augmented  reality rendering
PHOTO: Patrick Schneider

AR-based product visualization can be used to deliver interactive advertising experiences that connect with customers on a deeper level than traditional advertising. Opportunities are available for marketers to connect with potential customers using technology that allows customers to try out products from the safety and comfort of their own homes. Without the limitations of more mainstream advertising models, has augmented reality finally come of age for marketing?

AR and Consumer Readiness

A recent report from Futurum Research and sponsored by SAS revealed significant pandemic-induced shifts in consumer behavior and opinions including the acceptance of immersive tech. According to the report, 69% of those polled expect to use AR and VR to sample products in 2021, and 63% are willing to use AR and VR to visit remote locations.

An April 2020 report from ThinkMobile indicated that over 50% of smartphone owners already use AR apps when shopping, and IBM puts that figure at 32%. The numbers may be off due to the fact that many consumers are not even aware that they are using AR. Apps such as Google Translate use AR via their smartphone’s camera to see any text in 40 foreign languages as the user’s native language. Google SkyMap enables users to overlay their smartphone with the sky to see the names of the stars, planets, and constellations, all through the use of AR.

Esteban Kolsky, CX evangelist at SAP, said that for years, marketing’s role involved painting a picture of how the brand wanted to be seen. Pretty, nice, clean, and perfect was the goal. This was the representation of marketing: spin and clean-cut presentation, but not a true representation of the product or service the brand was offering. Communication between the customer and brand was one-sided.

The advent of social networking and the successive empowerment of the customer soon followed, which changed the playing field. At this point the customer was able to take control of the product narrative, Kolsky explained, and this sent marketers scrambling to take control of the narrative even more. This strategy backfired, however. “It actually loosened their grip on the brand promise and made them look controlling and not aligned with reality. Alas, the options to participate in the conversation, versus controlling the message, was the answer. And this is where technologies like augmented reality come in,” said Kolsky.

Augmented reality enables marketers to provide a narrative of their products in real-life, and allows customers to craft their experience — and their reality — around the products they are interested in, suggested Kolsky. This versus reading processed copy or looking at photoshopped versions of products in situations that are non-realistic for the customer. 

“By taking advantage of the technologies enabling the reality to be controlled, as opposed to the perception, it enables marketers to position their products in the best light possible. It opens myriad possibilities not only on how but where the product can be used — and changes the reality of the brand promise at the same time,” Kolsky explained. 

Kolsky believes AR is the best tool marketers could have hoped for in this new world of conversations. “Finally, because the technologies are easily available, it enables advocates and fans to present a customer-originated narrative on the product, while controlling the basic promises of the brand and product at the same time. It is, if used properly, the marketer’s best friend in an era where customers have the freedom of how to engage brands.”

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AR Hardware Has an Advantage

An October 2020 report from P&S Intelligence indicated that the global AR and VR market is expected to experience a 42.9% CAGR between 2020 and 2030, bolstered by an increase in the number of smartphone users on the planet, (3.5 billion as of 2020), along with an increase in the number of tablets in use. This has resulted in an increase in the number of smartphone — and tablet-based AR/VR solutions that are available for industries such as architecture, designing, furnishing, education, and e-commerce.

The report also indicated that the AR market is expected to witness faster growth over VR during the forecast period. The integration of AR with smartphones, tablets, and home appliances, as well as the ability of AR to integrate digital information with the physical environment in real-time, is contributing to the market growth.

Although the majority of upcoming AR applications, especially in terms of marketing, will use smartphones and tablets as the delivery mechanism, there are several big tech brands that are working on AR headsets and glasses, Google, Microsoft, and Apple  are chief among them.

Google Glass is still available, now in an enterprise edition that is meant for industry rather than personal use, and it retails for around $1300. Google’s July 2020 acquisition of North, a company focused on creating AR glasses, is indicative that Google is still invested in AR.

Microsoft’s HoloLens 2 is commercially available for a retail price of $3500, and also targets enterprise applications. It is not a consumer device, and Microsoft does not appear to be working on such a device any time soon.

Then we come to Apple, who it was just revealed is currently working on consumer-targeted AR glasses. Rumor is that Apple is working on at least two AR projects that include an AR headset to be released around 2022 followed by a sleeker pair of AR glasses in 2023. Speculation is that they will be paired with iOS devices such as the iPhone or iPad, though others have indicated that they will be standalone devices. Pricing is said to be around $3000 for the headset, and around $500 for the glasses, though this is still just speculation at this time. Regardless, once they are released, they will likely make a huge impact on the consumer AR market.

AR Marketing Today

There are quite a few brands today that are already using augmented reality to enhance their marketing efforts. Largely this is being done through the use of AR-enhanced mobile apps, such as Amazon’s ModiFace Virtual Makeover app, which allows potential customers to try out various makeup and hairstyles on their own faces. Another popular brand using AR is IKEA, whose IKEA Place app enables customers to see a piece of furniture in their own homes.

The question isn’t that these apps are unique and popular, but rather are they being used to actually drive sales. IKEA Place is the number two app built from Apple’s ARKit, just under SkyGuide, an app that allows users to see the constellations in the sky as they may have been imagined thousands of years ago, similar to Google’s AR-based SkyMap. 

AR-based marketing is not new. In 2010, JC Penney partnered with Seventeen magazine and released an AR-based app that allowed users to virtually try on clothes. In 2017, Sephora came out with its AR-based Virtual Artist app that enabled users to try on makeup using their smartphone’s camera. The app is still available for both iOS and Android, though it is not available in the United States. In 2018, fast-fashion chain H&M’s Monki brand partnered with HoloMe to create high definition human holograms using AR. Some of these marketing experiments succeeded, while others failed to catch on.

The use of AR is growing through the efforts of Google and Apple, who have released Software Developer’s Kits (SDKs) for using AR in apps for iOS and Android, as well as third-party companies such as ThreeKit and WikiTude, both of whom help brands create AR-based marketing experiences. Wikitude has its own Augmented Reality SDK that it refers to as "the ultimate AR developing platform,” while ThreeKit focuses on both 3D imaging and AR through its 3D Configurator and Virtual Photographer, which is used in conjunction with its AR platform to create “app-less” website experiences for both mobile and desktop users.

Stephen Light, chief marketing officer and co-owner of Nolah Mattress, told CMSWire that the best use of AR for marketing is exactly what these companies have been using it for — to virtually connect potential customers with products without physically touching or using them. "Augmented reality enables brands to give their target market the experience of trying out products using their camera and monitor. Augmented reality technology adds the product to the user, as if it’s in use, to make the prospect feel like trying the product. In this scenario, prospects are more likely to purchase the item since experiential marketing boosts customers’ buying decisions."

Not everyone, however, is a proponent of AR for marketing at this point in time. Bryan Philips, head of marketing at In Motion Marketing, said that while he's excited about Microsoft HoloLens and Google Glass, he doesn't think AR is ready for prime time yet for most marketers. "Right now these technologies have a lot of potential for manufacturers, HR, and anywhere a business needs to train or guide their employees. That’s why these companies have focused on industries and big businesses as their primary customers.” He said that for consumer marketing, including small and medium-sized businesses, “I don’t think we’ll see a wide enough use of these technologies anytime soon to warrant using them in our marketing endeavors.”

Final Thoughts

AR provides the ability for customers to interact with a brand’s products in the comfort of their own homes via smartphone apps and websites. While it may not be ready for prime time for all brands, it does provide marketers with unique opportunities to create deep, emotional connections with customers.