Try before you buy: How augmented reality is inspiring online shoppers

Replicated elements of a real-world retail experience boost buying satisfaction

Augmented reality (AR) burst into the mainstream in 2016 with the release of  Pokemon Go, which saw gamers from eight to 80 hunting down imaginary monsters in the real world, via their smart phones.

But AR is now expanding into the world of online retail, where it has the potential for reproducing elements of the real-world retail experience that are otherwise missing online.

“Some retailers are already using this technology, especially for online fashion such as shoes, eyewear and T-shirts,” says Jonas Heller, a PhD candidate working with senior lecturer Mathew Chylinski in the school of marketing at UNSW Business School.

“The main ‘pain point’ during your shopping experience with these kinds of products is that you can’t try them on.”

Heller’s research has looked at how AR can act as an enabler for consumer purchase satisfaction in an online store, using sunglasses as the product, and the results have been positive.

The experiments allowed subjects to not just experience a 3-D image of what the product would look like on them, but also to share the results with their peers, thus mimicking the ‘shopping with friends’ experience that is missing from online retail.

“The true value of AR is embedded in the combination of the two – [trying on the product and sharing the results] – as the consumer perceives the virtual elements of AR only as valuable if peers can react to those as well,” Heller says.

At the moment, very few AR devices are available to consumers for daily use, and most devices offering an immersive experience (such as the Microsoft HoloLens) are expensive, with a short battery life.

However, several smartphone producers (Apple, Google) have announced they will soon release phones able to offer high-quality AR experiences, making the technology accessible for the consumer.

“Retailers working with AR like to talk about what they’re doing in general terms, such as sales and returns. But they don’t know why this happens. They have many theories, such as, it’s a ‘new shiny object’, or ‘there’s just more information’, or ‘AR takes away the effort of imagining things’,” Heller says.

His research is now putting some science behind what online retailers are discovering for themselves.

'We don’t want to see a virtual world all the time – only additions to the real world when we need them'


Do you want the tech?

“In order to use AR technologies, you need an app on your phone,” says William Ehmcke, chairman of Snaploader. “So the challenge for users is that they need to see the benefit before they download the app.”

Snaploader produces interactive 3-D models for the property sector, primarily for off-the-plan apartment buildings.

In 2015, Snaploader demonstrated that their technology works by running a competition in collaboration with Cadbury, to ‘win your height in chocolate’.

“The competition provided the incentive to download the app, which led to an interactive AR experience, which was (hopefully) the start of a customer journey towards AR,” Ehmcke says.

But Snaploader’s tech has yet to be widely adopted within the property industry. Ehmcke believes there are two reasons. The first is that real estate is a conservative business, with today’s property brochures looking much like ones from 20 years ago.

“But there’s also a whole enabling process that has to proceed the experience,” he says. “How to get people to want to enable the tech, in order to have the experience?”

Ehmcke understands that future versions of Apple phones will have this tech embedded, and perhaps we may have to wait for the tech giants to really get behind AR before it becomes ubiquitous.

As Heller notes, Apple is presently investing heavily in AR, and he is in complete agreement with Apple CEO Tim Cook in his belief that, in a commercial sense, AR is more valuable than virtual reality (VR).

“We don’t want to see a virtual world all the time – only additions to the real world when we need them,” says Heller. Perhaps this is one of the factors behind the failure of Google Glass, a notable misstep in the recent history of AR.

But Ehmcke’s question for Heller’s research, as it would relate to the property sector, is this: Does the AR lead directly to the purchase?

“Buying a property is a complex, expensive procedure, and we believe that AR is just one of many things that can lead to a purchase,” Ehmcke says.

“The less expensive the product, the more straightforward the experience can be, regarding where technology fits into the process. But as the transaction gets more complex, then you’ll need a more complex set of technologies in order to support the purchase decision.”

An emotional connection

Unity Technologies is the creator of Unity, a powerful and accessible end-to-end development platform, with about 70% of all present VR/AR applications built on their software. Quentin Staes-Polet is the company’s regional director for South Asia Pacific.

“We’ve tried to get the most out of each device, as mobile phones have limited resources, in power and storage,” he says. “We’ve always been focused on getting the best performance out of the smallest resources, and this has translated well into VR and AR.”

Based on its initial work in games and game engine technology, Unity may be on the way to solving Ehmcke’s challenges over adopting the technology – simply by virtue of the number of people already using it.

“Today, we have one million developers who have active users of the Unity engine,” says Staes-Polet. 

“This produces a virtuous circle – if you want to launch a new platform, and you come to Unity, you get the network of developers.”

On Heller’s research, Staes-Polet has this to say: “Over the next 10 years, there are two things that will fundamentally change the way we do things, in the same way that the internet changed things in the 1990s. The first is artificial intelligence – the other is the interface between humans and machines, which is basically AR and VR.”

Why is this fundamental? “By providing an immersive experience, we are improving the emotional connection, which improves and deepens the connectivity,” Staes-Polet says.

“Heller’s study has tested this – if you provide an emotional level of connection that’s immersive, as opposed to the 2-D e-commerce experience, you get closer to your audience, and get better results.”

'Anyone who doesn’t start to include some element of AR and VR on their websites will be left behind'


Tailoring the experience

According to Staes-Polet, by 2020 the new generation of smart phones will deliver a comparable experience to the desktop experience for AR and VR. By 2021, 100 million people will have these phones, which will be the tipping point for the entire internet to shift to AR and VR.

“Anyone who doesn’t start to include some element of AR and VR on their websites will be left behind,” says Staes-Polet. “For example, we’re already seeing automotive companies developing immersive experiences, especially at the high-end side – including a virtual experience of dismantling the car.”

“The world is getting smaller, and this next phase of the internet will mean we’ll all become more connected,” says Staes-Polet.

“The development of AR will only deepen this. It will never replace human connection, but the indirect connections are becoming better, and more frequent.”

Despite his own work in the area, Ehmcke has reservations about the limits of what can be achieved commercially with AR.

“There’s a lot of discussion about ‘disruptive technology’, and AR is one of a set of emerging techs that are being experimented with,” he says. “The reality is, that no one currently knows which of these will produce consistent results.”

Heller, however, is upbeat about the possibilities. “Our experiment shows that purchase decision satisfaction can be significantly improved when employing AR in online environments,” he says.

“The academic world currently lags behind the commercial world in AR research, but if you can figure out how it works, then you can tailor the experience to the product.”


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