Imagine being able to see how a couch would fit in your living room before actually buying it — or being able to see which sunglasses suit your face or which lipstick looks good on you without physically trying anything on.
AR has been piquing marketers’ interest in recent years, as it has the potential to change a range of consumer experiences, from how people find new products to how they decide which ones to buy. AR technology enhances the physical environment you see by overlaying virtual elements, such as information or images over it, either through displays such as HoloLens and Google Glass or through the camera view on your smartphone.
In order for the potential of AR to be realized, though, companies have to resist the urge to hastily create AR apps (that risk appearing gimmicky), and instead focus on better understanding how consumers will interact with the technology. Based on research I have been conducting on consumer responses to AR over the past four years, I have found that designing and implementing valuable AR apps requires the following: a better idea of how consumers would use such technology; more collaboration among computer scientists, designers, and marketers; and a strategy for integrating the applications into the existing consumer journey.
When I started working on AR as the topic for my PhD, almost no established knowledge about it existed in the marketing field. However, computer science and human-computer interaction research have been tackling AR for years, and borrowing insights from those fields can greatly help marketers understand what this technology will mean in commercial contexts.
Companies first have to understand how AR differs from other digital technologies. While it is similar in some aspects (e.g., applications are frequently used on smartphones, the content is composed of text or images, and the apps are usually highly interactive), there is something inherently different about AR: the ability to overlay virtual content on the physical world and have the two interact in real time.
I conducted a lab experiment with 60 participants to investigate how such augmentation influences consumer responses. The study is forthcoming in the Journal of Marketing Management. Participants had to look for their preferred model of sunglasses or furniture, either using an AR app (Ikea or Ray-Ban) or an app that allowed a similar activity but without AR features. The results consistently showed that when participants perceived an element of the environment to be augmented in real-time (for example, seeing a pair of sunglasses simulated on their face or seeing a virtual chair in an office), that created an immersive experience for them, significantly more so than if the sunglasses were just stuck on their online photo or if they saw furniture in a virtual room.
I also found that the augmented experience resulted in positive attitudes toward the application and willingness to use the app again and talk about it to others. But these effects didn’t seem to extend to the products themselves or the brands, just the technology.
However, another study showed that this might change depending on how the app is integrated into the consumer journey. Working with professor Yvonne Rogers from the UCL Interaction Centre and AR designers Ana Moutinho and Russell Freeman from the AR agency Holition, we conducted one of the first studies of how consumers use AR to “try on” make-up in a store. The app we used allows people to put on virtual lipstick or eye-shadows that moves with their faces.
We found that using this AR mirror in the store helped the consumers decide what to buy. The majority of them enjoyed the playful experience that allowed them to experiment with looks that would be much harder with physical testers. More importantly, when the AR app was integrated in a familiar retail setting as a part of the shopping experience, people not only thought highly of the technology, but they also positively related to the products. They were more likely to buy them and view the app as a convenient tool for shopping, not just for playing around.
Another study that we conducted online showed that when participants frequently used a similar AR make-up app on their phones over a five-day period, they also reported positive reactions towards both the technology and the products. They perceived the app to be not only enjoyable, but also useful for shopping for make-up, which again translated in their intentions to purchase the tried-on products.
Basically, if the AR experience is just a one-off episode, which was true of the lab study, the augmentation will most likely direct people’s attention towards the technology. But if it is well integrated in an environment or in a process, it has the capacity to positively impact purchase activities and have a more far-reaching influence.
It is important to note that because shop assistants invited consumers to use the virtual mirror and showed them how to use it, it remains unclear whether customers might have a different experience without any help.
Marketers should remember that AR is not about creating a completely new reality; it’s about enhancing what already exists. When the virtual is well fitted with the physical and interacts with it, that’s when AR magic happens. As opposed to virtual reality, which immerses you into a different world (e.g. Oculus Rift), AR intertwines virtual elements that might be missing in a specific situation within physical reality (the latest best example being HoloLens’ holoportation feature). This is one of the reasons why people like Snapchat’s AR feature, where users can play with different visual effects to transform ordinary videos into shareable stories.
The crucial part of the AR experience is whether the technology adds real value. Simply overlaying something virtual on a phone screen doesn’t always cut it and can appear gimmicky. Having an ad pop up on your smartphone camera view from scanning a brand’s logo might be fun, but people would tire of it pretty quickly. Similarly, an app that overlays information and promotions on your phone screen when you point the camera to different stores on a street or products in a shop sounds useful, but marketers have to ask: Are consumers really going to walk down the street holding their tablets or smartphones in the air? Do they want to shop by scanning every product?
The answer at this point is probably no, even for digital natives. People will only change their behavior if they perceive the value is worth the effort of adding another information layer into an already saturated digital space. So it’s important to think about the contexts in which they may be willing to do this —f or example, exploring a cultural event, an urban environment, or a historical site with an AR app (similar to how people use headsets in art museums), or wanting to learn more about an expensive product or a brand they really care about.
The real mission for commercial AR is integrating the technology so that it enhances the customer experience — makes it easier, more fun, and more convenient. We don’t want to live in a world where tangible, physical elements are replaced with digital replicas. The idea of Google Glass failed because we don’t want to walk around constantly seeing everything augmented. (The way Microsoft has been positioning HoloLens may be a different story, because it is designed for specific occasions, such as meeting rooms or workshops.) So rather than thinking of how to overlay as many places as possible with additional virtual content, the key to understanding AR is defining the specific activities where it can create real value.