Got anything good to eat? Use augmented reality to sort out healthy choices

Display overload can be neutralised by viewing shelves through a new mobile app

Augmented reality (AR) is the science and art of using digital technology to provide a virtual overlay of the physical world, adding or subtracting information from it. A simple example could be a smartphone application that allows a consumer to view their living room painted in a different colour, or with a yet-to-be-purchased piece of furniture in place.

Mathew Chylinski, a senior lecturer in the school of marketing at UNSW Business School, along with professorial colleagues Ashish Sinha and Ko de Ruyter, has been researching how this technology may be used to change consumer behaviour, in particular to encourage more healthy eating choices.

"Marketers invest in packaging and the layout of the store because they understand how easily we are influenced by those," says Chylinski.

"Augmented reality provides a unique opportunity for consumers to flip this dynamic. The consumer can change the way they experience the physical environment at the point of sale."

Chylinski's experiments show that consumers using AR are a lot more consistent with their goals. Test subjects, who viewed products via the screen of a mobile device in a simulated supermarket, made more healthy eating choices. The device removed colour from all but the healthier options.

"In essence, it reduced the influence of packaging and product position to aid consumer decision-making," Chylinski says.

"People know they should eat healthily, but they get distracted at the point of sale. We're trying to give people the tools to empower them to change the stimuli and the information that they react to, when they make these decisions."

'The consumer can change the way they experience the physical environment at the point of sale'


Customised information

Most literature in this field has focused on the technology. Very little has been published on the psychological aspects and the implications for marketing, and Chylinski believes his team is breaking new ground.

The experiments have so far been conducted in the controlled environment of the Business School's experimental research laboratory, but Chylinski sees no reason why the technology could not work in a real supermarket.

"The big challenge is the recognition of a large variety of products," he says.

To date, AR technology has largely been used to add to the consumer experience that marketers are hoping create. Chylinski's research is actually subtracting stimuli from the consumer experience and potentially placing more power in the hands of the consumer.

But Chylinski believes there is potential for adding as well as subtracting information, such as with the inclusion of consumer written product reviews or links to social media.

It could even go beyond the limits of food labelling laws, with consumers adding their own information on issues such as genetically modified foods.

Virtual real estate

Should the worlds of advertising, marketing and retail be worried about these developments? For David Francis, head of interactive at customer communications specialists Blue Star Group, the simple answer is yes.

"Chylinski's work is operating in what I like to call virtual real estate," says Francis.

"It's the space between the camera and the product or point of sale, and the question is, who is claiming this space?"

Francis cites the example of Vivino, a wine label scanning application that can recognise 85% of wine labels worldwide, providing consumers with product information and professional and consumer reviews of the product. While this is image recognition – only the first element of AR – it is operating in a similar manner to Chylinski's experiments with package recognition.

According to industry insiders, Vivino is presently producing four to five million scans per week worldwide.

"With Vivino, we are seeing two things happening," says Francis. "The wine brand owners are losing control of their carefully wrought brand messaging, between the packaging and point of sale communication, and the consumer's eye. And the retailer is also losing control of the in-aisle customer experience that they have so carefully tried to map."

'Technology benefits whoever is in control of it and AR technology has big implications for the way commerce is conducted'


An immersive footprint

On the technical side, Francis believes work such as Chylinski's will face a number of challenges, such as dealing with organic changes in the visual field, and with reflectivity of packaging.

"Also, the UX – or user experience – must be robust enough to avoid user frustration, a feeling of technological impotence and consequent fear around the technology," he says.

But Francis also believes that both marketers and retailers in Australia have a long way to go before they catch up with these technological advances.

"From my own and industry colleagues' collective experience, I have doubts if there's an appetite for true, lasting innovation within a great deal of the marketing community in Australia," he says.

"Retailers, meanwhile, are increasingly data-dependent, and augmented reality doesn't have mainstream media-metrics-accredited data – yet. However, for me, at the core of innovation is being the innovator, the first mover that generates and proves superior data.

"In the future, our digital footprint will undoubtedly be augmented and integrated on to and amongst the world around us. It will be completely immersive, and contextually and personally relevant," Francis says.

What shoppers want

By contrast, Russell Zimmerman, executive director of the Australian Retailers Association, is very comfortable with the kinds of technological developments that Chylinski's team is researching.

"Why should a retailer be worried?" Zimmerman asks. "Retailers should be looking at what consumers want, and the things that are good for them. At the end of day, we want consumers to buy things that are good for them."

For Zimmerman, it's consumers who drive demand, as witnessed by McDonald's restaurants introducing salads on to their menus, or the success of environmentally friendly clothing business Patagonia.

"Consumers – and especially young people – are concerned about what they eat and what they wear, and that those products come from sustainable sources, with less chemicals in them," he says.

Ultimately, though, Zimmerman feels it will come back to manufacturers responding to what consumers are demanding.

A good example is car manufacturers, who are not just producing safer cars, but are increasingly using safety ratings to promote their products, where they once may have focused on speed or horsepower. Also, many food manufacturers are already promoting low-sugar and low-fat products.

"This development should not be a worry to anyone in the supply chain," says Zimmerman. "It may be a challenge for advertisers, but this technology allows for the promotion of the good aspects of a product."

Taking control

Zimmerman points out that a simplified variation of the technology involved in Chylinski's experiments is already in use in retailing, in the form of Quick Response (QR) codes.  These are a kind of square barcode, which can be scanned by a mobile device to reveal a variety of product information, such as whether a food product is 'coeliac friendly'.

"This can only be an advantage to the consumer," Zimmerman says.

"As a consumer, this (Chylinski's) technology can help you distinguish the 'great' products from the just 'good' ones. This is a win for the consumer, the marketer – and the retailer."

Says Chylinski: "Technology benefits whoever is in control of it and AR technology has big implications for the way commerce is conducted. We're at the stage where the internet was in the late '80s or early '90s, when electronic commerce was just an idea."


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