Warby Parker Goes AR/VR — Will It Generate Sales?


Warby Parker has officially joined the ranks of retailers embracing augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR) tech with the launch of new virtual try-on features for users of the brand’s iPhone app (for iPhone X or later). The technology was reportedly built using Apple’s ARKit.

The construction process, according to Senior Director of eCommerce and Consumer Insights Erin Collins, was something of an uphill climb. Though in the past the eyewear retailer had tried to place a virtual try feature on its website, the feature ended up having to be quickly pulled — because when it comes to trying on glasses, close enough isn’t good enough. Glasses require more accuracy to get a good idea of what they will look like on a particular user’s face.

The new features use the same technology that powers Face ID and Animojis and comes built in with a social sharing feature so that the wearer can upload photos and get feedback from friends and followers.

“There were two things that were really important,” Collins told TechCrunch. “The first was getting fit right, which was a technical challenge that required a bunch of revisions. And the second thing was making sure the frame images looked as photorealistic as possible, which meant getting 3D artists to digital render them and lots of revisions to get it pixel perfect on each pair of frames.”

As for how Warby hopes to use the program, Collins said the firm believed there would be some consumers who would use the new tech to entirely sidestep Warby Parker’s current solution for the trying-on problem — sending customers a group of samples to their home. But now it seems the more likely use, particularly for newer users, will be as a tool to help narrow down and guide their choice for which in-home samples to request.

Warby is the latest to jump onto the retail AR/VR bandwagon — a wagon that is at this point getting very crowded. Amazon has the Amazon Showroom feature that lets shoppers put 3D images of furniture into a virtual room in order to see how those items would really look. Wayfair has Wayfair Spaces to perform a similar function, as it lets consumers take images of furniture and use AR to artificially drop them into rooms in their home. Ikea has similar functionality, and also released what it called a VR catalog of items as well as expanding various AR and VR options in its physical stores. Approximately 50 Macy’s locations have smart mirrors installed that use AR technology to let consumers virtually try on makeup. Walmart is using VR headsets to help train employees with simulated Black Friday runs.

“When you watch a module through the headset, your brain feels like you actually experienced a situation,” Walmart Senior Director of the Academies Andy Trainor said.

Moreover, according to the PYMNTS Virtual Reality In Retail Report, AR/VR tech is increasingly becoming a common part of consumers’ lives. The number of people using VR technology jumped from 85 million to 171 million in 2018 and revenues from VR software are expected to increase by 3,000 percent over the next four years.

That the market is attractive is not a surprise.

But do the enhancements add to the retailer’s bottom line materially — past the short-lived excitement of having some newfangled piece of technology to offer either in-store or digital customers? Novelty has a lot of appeal, particularly when it comes to getting consumers in the door, but novelty alone usually isn’t enough to make something a profitable offering. Consumers can’t just think the AR/VR offerings are cool — those features have to materially improve the shopping experience enough that said consumers are more likely to convert.

On that the data is less clear — for the very good reason that the technology is still in its early adoption phase and retailers are still figuring that last part out. Walmart has reported that VR technology has been highly effective, and Ikea reports an uptick in sales since introducing various AR features to its mobile app — but has not put specific numbers on them.

According to the PYMNTs Virtual Reality in Retail report, AR/VR enhancements are certainly an area of consumer interest — 80 percent of consumers, for example, reported they would want to use AR and VR technology to assist them in designing a room. The report also showed that retailers that offer features like virtual fitting rooms with smart mirrors can see profitability rise by as much as 20 percent.

But the report also shows that in some ways consumers are looking for more than what they are being offered at this point. Retailers burning the services to mobile, the study found, are still too likely to enhance or duplicate existing VR experiences. Timberland, for example, offers in-store fitting rooms that allow consumers to try on clothes virtually via hand gestures. The mobile fitting room essentially uses the smartphone camera and Facebook app to attempt to mimic that experience by making the image responsive to customer movements — to limited effect.

What consumers are more likely to respond to are apps designed for — and tailored to — mobile usage.

But days are early still, and the technology is still newly rolling out and being refined in both physical and digital retail contexts. That conversions will follow is not necessarily a lock just yet — but the signs so far look favorable.