To spot the next big revolution in customer experience, you need only look closely at the latest model of the device that revolutionized mobile communications. Just as the original iPhone introduced the world to touchscreens and apps for everything, Apple’s iPhone X shows that our future digital interactions are destined to be “augmented.”
Augmented Reality Arrives
Augmented reality (AR) technology, increasingly familiar in games like Pokémon Go or Snapchat face filters, superimposes digital images on a phone-screen view of the real world to deliver a composite of the two. Accessing the AR experience isn’t limited by the expense or awkwardness of additional equipment that restricts more immersive virtual reality (VR) technologies. All you need for AR is a decent smartphone with a camera.
The iPhone X isn’t the only phone to support augmented reality. Amit Singh, vice president of business and operations for virtual reality at Google, says “hundreds of millions” of Android devices will support augmented reality (AR) capabilities by the end of the year.
The new iPhone X sports a host of new features optimized to deliver enhanced AR experiences. Coupled with the release of the iOS 11 ARKit, a software development platform for blending digital objects with real environments in third-party iPhone-ready apps, it’s obvious that Apple believes the age of AR has arrived.
When the world’s pre-eminent purveyor of cool consumer technology starts designing its products specifically to enable a new technology, it’s wise to pay attention. If key mobile experiences become commonly augmented (animojies anyone?), widespread demand for quality AR experiences in everything from games to enterprise and retail systems will soon follow. Likewise, consumer expectation for AR will quickly spread to other contexts. That means AR is a new customer channel for brands.
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Augmented Reality Meets Customer Experience
There’s already growing of evidence of AR being used to enhance the customer experience.
In retail, the IKEA Place app lets you see how furniture from IKEA’s catalog will appear in your home through true-to-scale 3-D models that can be selected, moved and viewed through your phone. Amazon has an app called AR View for similarly overlaying some of its products onto living spaces. And Target has a similar AR app called “See It In Your Space.”
But “try it before you buy it” applications such as those just represent the first step when it comes to using AR in business.
Businesses will increasingly use AR in training and instruction programs, to further the “do it yourself” mindset. Imagine when you no longer have to call a help desk, visit a website or read a user’s manual to figure out how to fix a problem with a product or piece of equipment. It won’t be long before you can just point your phone at an item and AR overlays will walk you through the troubleshooting process. There will even be “mixed reality” situations where, for example, a medical device technician contacts a support agent or bot for help. From there, it will be escalated from voice-only support to voice with AR, so the technician can “see” a virtual support agent tinkering with the faulty machinery.
To take the concept one step further, there is no reason a similar holographic entity couldn’t be the customer support agent of the future. The technology is not that far away. Why talk to a faceless disembodied voice when you could see a realistic projection of that person? And those virtual people could use visual indicators to better communicate by pointing to the features of some product you have questions about, or showing you how to install something you’ve ordered.
This type of digital augmentation can deliver an extra, on-demand layer of intelligence blended with the physical world that opens up enormous opportunities for all manner of exchange and commerce.
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Taking AR Beyond Apps
Apple’s ARKit, Google’s ARCore and similar platforms are designed to remove a big hurdle for companies that want to start developing ways to engage their customers though mobile AR channels.
But AR does still have some limitations. Most current AR offerings still require some labor from users, who must download or enable apps in order to use them. An even more impressive AR expansion into a robust consumer channel will materialize when AR becomes largely browser-based (and that’s not far off). With Web AR on the horizon, the technology will be even more seamlessly accessible and, therefore, even more commonplace.
Finally, when AR customer experience implementations routinely sustain real-time interactivity and include the ability to complete transactions entirely within an AR environment, they will have achieved full channel maturity. And just as we have all grown accustomed to our phones being “smart,” and to tapping and swiping our way through various digital experiences, we will begin navigating through blended realities as if they’d always been around.
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