Can AR help save retail?

AR is much talked about, but we rarely hear how it can be used creatively for brands. Here, Stink Studios’ James Britton examines the exciting and inventive possibilities for AR in retail spaces.

Silicon Valley is doubling down on AR as the next big innovation of the smartphone era. But a recent study from Unity, one of the software companies leading AR development, suggests that brands and agencies are struggling to find creative applications for the technology.

In the meantime, brands continue to experiment with technology in brick and mortar retail, but the results either tend to be one-off stunts that require expensive installation, or they focus on technology as an enabler for speed and convenience. But the shopping experience isn't just about convenience these days. There's a huge opportunity for brands to develop strategies for 'retail as experience', offering a more layered and imaginative customer experience (CX) overall.

What if we start to think less about AR as a gimmick and more in terms of augmented intelligence? Customers now arrive in store with a device in their pocket that has extraordinary processing power. Smartphones are increasingly able to capture and visualise the world down to a mindblowing level of detail and recognise the objects they see in real-time using Artificial Intelligence. This is changing the ability of smartphones to understand and interpret the world around them, particularly in a controlled environment like retail.

These technical advances have perhaps created the misconception that Augmented Reality experiences are complex to develop. However AR itself is relatively simple and cost effective to produce, with an increasing number of platforms and frameworks being launched — including Facebook’s Spark AR, Apple’s ARKit and Google’s ARCore, alongside a host of web based options — making it accessible to brands.

There’s all sorts of opportunity to bring useful product information to life. Brands could use AR to introduce insights about a product’s innovation or to share inspirational stories from product designers. See how a material performs in different conditions, or bring hidden technology to life. Learn more about a product’s provenance, its supply chain, or its sustainability credentials. Or simply provide realtime information about sizing, availability, and related products. This information, presented in a creative way at the point of purchase, has the potential to influence the final purchase decision.

In order to be a success in retail, AR experiences need to move beyond cheap visual tricks (fewer dinosaurs and space rockets please), and start to focus on how it comes to be considered as creative and useful augmentation of information with the real world shopping experience. With 5G on the horizon and smartphone processors, cameras and displays becoming more and more advanced, the opportunities will only get bigger and better.

This is a condensed version of an article originally published on August 12, 2019 in Creative Review.

James Britton is Group Managing Director at Stink Studios. Stink Studios is an official partner for Spark AR and ARCore.

Illustration by Harry Haysom