If you’re reading this blog post, you’re likely well-aware of this acceleration. We don’t need to tell you how important it is or how much it’s “changing the game” of retail. You are already living and breathing this new shopping landscape.
The big question that may be on your mind is how to become part of this wave of change rather than getting left behind. There’s a powerful window of opportunity for e-commerce leaders to make our industry more relatable to the people who matter most — our shoppers.
It’s not just about comfort, either. Keep in mind that a lot of experts think that COVID-19 is here to stay. While it’s too early to tell, for sure, what the future holds (we sure hope the pandemic goes away!), we do know that people are going to be both shopping online and craving a real-world experience.
From window shopping to discovering new products — and trying them on — there’s a joy that comes with exploring stores in the real world. How do we translate that happiness and experience into a digital environment?
Enter Mixed Reality
We mentioned to you in last week’s post that our team at Tangiblee spent the last year building technology to create more real-world shopping experiences. We began this journey long before the pandemic.
We felt inspired given how many of our customers asked us about augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR). But we also learned that people were finding these augmented reality solutions to be expensive and technically challenging to implement.
When the pandemic hit, we knew that the best way to support our customers and our industry at large was to create technology to make the transition to digital, earlier.
Recently, people have been asking us to share more of our perspectives, particularly around the different types of mixed reality experiences that are possible to create. Here’s a quick overview:
Augmented Reality (A/R)
Augmented reality (A/R) apps use text, graphics, audio, and virtual enhancements to make real-world objects more interesting or true to life (Gartner has a longer definition that we like). Augmented reality can be experienced via a smartphone application, or most notably for e-Commerce, via web-browsers. AR helps shoppers envision products in real life.
In terms of e-Commerce, the goal of AR is to put products into the hands of their customers, without a brick-and-mortar storefront. This type of immersive experience is especially important for people who cannot or would prefer not to head to a store physically. The goal is to help shoppers preview a product on a personal level.
Regardless if an AR experience is based on a phone app or a web browser or other supported devices, there is an important factor to consider: 3D imagery.
For e-Commerce AR solutions, the majority of options for retailers are optimized for 3D image rendering — particularly for furniture and home decor categories. But, not ALL AR solutions require 3D content — like our solution here at Tangiblee. Our Virtual Try-On solution uses the same 2D images on your product pages. There are a lot of benefits but also a lot of hurdles to consider before diving into any 3D content — we’ll get into these details later, in a future article.
AR is an incredible technology. But a lot of retailers struggle to implement it. For one, AR apps can get expensive to build due to engineering requirements, usability testing, and the need to create custom images. Even after this extensive process, shoppers may have difficulty using these specialized apps depending on whether the app is easy to use.
Virtual reality is most popular in the gaming industry. The technology enables the creation of immersive experiences using a headset. Through this headset, people interact with three-dimensional environments that “feel” like the real world.
No matter the medium, across AR or VR, mixed reality is about appealing to the human imagination through visual experiences. In e-commerce, the goal is to help people “see” what a product is like within the context of their lives. Technology is a means to an end for facilitating this goal — not a means to an end.
In our next post, we’ll dive deeper into the mechanics for how to navigate choosing the right tech — and what it’s like to get up and running with a mixed reality experience.
Although the AR/3D technology in e-commerce is relatively new, it has boomed since COVID-19. After reviewing the Forbes examples and trying them out myself, I would like to share my insights and hopefully provide some market education regarding AR and 3D technology for online stores.
In this blog, I review several online Augmented Reality examples (as opposed to in-store AR), outline the pros and cons of each example, and touch on what we at Tangiblee believe online retailers should consider before implementing virtual try on (VTO) in their online store.
Let’s get started!
Downloading an App vs. Web AR
The first two brands mentioned in the Forbes article as the best online Augmented Reality (AR) examples are IKEA and Warbey Parker's App. The IKEA App enables shoppers to place furniture items into their homes to visualize how they will look in their setting. The WarbyParker App lets customers use AR to try on glasses from the comfort of their homes. IKEA and Warby Parker are both brands with strong, loyal customers that make frequent purchases. Unless you have a similarly strong and loyal customer base, asking customers to download a brand-specific app is a BIG ask. Think about it - no one wants to have a zillion apps on their device, especially if they are just in the “browsing phase” and not even sure they want to purchase anything. Asking to download an app is a friction point with a high probability of customers dropping out. Most customers will agree that the best AR examples would actually include WebAR that do NOT require downloading an App.
3D Models are Costly to Scale Across the Catalog
I went ahead and downloaded the IKEA app since I’m looking for some new furniture. Then, I started browsing the catalog and realized all the items I was interested in didn’t have the IKEA Place feature where you can virtually “place” an item in a room.
For example, only 8 out of the 34 (25%) bookcases from the popular Billy’s series are available on the app. Likewise, only 20 out of the 46 (42%) online dining tables available on the IKEA online store are available on the app. So, all in all, I realized that only 50% of the available items on the IKEA online store offer the virtual room visualizer feature in its Augmented Reality (AR) app.
I’m sure IKEA is aware of this imperfect customer experience, but IKEA is also aware of the untold truth about 3D images: they are extremely expensive. A high-quality 3D product can cost thousands of dollars per SKU! Even IKEA (a company valued by nearly 18 billion U.S. dollars) had to pick its top 50% of SKUs for it’s virtual 3D room visualizer experience since it is too expensive to cover the entire catalog with real 3D images.
Showing 3D models proportionally to scene is challenging
I finally found a glass cabinet I was interested in. I wanted to see if it would fit in the space between my dining table and the white console. So I scanned the wall that I wanted the cabinet to fit, and boom! The glass cabinet magically appeared. But wait…What size is this cabinet? It keeps changing as I drag it around the room and isn’t consistent with the dining room’s proportions. I can’t tell the size of the cabinet, and I definitely can’t tell if it fits next to the console. The app only identifies the floor, and cannot recognize the full structure of the room including existing furniture and walls.
I had to go to the IKEA online store, look for the cabinet’s dimensions (31” X 44.5”), measure the space with a measuring tape, and realize the cabinet will not fit the space…
I went ahead and tried the following item: A new KIVIK couch to replace the old sofa in the living room. Unfortunately, the App doesn’t recognize the existing sofa and eliminates it from the scene. Rather it lays the KIVIK couch on top of the existing sofa, making it challenging to gauge how the KIVIK couch will fit the space
Since, in most cases, shoppers don’t look to furnish a vacant apartment or room, not being able to virtually view a furniture piece instead of the existing one is a limitation that a different technology approach is needed to solve.
Markerless vs. Marker-based AR
The following example in the Forbes article was one I was super excited about - luxury watch retailer WatchBox uses AR to let customers try on different sizes of watches so they can pick the one that fits best on their wrist. This example, similar to the ones previously mentioned, required downloading an App. However, in this case, there was an additional step:
Wait what? Do I need to print a trigger, cut it, and size it on my wrist? Is this 2021? Who has a printer at home these days?? Before I continue, it’s essential to explain the difference between markerless AR and marker-based AR.
Marker-based AR uses a designated marker with specific markers to activate the AR experience. The markers must be distinctive and recognizable for the camera to properly identify them in various surroundings. In this case, the shopper should wrap the wrist with the trigger to see the watch on the hand. Looking for a printer, cutting a piece of paper, and wrapping it around the wrist is a HUGE friction point that will probably deter any potential shopper.
As you may have guessed, markerless AR does not use a marker. Instead of a marker, you launch the experience by selecting the AR feature in an App or a website. Though markerless AR is common in apps, it also works well with WebAR. Markerless AR scans the environment and places digital elements on a recognizable feature, like a flat surface. So, instead of being tied to a marker, the digital elements are placed based on geometry. Having markerless AR with WebAR means zero friction with the shopper: No need to download an app, or print any trigger.
My weekly visit to Sephora shall remain…
Another AR example, according to Forbes, is L’Oréal’s augmented reality makeup try-on experience. Customers can experiment with the world’s leading beauty brands that are part of the L’Oréal group, such as Maybelline, L’Oréal Paris, Lancôme, Giorgio Armani, Yves Saint Laurent, and Urban Decay. Wait, did I hear “Urban Decay”? Their lipstick is my favorite one! I keep passing by Sephora every week to try some of their new colors. Since this is WebAR, no need to download an app. I just clicked on the camera, and boom, I can try lipsticks from the comfort of my home.
I decided to try the GRIDLOCK (Matte) vice lipstick on the web vs. in-store to see how accurate the solution is. On the left is the virtual lipstick, which looks like a metallic purple color, whereas on the right is the actual lipstick I tried in the store, which looks like a light matte pink - very different from the color on the web. Given the lack of accuracy, L’Oréal’s AR solution would not be on my go-to list.
Another example from the Forbes article was FaceCake, a marketing technology company that attempts to create an infinite virtual closet that allows users to create and build their dream closet with aspirational wardrobe and jewelry items, then virtually try them on. Since FaceCake is a B2B company, I was eager to find a client who works with them to experience their AR solution. While Facecake has been cited as working with a few companies in the makeup sector, I had trouble finding any social proof of brands that partnered with FaceCake’s jewelry & wardrobe VTO solution. The lack of case studies or clients’ testimonials anywhere online possibly suggests FaceCake may be still trying to achieve market fit with their solution.
The Last online AR example mentioned in the Forbes article was with online fashion retailer ASOS.ASOS indeed experimented last year using AR to dress up models. However, the experiment was never fully rolled out, which is why when you visit ASOS website, you no longer see the AR available on any item.
Our Picks for Best Examples of Augmented and Virtual Reality in Online Retail Stores
After reviewing Forbes examples, here are our top picks for brands who implemented AR technology in a frictionless, user-friendly way and also at scale across their products’ catalog.
Pandora, The Danish jewelry brand famously known for its signature charm bracelets, was seeking to boost their online presence in light of the store's lockdown due to the pandemic. Pandora wanted the online shoppers’ experience to be as close as possible to the one they experienced at the offline stores. Pandora uses AR technology to enable their customers to try on jewelry. The solution doesn’t require an app; it’s markerless and covers the entire catalog.
The solution is also user-friendly: open the Virtual Try-On (VTO) experience, and it will automatically identify your hand and snap a photo. Then the ring magically appears on your finger! You can also move it onto different fingers, and it accurately adapts to each finger!
For the customers who view Pandora on the desktop, a QR code appears on the Product Detail Page (PDP). The customers can scan it, and the WebAR will open on their mobile device.
Fossil, the American watch, and lifestyle company, adopted WebAR technology to let their customers try on watches from the comfort of their homes. Similar to Pandora, the solution doesn’t require downloading an app and covers the entire catalog! In fact, the Fossil Group Inc. includes, in addition to the Fossil brand, other brands such as Michele Watch, Skagen Denmark, Misfit, Watch Station, and Zodiac Watches, all of which adopted the VTO solution, which covers 100% of the catalog’s SKUs!
The Fossil AR solution has an additional feature I find super helpful: After viewing some watches on my desktop, I can scan the QR code with my phone and take a photo of my hand to try on the watch. Then, I look back at the desktop, and my hand photo suddenly appears on the desktop browser, allowing me to virtually try on watches on the desktop!
Rugs USA, enables shoppers to virtually try rugs in their own space. This web-based, markerless AR solution is highly intuitive and user friendly — the shopper can either upload or take a photo of their space and the rug will accurately appear on the floor. Mmmm...I think I actually like this rug!
Some product categories can be tough to sell online because it’s so difficult to imagine how the product will look in real life compared to seeing it on a website.
AR can help bridge the gap between shopping in a physical store and shopping online by making it easier to try on merchandise online and giving the shopper a better understanding of the product they’re purchasing.
That’s why augmented reality applications — particularly since the onset of social distancing — are on the rise.
Now that you know the different types of augmented reality technologies, associated use cases, and the pros & cons of each, you can evaluate which AR solution is right for your business.
When we talk about augmented reality (AR) with our customers at Tangiblee, we usually get one of two reactions. While newcomers to e-commerce are genuinely excited about the topic, the more experienced folks in the industry run away from us and hide 🙅♀️.
These reactions make total sense. The promise of AR is awesome — being able to try stuff on, at home, without dealing with the headache of physical things, germs, and cleanup crews? Yeah, that’s cool 😎.
But who’s going to be responsible for implementing the tech?
You, your boss, your boss’s boss, your boss’s boss’s boss, your CTO, and a literal army of designers and implementation consultants. Oh, and did we mention that the process could literally take years to get done right, with a ton of wiggle room for unexpected errors?
Why AR Isn't Easy to Get Right
Getting up and running with AR involves a lot of moving pieces. First, you need to choose software that works for your shoppers — many of whom may not be technically savvy — as well as your company’s technology stack. There are a number of situational tradeoffs to get the alignment right, and you’ll likely need to do a lot of testing to avoid breaking your core user experience.
Then there’s the issue of product photography. It’s common for AR solutions to require CAD (computer-aided design) files for 3D, which means you’ll need to hire a designer (or a full team) to create either hand-rendered or 3D gallery images. To use Shopify AR, for instance, you’ll need to provide a minimum of six photos per product — potentially more.
When you create 3D CAD files, you will also need to consider additional storage costs for your asset libraries, as you think through your budget.
Then, you need an AR player to get your CAD/3D files ready to display on your e-commerce website. That means staying on top of browser updates, as well as potential usability issues for the range of devices that are accessing your website.
If you have the resources, team, and expertise to execute a successful AR strategy, go for it — by all means. If the video gaming industry can teach us anything it’s that people love immersive experiences.
*However even if you have resources like Ikea this could still be the end result:
Hook Shoppers with Easier Tech
At Tangiblee, we spend a lot of time thinking through the core, human foundations of a powerful shopping experience. What we’ve learned, through years of research, development, and testing is that people like to keep things simple. The everyday shopper is not necessarily equipped, in terms of device or bandwidth, to navigate new technology. General market adoption for AR is likely still a few years away when your e-commerce store needs a solution to make digital shopping journeys better, now.
You don’t need complicated, cost-prohibitive, and labor to create a mixed reality shopping experience that people love. When the pandemic hit in 2020, our product development team at Tangiblee created a platform to help online stores launch low-tech, AR-like virtual try-on experiences for shoppers. The software is up and running to support jewelry and watches. Here’s what we do:
Use 2D images from content that’s already on your product pages
Build an automatic process to support up to thousands of SKUs added daily (i.e. it’s scalable)
Create a fully-customizable experience, configured to work with your brand
Ensure compatibility with every browser and platform, including Chrome on iOS and in-app browsers like Facebook Browser and Instagram Browser
Shoppers think they are getting an AR experience, without your e-Commerce team needing to invest in AR technology. Pretty slick, huh?
Let Us Help You
We’ve spent years down the rabbit hole of e-commerce experiences, mixed reality, shopper journeys, and tech infrastructure. Needless to say, we understand and can probably answer any question on your mind. And if we don't answer your questions immediately, it's because we're busy researching and finding the right answer for you.
Did we mention that we love hearing from folks?
If you’re up to a good conversation, get in touch.