How Augmented Reality Can Impact E-Commerce

Some Big Retailers Are Already Taking Advantage of Augmented Reality

mobile phone displaying a chair in a room through augmented reality

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Retailers are just starting to take advantage of the opportunities available from integrating augmented reality with their shopping experiences. But what really is augmented reality? We’ll discuss the basics and how some vendors are optimizing augmented reality for the e-commerce industry.

What Is Augmented Reality?

Augmented reality (AR) is technology that incorporates computer-generated input with real-world surroundings. The applications of AR vary and can include sound, video, graphics, GPS overlays, and more. These interact with the physical world in real time and can respond to changes in the surrounding area.

While AR has been used for decades, recent developments have helped establish its use in a variety of spaces, including mainstream culture. AR has received exposure through popular entities like the mobile game Pokémon Go and Snap Inc’s Snapchat filters. Snap has even launched a platform called Snap AR, offering templates, courses, and games for creators using AR. But AR’s potential extends far beyond entertainment. 

Companies have been pioneering new uses for AR, from wearables that help improve employee productivity to “heads-up” displays for cars that overlay GPS information onto the windshield, allowing the driver to keep their eyes on the road while navigating. 

Most AR uses are currently available via mobile devices, however, it’s anticipated that this will eventually change as wearables increase in popularity—these are things like smart glasses or head-mounted displays that allow the user to be hands-free.

Augmented Reality vs. Virtual Reality

Some of the main differences between augmented reality and virtual reality (VR) include the following.

Augmented Reality Virtual Reality
The experience involves overlaying computer-generated input onto the user’s real-world surroundings Transports the user into a completely new virtual environment
Users are in charge of their presence as they interact with the physical world The VR system controls what the user experiences
The technology is accessible through devices like smartphones and laptops as well as headsets Requires the user to wear a headset device

While often confused or mistakenly used interchangeably, there are significant differences between augmented reality and virtual reality. Augmented reality incorporates computer-generated input with real-world experiences, whereas virtual reality presents the user with a simulation of a totally new environment. 

For example, several e-commerce businesses offer smartphone apps that utilize AR to let consumers see how an item would look in their house before purchasing it. Some real estate agents use VR to provide virtual tours of houses. Instead of visiting each location, homebuyers can view multiple options with a VR headset, and decide which ones they want to see in person. 

Augmented reality is more accessible to the general public, as users can take advantage of it through the use of devices like smartphones and laptops, or with a headset. To experience VR, though, users have to wear a headset device, which can be expensive.

The Oculus Quest 2—a VR headset from Oculus by Facebook—is available for $299 or $399, depending on the size you buy. Costs for similar VR headsets available on Amazon range from $20 to $1,199. 

How Can E-Commerce Businesses Use Augmented Reality?

Augmented reality utilized in e-commerce enables businesses to inform and connect with customers as well as continue to engage consumers after they’ve made a purchase. 

Younger generations are seeking more interactive shopping experiences. Data from research and advisory company Gartner reported that 30% of millennial and Gen Z consumers want more online shopping experiences to incorporate AR and VR technology, compared to 14% of older generations.

Below, we’ll detail some of the common ways augmented reality is used in e-commerce.

Marker-Based Augmented Reality

Marker-based augmented reality relies on a specific marker image to trigger the experience. Augmented reality QR codes, logos, or item packaging are all commonly used as markers. The experience itself is linked to the marker image, which usually shows up on top of the marker and rotates or moves with the marker as well. Once the user is no longer triggering the marker, the experience disappears.

Businesses may use this type of AR to continue connecting with consumers post-purchase. For example, customers who ordered a product delivered to their home might scan a QR code on the packaging for a unique AR experience. This allows customers to engage and interact with the product in new ways. 

Markerless Augmented Reality

Markerless augmented reality isn’t tied to a specific location. Instead, users must click a website link or open an app to access the experience. Markerless augmented reality processes the surrounding environment and places the experience according to geometry, usually picking a flat surface.

Glasses retailer Warby Parker has an app that offers a virtual try-on feature made possible through AR technology. The program lets you virtually try on glasses and see how you look in a pair before deciding which ones to purchase. This is an example of markerless augmented reality. 

Superimposition-Based Augmented Reality

A superimposition-based augmented reality experience either partially or fully covers up the original view of an object with an augmented view. It’s a type of markerless augmented reality, which means it doesn’t require an image or marker to cue it. Object recognition is crucial in this type of AR, as the technology must first identify the original object in order to replace it. This is the kind of AR that’s used in social media filters like Snapchat.

E-commerce vendors can use superimposition-based AR to allow customers to see how a piece of furniture would fit in their house, for example. The user opens up the link or app and points their camera at the location they want to put the item. An overlay of the item then appears in that spot on their device’s screen, allowing them to gauge if it’s the right fit for them.  

Examples of Augmented Reality in E-Commerce

Augmented reality continues to appear in the retail industry in an effort to enhance customers’ shopping experiences. In the past, LEGO has launched products that integrate AR technology with LEGO sets. Users could scan parts of the playset with their phone or tablet to gain access to different games and features associated with the toy itself, merging both physical and virtual play.

The IKEA Place app lets users virtually place various items in the physical world around them to gauge if it’s the right choice for the space. The app lets you test out a wide variety of furnishings—from sofas and dining tables to cribs and bookshelves. The items are 3D and true to scale, and users can rotate the furniture on the app to see how it looks positioned from different angles. Home furniture shop Wayfair uses similar AR technology in its mobile app, giving shoppers the chance to envision how an item would really look in their home.

On its website, Armani provides users with a host of “Virtual Services.” One tool allows users to try on beauty products in real time with a live camera or by uploading a photo. Customers can test out everything from foundation and lipstick to eyeshadow and mascara. Users can switch between the different shades available to see how it looks on them.

Armani also offers the chance to try on entire looks from its past fashion shows. Users select the look they want to test and then see it on themselves through the live camera or photo. Then, the products used to achieve the look are shown, enticing the consumer to make a purchase.

The Bottom Line

Retailers are just beginning to explore the possibilities that AR integration offers them. Merging tech with the demands of e-commerce gives businesses a unique opportunity to connect with their customers and provide enhanced shopping opportunities. 

Emerging technology also comes with new concerns surrounding privacy. According to the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, the “potential for AR to continuously collect, analyze, and display personal data in real time” may challenge the current norms. The nonprofit argues that the more companies adopt AR, the social and legal definitions of privacy and public space may need to shift and adapt.