What Marketers Need to Understand About Augmented Reality


Imagine being able to see how a couch would fit in your living room before actually buying it — or being able to see which sunglasses suit your face or which lipstick looks good on you without physically trying anything on.

Each of these scenarios is already possible. These are real examples from Ikea, Ray-Ban, and Cover Girl of how companies are currently using augmented reality (AR).

AR has been piquing marketers’ interest in recent years, as it has the potential to change a range of consumer experiences, from how people find new products to how they decide which ones to buy. AR technology enhances the physical environment you see by overlaying virtual elements, such as information or images over it, either through displays such as HoloLens and Google Glass or through the camera view on your smartphone.

In order for the potential of AR to be realized, though, companies have to resist the urge to hastily create AR apps (that risk appearing gimmicky), and instead focus on better understanding how consumers will interact with the technology. Based on research I have been conducting on consumer responses to AR over the past four years, I have found that designing and implementing valuable AR apps requires the following: a better idea of how consumers would use such technology; more collaboration among computer scientists, designers, and marketers; and a strategy for integrating the applications into the existing consumer journey.

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When I started working on AR as the topic for my PhD, almost no established knowledge about it existed in the marketing field. However, computer science and human-computer interaction research have been tackling AR for years, and borrowing insights from those fields can greatly help marketers understand what this technology will mean in commercial contexts.

Companies first have to understand how AR differs from other digital technologies. While it is similar in some aspects (e.g., applications are frequently used on smartphones, the content is composed of text or images, and the apps are usually highly interactive), there is something inherently different about AR: the ability to overlay virtual content on the physical world and have the two interact in real time.

I conducted a lab experiment with 60 participants to investigate how such augmentation influences consumer responses. The study is forthcoming in the Journal of Marketing Management. Participants had to look for their preferred model of sunglasses or furniture, either using an AR app (Ikea or Ray-Ban) or an app that allowed a similar activity but without AR features. The results consistently showed that when participants perceived an element of the environment to be augmented in real-time (for example, seeing a pair of sunglasses simulated on their face or seeing a virtual chair in an office), that created an immersive experience for them, significantly more so than if the sunglasses were just stuck on their online photo or if they saw furniture in a virtual room.

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I also found that the augmented experience resulted in positive attitudes toward the application and willingness to use the app again and talk about it to others. But these effects didn’t seem to extend to the products themselves or the brands, just the technology.

However, another study showed that this might change depending on how the app is integrated into the consumer journey. Working with professor Yvonne Rogers from the UCL Interaction Centre and AR designers Ana Moutinho and Russell Freeman from the AR agency Holition, we conducted one of the first studies of how consumers use AR to “try on” make-up in a store. The app we used allows people to put on virtual lipstick or eye-shadows that moves with their faces.

We found that using this AR mirror in the store helped the consumers decide what to buy.

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