to offer attendees a view of the tournament that leverages AR. Using a smartphone, the user looked through the device to see annotated points of interest based on the physical location and the direction he or she was facing. This was based on the GPS technology within the device, and the information programmed into the application.

More recently, IBM developed an augmented reality application for a grocery. Within the store itself there are a number of ways a retailer can cue an AR experience. Bar codes and RFID tags are two very practical ways for merchandise or promotional end caps to open a doorway between the consumer’s device and the web. In this kind of example they might be shown anything from nutritional information to a virtual coupon that they can redeem when they check out.

Fueling imagination and amusement

Some of my favorite examples take this a step farther and don’t assume that the consumer has brought along any technology in the way of a tablet or smartphone. The Lego Kiosk invites kids (and the young at heart), to hold a box of Legos in their hands and see the finished product on the monitor before them. Not only is the toy fully assembled, it is animated to show how it looks in motion from every angle.

Another IBM client, Metro AG in Germany, has used AR to create an immersive experience within the store. Shoppers in the fish market will find a floor that looks like a pond full of fish. As they step across the floor, they interrupt a beam of light projecting from above. That light projects the image of the fish swimming about in the pond. When the beam of light is broken by your foot, the fish swim away as if to escape being stepped on. This cue is not unlike the click of a mouse that moves something in a PC game. The magic though is that the shopper becomes more engaged and certainly entertained in the process.

More recently I came across an app called Blippar. This technology is based on the recognition of package labeling. It has collaborated with Justin Beiber on the cover of his recent album “Believe” to use augmented reality as a way for fans to win concert tickets and view the cover art in a 3D format. This type of marketing is already resonating with CPG companies.

I used my iPad to interact with a bottle of Tide using Blippar. By touching the icons on the screen of the tablet, I can learn more about Tide’s “Loads of Hope Campaign” or get tips on cleaning my clothes more effectively. A similar example exists with Heinz ketchup, where a recipe book opens from the label. The app can be set up to operate in an offline condition after you download the information.

Extending reach, adding interest

Augmented Reality extends the reach of the store and the CPG. It offers new and creative avenues to connect with consumers and make their shopping experiences far more compelling. Technologies like this may become a part of retail’s future. To learn more about how Augmented Reality is finding its way into the world of marketing, entertainment, even architecture, have a look at the Transmedia Marketing Café.

Dave Rodgerson is the senior managing consultant for IBM’s Retail Strategy & Transformation practice.

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