Retailers Try to Spiff up Metaverse Shopping Experience

retail AR

When people talk about the metaverse, they tend to think of a fully immersive reality entered through a video headset.

But there’s another, technologically nearer part of the broad field of extended reality (XR) that has a lot more uses today, particularly in retail, and particularly when enhanced by artificial intelligence (AI).

Augmented reality (AR) technology already works and is already in use as a virtual “try-before-you-buy.”

AI-enhanced web AR from retailers like Ikea let you take an item of furniture, look through the screen of your mobile while it takes a live picture of a room in your house and see that piece of furniture superimposed on it, letting you try out various models and colors. Or see how an item of clothing looks on you.

Beyond that, consumers are relatively familiar with the basics of the technology, thanks to Instagram and Snapchat filters, as well as Pokemon GO, which sent hordes of players in search of Pokemon game characters placed randomly throughout towns and cities across the country that could only be seen through a smartphone app.

In some ways, the game’s importance outlasted its popularity as it was simple enough to make everyone understand the technology and its potential even without playing.

Try Before You Buy

Fashion house Dior has run AR shoe “experiences” that let buyers see how various styles and colors would look on them, and uses an Instagram filter to let customers try on sunglasses, Fashion ABC reported in September. Gap has an AR “dressing room that allows consumers to try its collections digitally… [and] Sephora offers a tech tool in-store and in mobile apps that assist consumers in visualizing how different colors and make-up would look” on them, the report said.

Walmart went one better last month, launching an AI-powered virtual try-on tool that lets customers see clothing on themselves, uploading photos and then “dressing” them with items of clothing so that people can see how it will look on their body style, skin tone and hair color, TechCrunch noted. The technology can analyze clothing in catalogs and “determine the different variations of a product, including size, color and other factors — like fabric draping or sleeve length, for example.”

There’s a fair bit of cross-over with virtual reality (VR), which is a more immersive experience with more extensive technology needs — full-on video headsets, as it is essentially a metaverse, whether located in a full-on one like Decentraland, or in smaller private ones of the type graphics chipmaker Nvidia and consulting giant Deloitte have been pushing for everything from manufacturing to virtual test drives.

See also: Nvidia, Deloitte Beat Meta to Punch With Enterprise VR Offering

Virtually Richer

But VR can do more with AR experiences like virtual dressing rooms that lets both cartoonish avatars and photo-realistic models try on virtual clothing.

Reactive Reality’s technology — which it calls mixed reality (MR) — does something similar to Walmart’s tool, but customers can view themselves “wearing the items from any angle and also place our avatar in many different environments, such as offices, beaches, or nightclubs,” Forbes noted in a July article that called digital dressing rooms part of the “the future of fashion retail.”

They can solve “one of the biggest problems of online shopping, which we all know is the ability to try out and try on products before we buy them” and especially to “get accurate size recommendations” said Stefan Hauswiesner, co-founder and CEO of Reactive Reality. That said, he added that “sizing is one of the big issues that need improvements.”

Beyond that, retailers can also gather an enormous amount of information from digital dressing rooms try-ons, such as “which items are most popular with people with specific body shapes… [and] what items can be cross-sold and upsold.”

Metaverse-style VR can also get more interactive than AR, particularly when paired with AI, making the customer experience more personal Scott Kirsner, CEO and co-founder of Innovation Leader, said in the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s CO site last July. “A car salesman — human or AI — could get into a digital car with you and talk you through some of the features. There might even be stylists who could talk to you about the best look for you, help you try on different clothes or haircuts, without needing to be in the same room.”

Better CX

Another big part of AR is the customer experience, which translates to the bottom line.

“Applied correctly, augmented reality has the power to deliver the game-changing customer experiences that today’s consumers are craving,” said Amy Balliett, senior fellow of visual strategy at Material, in an August Inc. column.

Pointing to an AR ad test by cosmetics brand We Make-Up tested AR ads on Facebook, Balliett said the company not only had a 53% higher click-through rate, but customers tried 7.5 more shades of lipstick, on average, than in previous campaigns.

“Beyond increasing confidence in purchase decisions, augmented reality has also been shown to increase brand recognition and retention,” she added, noting that neuroscience researchers found 70% more information retention with AR ads.

For all the uses of AI-powered AR in retail shopping and a dozen other fields from navigation to healthcare, its current uses are mostly two-dimensional, first and foremost because glasses or headsets that would truly let users experience a digital overlay on reality doesn’t exist. It would have to be something like Google’s decade-early Google Glass from 2013 which was actually fairly low key — people gawked because it was recognizable and very hot, not outlandish.

Just like virtual reality metaverses need reasonably small, lightweight and very high-quality headset, AR glasses would have to be everyday wearable — which is not too close.

By the same token, Meta has said it is working on far smarter and more complex video headsets with tools like eye tracking for a better viewer experience, and Apple is reported to be working on one as well, although little is known about it, even though it is highly anticipated.