technology

MacManus: A future for augmented reality retail

Augmented Reality hasn't gone far beyond gaming yet, but retail is likely to be the first mainstream use. Richard MacManus looks at what's next in AR, especially in New Zealand.

One of my predictions for 2018 was that augmented reality (AR) apps would finally go mainstream, based on software and hardware advancements I expected this year in both iPhone and Android.

So is AR a reality now, or is it still mostly vapourware? Let’s take a look.

First things first, developments in smart phones over 2018 have indeed set the stage for amazing AR apps.

Over the past couple of months Apple has released the Xs and Xr models of iPhone, along with the latest version of iOS. From the powerful new A12 processor and improved battery life of the Xs and Xr, to version 2 of ARKit (Apple’s software development kit for AR developers) for iOS 12, the newest iPhones were literally built for running AR apps.

It’s a similar story in the Android world, with the likes of Samsung and Huawei bringing out ever more powerful phones. And with the improvements this year in ARCore, Google’s version of Apple’s ARKit, Android is an equally capable platform for AR apps.

Yet…for all that, we’re still waiting for a breakthrough AR app that doesn’t involve gaming.

You may remember the Pokemon Go craze of 2016, when the kid-friendly smartphone game took the world by storm. But even at the time, most people recognised the true value of AR wasn’t in gaming. It was enabling people to overlay digital data onto the real world. AR had the potential to merge the physical and digital worlds, in a way that virtual reality cannot do at the present time (in VR, you basically shut the real world out for a while).

For example, imagine shopping for a sofa online. With an AR app, you could overlay a digital representation of your preferred sofa into your living room. That way you’d see exactly what the sofa would look like in your house. That’s a real-world use case for AR that could have significant ramifications for retail.

IKEA Place, an app developed by the Swedish furniture giant, does precisely that. It was the second-most downloaded ARKit app for iOS in a survey done by Sensor Tower earlier this year, so it’s gotten solid take up overseas. Unfortunately, since we don’t have an Ikea store in New Zealand, the app is unavailable here.

To find out what is available in New Zealand, I spoke to Jessica Manins from Wellington’s Mixt Studio. Her company specialises in both AR and VR development.

Under-ground, in the lab and in classrooms

“Outside of infrastructure and advertising, there hasn’t been a large uptake in utilising the potential of AR in New Zealand,” Manins admitted.

However, she said there are promising AR companies in NZ building business applications, such as Augview and Trimble. Augview, developed using Trimble’s software, has a very practical industry application: asset management. It’s being used by utilities, construction companies and city councils to visualise underground assets.

Another Kiwi AR expert, Mark Billinghurst, told me that “as the global AR market continues to grow, the future is looking bright for New Zealand”.

Billinghurst used to run the HIT [Human Interface Technology] Lab in Christchurch and is now Director of the Empathic Computing Laboratory working out of the University of Auckland.

Billinghurst is not only a leading researcher here in New Zealand, he’s recognised as a worldwide pioneer in AR technology. So I asked him how the local scene compares to international markets.

“New Zealand has long been a research leader in the AR space,” he said, “with labs like the HIT Lab NZ at the University of Canterbury and others. Now we are seeing a rapid growth in commercial activities with Apple and MagicLeap conducting development here, and strong home-grown companies like Quiver.”

Quiver is a 3D colouring app that allows children to mix physical colouring-in books with AR technology. To use the app, you first print out a Quiver colouring page from the website. These pages typically feature a cartoon character or animal. You then ask your child to colour the page in using traditional means, such as crayons or felt pens. Once the colouring-in is done, you open up the app and the cartoon “will come to life”.

According to Billinghurst, Quiver “invented the AR colouring book and since then has been developing a lot of innovative uses of the technology in education, marketing and other areas”.

So clearly we have some innovative AR creators in New Zealand, which our research labs and agencies like Mixt are doing a great job supporting.

Augmenting Shopify

Still, I can’t help but think that for AR to really capture mainstream attention, it needs to penetrate the retail market.

Perhaps recent developments from Shopify, a global e-commerce company worth over $20 billion, provide some hope. Shopify is an online shopping platform used by hundreds of thousands of small businesses. In September, the company introduced an AR “services marketplace” built on top of Apple’s iOS 12.

Shopify’s goal with AR is to enable online shopping businesses to “create 3D models of their products”. Interestingly, it’ll use Apple’s Safari mobile browser to display the 3D product – via functionality Apple introduced in iOS 12. So small businesses won’t have to build their own separate app.

It remains to be seen how many Shopify clients utilise AR, but it’s another promising indicator that AR is coming to retail.

Incidentally, there may yet be a local angle to this news. In June, Shopify announced that it would establish its first Oceania hub in Wellington, creating about 100 jobs. So for any Shopify executive reading this column, you may want to tap into our local AR talent pool.

The bottom line reality

For all the excitement about AR in retail, there is a caveat: we still don’t know how much impact AR will have on the bottom line for retailers. Ikea has kept usage and conversion data for its app to itself, and Shopify hasn’t widely released its platform. Retailers will only want to use AR if it boosts their profits, and the technology has yet to prove itself on that front.

I’m encouraged though by the innovation happening both overseas (Ikea and Shopify) and within New Zealand (Augview and Quiver).

The platform for AR is stronger than ever, thanks to Apple’s latest iPhones and the equivalent Android phones. So there are opportunities for startups to make a statement, especially in retail, in 2019 and beyond.

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