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Augmenting Reality In Retail

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The pace of technological innovations makes it nearly impossible for many retailers to plan what is coming next and where to invest their technology and infrastructure budgets. Of all the new technologies emerging today,  I think augmented reality has the greatest potential to significantly change the retail world. 

Augmented reality (AR) is the practice of taking digital assets and inserting them into physical space — creating a composite view for the viewer that is partially the real world and partially the digital world.  Like most disruptive technologies, AR as a concept, has been around a while. However, the practical applications of AR have been limited to a relatively small number of early adopters, video games, and laboratory experiments. 

In recent years, the rapid progression of other technologies (specifically, the ubiquity of broadband internet access and the proliferation of mobile devices with advanced processing power and graphics acceleration) have set the stage for developers, advertisers and retailers to begin experimenting with AR. As the technology evolves and companies race to create platforms and standards, several retailers and manufacturers have begun using AR in consumer facing applications.  Examples of platforms include Layar, Metaio, and Vuforia.  Some examples of consumer-facing applications include IKEA, Moosejaw and Lego. 

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This evolving technology has significant potential in the retail industry. The first medium where AR will impact retail is advertising. Whether using smart devices or wearable optical devices like Google Glass, potential customers can easily see virtual billboards advertising where retailers are located. Some analysts are predicting that the advertising revenue generated through this AR channel will be in the billions by 2017. 

Another area where AR will have a big impact in coming years is in merchandising. Virtual fitting rooms like FitYour and virtual interior design like my own company’s SmartSpace will begin to enter into customers’ web shopping experiences more and more. Any customer with a smartphone can see how a new pair of glasses or shoes will look before buying them or determine if a particular sofa will look right with the other furniture in her living room before checking out. 

The world of AR is moving very quickly. However, it is not always the first to act who benefits the most from new technologies. As you are considering where to invest in coming years, my advice would be to think about whether AR really can solve your customers’ problems better than other solutions.  Also, you should think about whether the technology is easy enough for your customers to use. If AR really will provide your customers with a better experience — take the leap and jump into this new world with me.


T. J. Gentle is the President & CEO of SmartFurniture.com, a venture backed internet retailer and pioneer of Design on Demand®.

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