3D has accelerated to the foreground in recent months. Prominent in cinemas, museums and art galleries, the time has come it seems for it to conquer the high street as well. By Alex Katsomitros
It’s like a scene from Jurassic Park, as baby dinosaurs jump around shoppers in a Budapest mall. Except the little monsters seem to be friendly, playful even, and brave bystanders embrace the opportunity to interact with them. But they haven’t seen their mother yet, a grand T-Rex waiting to make her appearance. There will be no blood though, this rather surreal event is a part of the National Geographic Channel’s new marketing campaign in Hungary. These creatures are of course not real dinosaurs, but holograms created with augmented reality, a relatively new type of 3D technology, used by the US brand National Geographic Channel, to raise awareness for its documentaries.
Augmented reality (AR) is the recreation of a physical environment, modified – or “augmented” – with graphics, sound or video. AR applications enhance our perception of reality by overlaying 3D content on real-life images and objects. Thus, information about the surrounding environment becomes interactive, a valuable asset for brands seeking to wow consumers. AR is now being increasingly used by retailers all over the world to exhibit their products, although many have been rather slow to adopt this technology, which has been around for at least a decade. However, once the engaging power of 3D was fully realised, retailers, marketers and app developers have not stopped enhancing its potential.
Kevin Jackson, co-founder of Appshaker, the agency that created the AR applications for National Geographic Channel, said, “Augmented reality is different in the sense that it always involves a blend of a person and the brand. This creates a more personal and long lasting interaction, and is the reason why a good augmented reality campaigns fuel viral online campaigns. AR done properly can motivate people to buy products because it closes the gap between the product and the consumer by making it more personal”. Potential uses of AR depend on the platform and the context. In-store applications aim to engage customers, practically bringing them in to the shop. In a shopping mall, where multiple brands compete for a shopper’s limited attention, eye-catching 3D applications such as a flying dolphin can make all the difference.
Mobile AR is the latest arrival, boosted by the rapid spread of tablets and smartphones. Appshaker has created applications for clients, including the Guinness World Records 2013, allowing anyone with an iOS or Android device to download an app so they can see the actual pages of the book come to life. According to Jackson, “The usage of Mobile AR will grow significantly in upcoming years as the penetration of smartphones worldwide continues to grow, along with the availability of cheaper and faster mobile internet access. The best part is that this offers measurable and location used statistics for brands”.
A boon for luxury brands
Not surprisingly, luxury brands have rapidly embraced AR. For them customer engagement is king. Clothing and jewellery retailers can now make their products “virtually” accessible to everyone, especially to customers who might not otherwise set foot in a luxury store. De Beers, one of the biggest diamond retailers in the world, recently launched its own AR campaign online. Customers are asked to visit the My Forevermark Fitting website, where they can download an application allowing them to virtually try on rings, earrings and pendants. Users have to print a page with an image of their selected item. With the use of a webcam, a piece of jewelry is recreated on the shopper’s body, simulating the experience of wearing the product.
It’s no coincidence that De Beers’s AR campaign has been tailor-made for the Forevermark Millemoi collection, which is mainly available in Asia. Asian customers are noted for their fondness of technology. Gauging cultural difference is important for a successful AR strategy, as different perceptions of reality can affect the way shoppers interact with moving pictures. Lynne Murray, Brand Director at Holition, the augmented reality agency and think tank behind De Beers’s AR campaign, said that Holition, “has been looking into ways in which global consumers ‘see’ a product – many cultures have distinctive understanding of gold (digital or real) for example. Within our jewellery applications, we typically find the Asian market drives a more subtle approach compared to our US clients, who typically want to make the applications as ‘sparkly’ as possible. We believe digital must be culturally targeted to accommodate cultural influences to avoid global blandness, if nothing else. With the emergence of the Asian luxury market, we are finding brands are looking for a differentiating experience, both with the domestic market, and the global”.
The AR experience online is no less impressive than in-store, although different in its scope. High street shoppers usually are not looking for something specific, and only have a limited number of stores to choose from. With e-shoppers it’s the other way round; they know what they want but are unsure where to find it, as they can choose from thousands of products available online. 3D technologies can help them choose the item that suits them best, and also identify similar products for future purchases. Murray said that “once involved in the experience online, we find that consumers are more likely to click on multiple products – it is easier to do this in AR than it is in a more traditional way online”.
E-shops also use augmented reality as a practical tool for their customers. Zugara, a Los Angeles-based software development company, has created the Webcam Social Shopper, an application allowing customers to try on clothes with the use of holograms, therefore (in theory) minimising the possibility of customers returning a product. They can also share pictures on social networks, such as Facebook.
This is perhaps the biggest advantage of online AR: it’s relatively easy – and appealing – to share. Shopping has always been a social activity. When we shop for clothes we usually seek advice from friends or family. Augmented reality seems to individualise the shopping experience, but in practice it just replaces face-to-face interaction with a virtual one, and in more customised way than other media. As Kevin Jackson put it, “conventional media seeks to deliver the factory approach where lots of people briefly glance at an advertisement. Augmented reality events or Mobile AR apps motivate people to share branded content rather than ignoring content that is undifferentiated”.
Another advantage is that online AR can be tracked digitally, unlike print and other media. Murray said, “with AR you are able to understand if users actually engaged in your experience, because to get the experience you have had to digitally access it, which by its nature is trackable. Through this, we are able to track users – how long they used the application? How often they returned? Did they share? This links in quite nicely with the notion of ‘Big Data’ and through our developing campaigns, we are able to access and understand better how consumers are interacting with technology. Ultimately this could lead to bespoke interactive advertising.”
Are there downsides? Of course. You can’t trust a hologram, never mind gauge the “virtual snugness” of a jumper. Yet the influence of technology is certainly making consumers more accepting to making projected decisions – buyers usually have the crucial information already – that just leaves technology to fill in the gaps. AR has the potential to do this, and more.