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Augmented Reality Is the Next Frontier for Brands, Experts Say

Retail has officially entered the digital era. But it’s not enough for brands to bet on e-commerce to keep them connected to increasingly mobile-reliant consumers.

At the Interactive Advertising Bureau’s (IAB) Brand Disruption Summit last week, industry innovators in the world of augmented reality weighed in on the ways that advanced technology can enhance the shopping experience.

“Things are continuing unabated to create this sort of magical world that a lot of us imagine with immersive tech,” Tony Parisi, AR/VR ad innovation lead at augmented reality software firm Unity said. “People need to get started on strategies around this need to learn to be practitioners in this medium, because it’s happening all around us.”

In the Covid age, these advancements have accelerated with more shoppers stuck at home. Augmented reality can help replicate the experience of seeing and even trying on products in person, according to Tuan Mai, AR commercialization lead at Google.

“The one biggest limiting factor for consumers is that they can’t actually go out to the stores that they frequently visit,” he said, and a normal activity like trying on a shade of lipstick has become “a big risk” in the modern world.

“To minimize that risk, storefronts have actually shifted from consumers coming to the store and trying the product, to the storefront [coming] to users,” he added. Cosmetics brands have been adept at embracing this shift, with drugstore labels like L’Oreal and Maybelline partnering with YouTube influencers to get the word out about new products. “If they are reviewing a particular shade of lipstick, consumers can now, on their phones, try the lipstick themselves,” Mai said.

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Some fashion brands have waded into the AR waters with similar features. Last summer, Gucci updated its iOS app to allow shoppers to “try on” its Ace lace-up sneaker collection using their mobile devices. The app beamed a digitized facsimile of the product onto users’ feet using their phone’s camera. Burberry partnered with Google in February to bring online shoppers at-scale, AR versions of popular products like handbags and shoes, embedding them into users’ real-life surrounding environments. Mai expects to see tools like this proliferate as the pandemic wears on.

Unity’s Parisi compared the proactive adoption of tech solutions to brands opting for “vitamins versus painkillers.” In a moment where most businesses are feeling some Covid-related strain, those that have done their due diligence stand to see better overall brand health, as compared with companies that find themselves looking for a quick fix.

“These new technologies for shopping and advertising in 3D are going to increase lift additions to the cart, and decrease returns,” he said. “They become essential in a time when it is much harder to go and shop in a physical location.”

Brands that have lagged in terms of adoption are now seeking to accelerate their efforts and play catch up, he added. While AR tools require an upfront investment of time and capital, Parisi believes they’re here to stay.

“We’re starting, maybe, on the bumpy road to recovery with the recent news,” he said, referencing drug maker Pfizer’s and Moderna’s optimistic projections about the efficacy of a new Covid vaccine. But the world is still mired in uncertainty, and he believes patterns that are emerging now will “accelerate, ratchet up, and stay in place.”

Carolina Arguelles, product marketing group lead for Snapchat’s camera and developer products, echoed the idea that AR will remain a focus—not just because of the ongoing battle with the coronavirus, but because young shoppers demand it.

“AR, for this generation, pre-Covid, was a daily habit,” she said. “For our platform, where the Gen Z-millennial generation is the camera-native generation, those are really the people who are on Snapchat at such a massive scale.”

Many young shoppers grew up with a camera in the palm of their hand, she added. “Covid didn’t all of a sudden make AR something that consumers are finally interested in,” she said, adding that 75 percent of Snapchat’s 240-million-plus audience engages with AR tools every day through the app’s massively popular filters and other digitized experiences. In September, Levi’s and partner retailer Kohl’s created a virtual closet on the app, allowing users to create an array of back-to-school looks using AR and portal technology—and then shop directly through the app.

The platform has seen an 85 percent increase in session volume year over year, Arguelles said, with Snapchat users engaging with the app an average of 30 times per day. “This is already a high-frequency daily habit,” she said, and it’s grown because users are more urgently looking to stay connected to peers and brands through this period of isolation. “This generation is here—and they’re camera-ready.”