Augmented Reality (AR) at Retail

One of the newer digital technologies generating buzz right now is Augmented Reality, or AR. What exactly is it? AR is the technique of overlaying graphics on a real-world image so the graphics enhance and recontextualize the scene. Most of the techniques today are generated using a computer’s webcam. Users point out a “target” — a black-and-white image that the AR application uses to determine the scene geometry. Users can view it coming to life on a computer screen by holding it in front of the camera or shooting it with a mobile device. How can this virtual technology be successful for retail? There are successful AR companies bringing their technology to retail consumers in several different locations: at home, on the go (mobile), and at retail.

Let’s face it — online stores are limited when trying to show how their products fit on consumers. One way this has worked with eRetail is Ray Ban’s Virtual Mirror. This use of AR allows consumers to virtually try on and sample eyewear while sitting at their desks. French company FittingBox created a technology FIT3D that uses a person’s eyes, nose, and ears as natural AR-tracking markers to figure out exactly where the sunglasses “appear” on someone’s face. Imagine what this fitting technology can do for retailers or even hair care products.

Speaking of clothing retailers, another great example is how Zagura’s Social Shopper app combines AR with motion capture. While it has some limitations (the user is required to print markers for it to work accurately) that might hinder its widespread use, it’s nevertheless a very interesting and useful concept. The company hopes to license the technology to online retailers.

Zugara’s Social Shopper App:

Now apps from mobile operating systems such as the iPhone 3GS (via its compass tool) and Google’s Android are displaying AR content on the phone. Some require that users take a shot of the “ID tag.” This could be printed on a piece of POS or found on the packaging. Others, such as Layar’s Reality Browser app, allow users of the application to provide custom-tagged reviews of their own by entering text, photos, or videos of locations (via Flickr, Wikipedia, Yelp!, and Google Search, to name a few) while simultaneously updating social networks (Twitter, YellowPages, and more). Metaio’s version “junaio” is debuting next month.

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Metaio has also partnered with LEGO to develop an interactive terminal they’ve coined the Digital Box to be used in toyshops and LEGO stores worldwide. Together with a camera and display screen, the software lets LEGO packaging reveal its contents fully assembled within live 3-D animated scenes. The customer can rotate the product box to see all angles of the constructed design as if it were put together on the spot.

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Metaio has also introduced what can be done with AR and packaging. Everything from games to videos can be part of a consumers morning routine. Imagine the possibilities with beer packaging or consumer packaged goods (CPGs).

At Comic-Con 2009, AR provider Total Immersion introduced AR-enhanced toys based on the upcoming film Avatar. Each toy includes a 3-D tag (iTAG) that consumers scan using their webcam. What’s really cool here is that if shoppers place two iTAGs from the Battle Pack together, the 3-D images will interact with each other.

Finally, the last AR tool generating buzz right now is the USPS Box Simulator. This has great practical applications in the home or office – brilliant! Basically, it allows consumers to virtually see what size box their shipment will fit in without buying the box.

These case studies prove the success of AR inside as well as outside of retail environments. I believe that this technology, when used effectively, can be very advantageous for retailers.

-Contributed by Kevin White