The ability to combine virtual imagery with the real world opens up a whole new world for retailers.
Retailers took notice when millions of people walked around with their eyes glued to their phones in search of Pokémon. Though augmented reality has been around for years, Pokémon Go is a lesson in the power of an experience that connects the virtual world and the real world for consumers. With Pokémon Go serving as a litmus test, augmented reality will soon change the way we shop.
In a January 2016 report, Goldman Sachs estimates the combined market size of VR and AR will reach anywhere from $80 billion to $182 billion by 2025. Worldwide revenue for the VR and AR market will increase from $5.2 billion in 2016 to more than $162 billion in 2020, according to IDC.
Meanwhile, tech M&A advisory firm Digi-Capital expects investors to pour $90 billion into AR technology by 2020, and a portion of those funds will go to commerce-related applications. The e-commerce market today is roughly $1.5 trillion, meaning VR and AR sales are expected to account for roughly 10 percent of all online sales.
Augmented reality will gain momentum in retail over the next year or so, according to Tim Bajarin, president of technology research firm Creative Strategies.
“All of the big retailers are trying to figure out how you harness something like AR,” Bajarin noted. “The simplest thing to do is to create a gamification model and challenge customers to create an augmented reality character within a [store] and take them to an area of preference.”
Retailers could use AR to set up demonstrations to show how to use a product properly, alert customers if they’re using it incorrectly and update a product’s instructions in real time to correct the flaw. “One of the most beneficial things AR can bring to society is to overlay everything with knowledge,” said Mark Skwarek, a lecturer at New York University and augmented reality artist. “We’re becoming a computational-based culture, and we want things fast. AR can make it easy for people to access high levels of information quickly, and it could open up a lot of possibilities for retailers.”
In terms of medium, AR-enabled eyewear is likely the way of the future, but since hardware like the Meta 2 and Microsoft’s HoloLens is still far from ubiquitous, most early adopters are testing the water with smartphone-based AR implementations. In 2012, Walmart Canada built a smartphone-based augmented reality app in which users could “train” an avatar—in this case teaching one of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles ninja moves—simply by pointing their smartphones at certain signs in the store. Unlock all the moves and users got the opportunity to “meet” a life-size turtle on their screens. The same year, Walmart U.S. built an app based on the movie “Marvel’s The Avengers” that allowed users to point their phones at signs to unlock characters while shopping for “Avengers” merchandise in the store.
Skwarek believes the retail applications that have already been tested are only the very beginning of what brick-and-mortar retailers can do with augmented reality.
“In the future, you’ll be able to visualize something or type in a phrase like ‘teddy bear,’ and you’ll see a line on the ground on how to buy the teddy bear,” he predicted. The line in a store such as Walmart could provide info on the closest and cheapest products. “It empowers the user,” Skwarek said.
The technology certainly seems promising, but then again, so did LaserDisc and Zip drives. Ultimately, it’s consumers who’ll decide the fate of AR. For now, we can only wait and see, and continue hunting for Charizard.