Italian luxury fashion house Gucci is letting customers virtually “try on” shoes and see how they look before buying the same new Augmented reality (AR) lens on Snapchat. If you thought the concept of “shoppable” augmented reality shoe try-ons is too niche, you are wrong. In fact, major brands like Audi and OnePlus, and even luxury fashion houses and beauty brands such as Louis Vuitton and L’Oréal are using augmented reality to engage consumers and create unique and immersive digital experiences during the pandemic. Experts say the global pandemic has generated greater interest in immersive technologies like augmented reality in the last few months, opening a new channel to reach consumers through smartphones, when many prefer to stay indoors and shop online.
“Nobody wants to step into a physical store, try on clothes which have been tried out by other people, or touch surfaces. So that’s why we have seen that the uptake for AR has increased multifold in the past year,” explained Gaurav Baid, founder and COO of Avataar.Me, a Bengaluru-based AR advertising platform.
Baid, who works closely with partners like Facebook and Google, says brands are aware of how significant 3D extended reality (XR) and augmented reality (AR) is to product discovery. In fact, he said a lot of big brands now have a dedicated in-house AR/VR team within the marketing unit.
Augmented Reality (AR) is an emerging technology that combines virtual information with the real. Till now, AR has seen greater acceptance in the enterprise market, but on the consumer side, adoption has been rather slow despite best efforts from Apple and Google. Apple, for instance, started heavily promoting AR in 2017. With an iPhone, you can access various augmented reality apps for gaming and education, but the world is yet to see a killer AR app that has mass adoption.
But, thanks to the global pandemic, augmented reality is becoming a key differentiator for some brands. All of a sudden, retailers and brands that are hit most by the Covid-19 and extended lockdowns in Europe, have found new use cases in AR.
Leo Gebbie, a senior analyst at CCS Insight, covering wearables and extended reality devices, explains, “AR has proven an extremely valuable technology for certain businesses as they have navigated the turbulent waters of the Covid-19 pandemic. Many companies that had been evaluating the technology for their businesses have made rapid decisions to deploy them to bridge operational challenges.”
Although physical stores have now started opening in India, consumers are still hesitant to visit some of them, like car dealerships. In response, German luxury automaker Audi is using augmented reality to allow consumers to experience the Audi A6. Using a smartphone or laptop and a web browser (no need to download the app), people can preview what the Audi A6 has to offer right in the comfort of their homes. Brands like Audi are turning their attention to the web-based XR experience, which is the most simple and cost-effective way to reach out to consumers using augmented reality technology.
Farooq Adam, who co-founded Mumbai-based O2O marketplace Fynd, sees WebAR (short for Web-based Augmented Reality) as the first step towards building AR content experiences, particularly in the retail sector. More brands are using WebAR over AR for mobile marketing campaigns, and while some may be surprised to hear that, this trend will likely continue.
“A lot of the traffic that comes to retailers today, and especially Indian retailers, is on their website. They cannot leverage any of these things [ARKit and ARCore] because they’re still stuck in the browser world. For them to fully harness app-based AR, they will have to invest in an app. But then the app growth dynamics come in, where you have to get people to install the app, which is a costly affair, so they just don’t end up doing any of that,” Adam explains.
“I expect smartphone-based XR experiences to remain dominant in the mass market for at least the next few years, as it will still take some time before AR headsets reach the market penetration required to become a mainstream technology,” Gebbie said.
“AR and VR will first get mass adoption in entertainment and gaming, before we can start seeing strong use cases, the use cases being completely becoming native on devices, till then the WebAR will have to play the bridge gap,” Adam said. He further added that WebAR has matured over time and will continue to do so. “Web GL features will make acceleration faster, especially when you’re entering these graphics on your face or anyone in the real world. But it doesn’t get the hardware support that you get on the ARKit and ARCore.”
Two sectors that have shown great interest in augmented reality technology during the pandemic are luxury fashion houses and cosmetics brands. Last year, Louis Vuitton teamed up with Snapchat for a unique way to promote the brand. When users scan its monogram, they will be taken to a “virtual installation” featuring LV’s classic trunks and latest collections. Another high-profile luxury brand, Dior, used the WebAR experience to turn its invitations for the Autumn-Winter 2020–2021 Haute Couture collection into an immersive experience. Meanwhile, New York-based fashion label Khaite used WebAR to preview its Spring-Summer 2021 collection.
“Augmented reality has been able to break and get into consumers’ lifestyles, because once you get into the lifestyle aspect and solve an actual need for them, then it becomes more widespread in terms of consumer adoption,” Baid said.
Virtual try-on experiences through Snapchat filters or WebAR are already seen as the biggest use case of augmented reality in the retail sector. A lot of cosmetics brands and beauty retailers, including L’Oréal, Mac Cosmetics and Sephora, are betting on a Virtual Try-On feature to appeal to consumers. In May last year, MAC Cosmetics added an AR try-on tool for its e-commerce site. With a virtual try-on feature, you could try Mac’s lip and eye products in AR settings. French beauty retailer Sephora is also investing heavily in augmented reality technology. Its mobile application has a built-in AR-enabled try-on feature that allows users to try on makeup products offered by Sephora, before purchasing them. L’Oréal, too, understands how critical AR is to its business strategy. The cosmetics giant is working with tech companies like Snapchat, Google, and Pinterest to expand its virtual makeup try-on capabilities.
Luxury fashion houses and beauty brands are aware of how consumer preferences have changed over the last few months, and the use of augmented reality technology is a part of the strategy to innovate in testing times like these. “In the contactless world makeup is the first thing, which you need to see it on yourself before you buy it. And AR is the most obvious solution to do it,” Adam said. “When we went to the market and spoke about it, the bar to sell beauty products, and especially luxury beauty products is really high. You cannot go and sell a product, which is gimmicky because it is an aspirational product,” he added.
Adam’s Fynd is behind the GlamAR solution which is helping beauty brands and e-commerce companies to reach out to a broad user base through augmented reality technology. The idea behind GlamAR is to enable consumers to virtually try out the beauty and makeup products in real-time on their smartphones before making a purchase. The solution is easy to embed on the website or the app. While Adam did not reveal how many brands have agreed to use the new Glam AR solution, he said eight brands are at different stages of piloting with the company. Fynd also has a GlamAR Mirror app, which tries to replicate the mirror one finds in the physical store. The company does not charge for the GlamAR mirror from customers. Instead, Fynd charges for the SKU.
Then there is also the question of the dedicated hardware, including AR glasses, and content needed to support AR applications.
“In a few years, XR may begin redrawing our understanding of how we interact with the world around us, and has the potential in the future to become just as important as the smartphone is today,” Gebbie said. “At CCS Insight we predict that the next few years will see huge names like Apple, Samsung and Google launching XR devices, which we believe will trigger a huge wave of interest in the technology, accelerating sales at a phenomenal pace.”
The use of immersive technologies like augmented reality and virtual reality in marketing and advertising is set to grow, though both technologies have a different future. “When it comes to enterprise use cases VR will always outweigh AR simply becomes the fact that you want to create an environment where people can see an office at their homes,” said Pulkit Mathur, who is CEO and Co-founder of Gurugram-based AR/AR start-up Queppelin. Mathur believes VR will become more popular on the enterprise side whereas AR will get significant traction on the consumer side. Both AR and VR, according to Mathur, can coexist simultaneously.
Integrating the digital and physical worlds, augmented reality offers brands, especially tech companies like Google, Facebook and Snapchat, a new source of revenue. Google adding AR makeup try-on tools to shopping app, or Snapchat using AR to expand into social commerce show how tech companies want to cash in on the rise in spending in AR marketing and advertising. Does that mean the AR is the future of advertising?
“With AI as a format, your return on ad spend could increase by more than 100 to 250 per cent. This is because of the organic amplification which AR brings into the picture,” said Baid.