Shopping, like everything else in the business world, is falling into pre- and post-coronavirus pandemic reference points.
Many retail technologies have benefitted from that schism, among them augmented reality (AR). Before the crisis hit, there were any number of ways to envision what, for example, a sofa would look like in a living room. Post-pandemic, showrooms are out of the question. So, the options pretty much fall down to technology.
In layman’s terms, according to tech site AVR Spot, AR adds “digital elements onto a smartphone camera, creating an illusion that holographic content is a part of the physical world around you. In contrast with virtual reality (VR), you are not immersed in the whole artificial environment. AR alters the surroundings a bit by adding 3D objects, sounds, videos, graphics to it.”
So, it’s fairly easy to see why that sofa would be a good fit. For many companies, Utah-based SeekXR among them, AR is a growing retail technology that has been put in the spotlight due to the non-essential retail shut down. Furniture is among the most popular use case. Before the crisis, companies that sold furniture had to struggle with low margins and growing but frustrating volumes. Now, companies that have been selling furniture online, such as Wayfair and Overstock, are doing well.
With the crisis accelerating the shift online, the world has flipped. One of SeekXR’s customers, Raymour and Flanigan, had a business split of 95 to 5 in favor of brick-and-mortar retail before the pandemic. Now that ratio is exactly opposite.
Although AR works best at this point for large items that need a different lens for context, SeekXR Co-founder and CEO John Cheney said he thinks more use cases will be forthcoming.
“The potential diversity of use cases is interesting,” he said, “particularly now that we’re talking about reopening the economy. Whatever happens will be consumer-led. I don't know how comfortable consumers will be walking into any store to buy anything for a while. And having the ability to bring the commerce experience inside their home where they feel safe and experience a product before they can buy it with accuracy, that’s where the most relevant use case is right now.”
That’s not to say there's no room for improvement. Accuracy in AR technology is critical. For example, if a consumer looks at a table online and then tries to place it within their own living space without the proper accuracy, it can still lead to the wrong buying decisions. Cheney said Google and Apple have provided incredible devices to be able to measure the room, and then eCommerce providers have to make sure good data accompanies that technology.
Cheney said he is excited about the improving state of product sensors and the state of phone graphics taking AR technology and hopefully consumer adoption along with it.
He said he thinks the market conditions spawned by the coronavirus will lead to a reckoning for non-essential brick-and-mortar retail.
“People were going to ask themselves, ‘Can I buy this from home? Do I need to go out right now?’” he said. “There's going to be this wave of consumers going out just because they can in the beginning. But then people are going to reconsider the necessity of going out. Look at working at home. There's a lot of different reasons why people are going to decide to do more business at home, but I think a lot of it comes down to basic changes. A lot of these changes are going to stick. Look at Grubhub or other remote technologies that bring food to the consumer instead of the consumer going out for food. That’s an example of something that will stick.”
The pandemic and the concurrent shift to digital has made SeekXR busier than the company has ever been, which Cheney attributed to clients understanding that the best way to see an item online is through AR. For example, physical retailers have called him to see how fast they can SeekXR can add AR to their eCommerce sites.
While most of those clients are from companies that have large-scale items, Cheney said he would like to see more categories adopt AR. The shoe category makes up some of SeekXR’s clients, but no one has yet come up with an application that will allow people to try shoes on without physically holding them. He said the apparel category has the most potential.
“The technology is not quite there yet,” he said. “But it would be great to order clothes online without having to order a bunch of them to see if they fit and then have to return them. Imagine if you could virtually put on a new pair of jeans and be able to see how they fit. You would need a lot of good data points to do that. The phones would need to have extremely accurate measurements available so that [they] could tell the waist from the legs and so forth. And then the clothing manufacturers have to provide really accurate data as well. A Nike medium isn't the same as a Hollister medium. So, you have to know what those real-life measurements mean. We’re not there yet, but we will get there. And when we do, well that’s the Holy Grail of augmented reality.”
Cheney said he is confident that AR can help solve eCommerce return issues. As eCommerce has exploded with the pandemic, returns have exploded right along with it. He said he thinks augmented reality can reduce returns by about 25 percent.
The most important thing going forward, according to Cheney, is ease of integration.
“We have made it extremely easy for brands to integrate, but just as important on the other side of the equation is making sure it's easy for the user,” he said. “That's really where the rubber meets the road. If it's too hard for the user, if it's too many steps, if it doesn't work, if it breaks, you know, the user is going to give up and go somewhere else. But if it's easy, you just click it and it works. That’s what helps technology really grow fast.”