The explosion of e-commerce has transformed the retail landscape over the past 20 years. Now, the next generation of technology looks set to change the way consumers engage with brands once again. In this piece for RetailTechNews, Matt Wade, global principal of experimental design, Moving Brands, explains how augmented reality is about to change the way we shop online. Get ready for ‘a-commerce’.
In 1969, the American government developed ARPANET – a simple system for transferring small amounts of information across a network. In 1972, a group of Stanford students started to use it to exchange drugs. Transacting, buying, and selling things goes deep. It’s second nature for us, we love to own new stuff and we have to own stuff. This year, over a billion people will buy things online; and yet the conventions keep evolving as new technologies continue to influence the way we make shopping decisions. Eventually, ‘mixed reality’ will change everything, but for now augmented reality (AR) is opening three significant changes for retail.
Seeing is believing
AR allows things to come to you; virtual goods can be experienced in the context of your life. Today, there are apps like ‘Ikea Place’ that allow us to see what real products look like in our homes. Why is this so powerful? Seeing is believing. If I can believe it can exist as part of my life, then I’m already halfway to owning it, and it’s a lot easier for me to exchange money to complete the circle and make it real.
Big companies, including Google and Apple, are working to remove the need for a specialist app to do this; and soon you’ll be able to do this just using your inbuilt camera or via a web page. This will become the norm in a couple of years. Apple recently released an amazing new feature called ‘AR Quick Look’. It is an incredibly simple interaction: all developers need to do is link to the right type of 3D model in a webpage – and if using Safari (Apple’s web browser) – a new option will appear to view that object in your environment using AR right in your browser. Nothing to download. Companies used to have to commission a custom AR app, but now they just need to create 3D models of the object and link to the images in their mobile web pages. Safari will do the rest.
Apple is very good at articulating the language around these concepts. ‘Quick Look’ is an effective name, in that it tells us what it does. I can imagine, a few years down the line, people saying to each other when shopping online, “just quick look it”. It is also brilliant, as it builds on existing models where retailers create systems to alleviate the fear of making the wrong buying decision. Companies such as ASOS have led innovation in the space with its simple ‘try before you buy’ mechanisms, achieved through its free returns policy, which has driven considerable growth. Take that kind of smart thinking and expose it to the innovation led by people like Apple and the market will change fast.
Everything’s for sale
The second major change is the ability to mark up any object with retail information. This is currently led by Google Lens – not such a great name – but incredible technology. It’s a relatively recently launched camera-based feature that allows any picture you take to be scanned for contextual information using image recognition. For example, you could take a picture of a friend’s shoes, see what brand and model they are, and be linked to a store to buy them right away. This is massive, and gets even more interesting when you want to take a picture of the shoes of somebody you don’t know and buy them – just because you like them. The forward-thinking retailers are those who are indexing their products on the web with plenty of information, so they can be found easily by those who spot them in the wild.
Reimagining how product data is stored
Finally, this technology opens up new possibilities to radically rethink about the whole supply chain. Identifying the a-commerce trend early, as IKEA has done, is key. And to harness this, retailers will need to develop new systems capable of supporting AR content. In what is undoubtedly a seismic shift away from the current supply chain process, products will eventually need to be clearly marked up with contextual information – as early as the point of manufacture – to pave the way for online and digital translation.
Blockchain would be perfect for this because product data, such as the dimensions of a shelving unit and whether it is wall mounted or freestanding, can be transferred from a digital fabrication model and held securely, as well as being trackable for new uses and applications as they emerge. The technology would also allow retailers to try out concepts of new products before they are actually manufactured into prototypes, to find out if a product would work in their store, and whether any modifications to layout or design needs to be made. Of course, this would be easier for global brands that control the whole ecosystem, from concept design to retail, compared to those who act independently as part of a complex supply chain.