Augmented Reality: Blurring the lines between the physical and the digital worlds

Remember the 45 year–old-man fervently chasing around an imaginary creature in the middle of the local park? Well, it was all about Pokémon Go, the frenzy that captured 65 million people in the summer of 2016. Augmented reality (AR) has always been thought of as a technology of the future; however, the gaming industry has proven that it is a technology capable of being utilized today. We see that with Google’s new Maps update where they have an excited virtual fox leading you to your destination. We have now overcome the barriers of entry to AR such as processing power, specialized hardware, and expensive devices. So why hasn’t AR become a commonplace technology? Because we have not been able to overcome the old archetypal way of thinking. For generations, we have viewed the physical and the digital as two interconnected but fundamentally separate sources of information. We’re so used to consuming data, graphs and animation through a digital screen that for most of us the thought of a pie chart or a Teletubby appearing in our real surroundings, is still absurd. For businesses to experience the full potential of AR and its power in bridging the gap between the two worlds, they need to move past this dichotomy, into a world where the integration between the physical and the digital worlds is seamless.

How can we create an experience of augmented reality in our businesses?

Today, businesses that customarily require a person to physically enter the store, lack the experience that an online platform can give. They are constrained by the fixed layout of their spaces and also by the data they are able to capture from their customers. This limitation hinders their ability to provide personalized experiences to their customers. In contrast, when a customer logs onto a digital shopping platform they are served with information that is only relevant to them – information that directly influences their purchase decision. The system has the ability to consolidate information from different sources, such as, the user’s social media, viewing patterns and purchase history – and then uses this data to cross-sell, upsell and provide laser-focused recommendations and comparative pricing to each user. A digital system has the means to change the layout of the viewer’s page based on the specific tastes of the viewer.

AR can take this data-centric digital experience to brick and mortar businesses.

Now, imagine creating a shopping list on the AR app on your mobile device. You then walk into the grocery store and your app – using location services, shopping list, and stored information of the layout of the store – guides you to the items on your list. When you point your phone camera to a product that you like, and voila, the product speaks to you. The app uses computer vision to identify the product you’re looking at and uses the internet connection of the mobile device to feed you streamlined information about pricing, related products, location of other merchandise within the store, and a wealth of other information by overlaying this data and product information on your physical shopping cart and store aisles. It’s, as if, you’re looking at all the insights relevant to you, moving along with you, on physical objects in your real environment – truly merging the experience of shopping in a store with the ease and insights of shopping online.

Just as much as a walk-in store lacks the data-intensive experience that a digital store can offer, the digital store limits the ability of the user to touch, feel and see the product in their physical setting. Today, AR can use the laptop webcam or phone camera and recognize your face with face detection algorithms. It can then superimpose a virtual dress over your body. You can also move the virtual dress around, twirl in it, share the image with your friends, and interact with it, like you would, if you were trying on a physical dress! Or better yet, you can choose different colors, textures and sizes for a couch and place it, virtually, in different parts of your apartment to determine the perfect spot and couch for you. This is not a visual from a sci-fi movie – you’ve been a part of this very virtual experience if you’ve used Macys Smart Mirror or the IKEA AR app.

The possibilities, as clichéd as it sounds, are truly endless. Augmented reality enables us to take the palpable experience of interacting with physical objects and combines that with real-time data and analytics to enhance reality as we know it today. The implications of AR in business are truly staggering and will become the standard for consumer product interaction in the future.