Any business owner with a website can tell you: mobile technology changed the game. Customers went from browsing on desktops and laptops to browsing on their smartphones. Mobile views for websites became a necessity. Apps began to supplement (or even replace) websites as the primary means of customer interaction. So what’s the next big thing after mobile? By all indications, augmented reality is about to hit it big.
What Is It?
Augmented reality is an evolution of virtual reality, with one major difference. Where virtual reality tends to cut users off from their environment (through goggles or headsets like the Oculus Rift), augmented reality simply adds digital information to the environment that’s already there. Where virtual reality has taken off in the gaming market, augmented reality — which can be experienced through mobile technology and wearables — is poised to transform business.
The Rise of AR
When most people think of augmented reality, they probably think of Google Glass, which appeared in 2013 to mixed results. While the product had potential for wide application among journalists, tech enthusiasts and health care professionals, there were criticisms regarding safety and privacy. Google stopped producing the prototype, but plans to release a new version in the future.
Google isn’t the only company jumping on the augmented reality train. Lenovo recently unveiled the Phab 2 Pro at Techworld, the first smartphone to implement Google’s “Tango” augmented reality technology. Using the Phab 2 Pro, users can measure objects using the phone, visualize furniture with home improvement apps to see how it would fit in their room, or play with virtual pets. Lucasfilm partnered with Silicon Valley startup Magic Leap to start developing an AR project called “Mixed Reality,” which allows characters from the movies to appear in users’ living rooms, using existing furniture and surroundings to display a digital experience.
The popularity (and viability) of virtual reality has waxed and waned throughout the years, never quite taking off as enthusiasts have hoped. But with the saturation of mobile technology and the wealth of potential for business apps, augmented reality will soon be everywhere.
Augmented reality technology isn’t a pipe dream. The technology is already on the market. Until recently, the focus has generally been on wearable technology, although even that’s poised to change. Windows 10 shipped with the Windows Holographic technology, which will let users interact with a holographic display right out of Hollywood. The potential for marketing and promotional applications should be clear. In a few years, businesses may be able to generate holographic displays and applications as easily as they can create promotional tools for mobile devices today.
Companies are already producing augmented reality apps for:
- Identifying products with image recognition instead of barcodes
- Creating real-time in-store navigation so customers can find items without searching or asking for help
- Digital museum tours and map services operated through a user’s smartphone
- Improving customer service with digital enhancements, such as using AR glasses at a makeup counter to help a customer “try on” and choose cosmetics
- Live training and education that allows a virtual “hands-on” experience
- Providing contextual ads and special offers to shoppers while they shop (imagine a less invasive version of that scene from Minority Report)
As augmented reality devices grow more common and affordable, retailers and businesses will find new ways of reaching and interacting with customers. More than ever, savvy businesses will be able to market customized content toward their users to increase reach and sales. “Viral marketing” will no longer be limited to retweets and shares on social media — it will happen out in the real world, where customers can interact with it directly.
Augmented reality is still not without its risks. As with Google Glass, there are safety and privacy concerns, and a hastily-designed AR app carries the potential for misuse or disaster. As with any new technology, there will be some resistance and questioning of its necessity.
Although augmented reality is still considered a “gimmick” to many, and is still a niche market, it’s likely to become a major component of customers’ daily lives in the next few years. Those businesses who start taking a serious look at it now stand to profit from it in the future.