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Augmented reality – Apple makes it almost reality?

Almost. Not quite. But get ready for it….

There was no big augmented reality (AR) reveal from Apple yesterday, but the signs are growing stronger. There are still rumors about a 2020 Apple AR Headset. In the meantime, the new phone capabilities coming to the palms of consumers show AR experiences are becoming more of a reality. And brands need to plan for it. So what happened and what could happen next?

The latest iPhone launched last night (Tuesday 10 September) and, as expected many exciting new features unveiled. The focus has been on the rear camera set-up. It’s one of the biggest changes, making the phone more like a film studio in your pocket! One of the things that wasn’t top billing in the launch, but is significant for the next generation of brand experiences actually lies inside the phone.

The new chipset and the opportunities created by the camera's point in the direction of more augmented reality capabilities. The U1 chip allows for more ‘spatial awareness’ of the device and the enhanced camera should allow for software upgrades in the future that bring functions such as depth sensing to the devices.

I did say it’s significant for the future of brand experiences, didn’t I? Well, here’s how:

The reality is relevance and value…

Augmented reality presents an attractive opportunity for brands to combine physical and digital spaces. It’s an ongoing challenge for many. Those with powerful ‘real-life’ experience need to extend them into digital arenas; while digital brands are looking for ways to get into people’s day-to-day away from phones and laptops.

The warning that comes with this mission is that there’s a fine line between creating a contextual experience and simply building something out of curiosity. When a new technology appears on the scene, there are always developers who want to play around with it. And it’s actually not hard to find a use for tech somewhere if you’re really enthusiastic. But the question is: should you?

The key consideration is a balance. Brands need to interrogate the relevance of AR (or any new technology) and where it can create value for the customer. If you can come up with something that really adds a lot of value to the experience that already exists (or if you need to reinvent the experience and AR is the answer), then go for it.

Customers reject technology if it’s thrust at them without purpose or value. The lesson here is don’t develop things in a vacuum. Do your research, get some insight and then test, test, test.

The quick wins…

There are the immediate uses that more brands can take advantage of as access to AR-exposed audiences grow. For example, anyone who sells a product that needs any kind of assembly or installation could use AR to help customers. Imagine being able to use your phone to overlay what your flat-pack shelves should look like; or where all the wires are meant to go in the back of your TV. There is utility in being able to present information in a more immersive, 360 way… that’s also easy to use.

This kind of thing could happen today, but until we’re at mass adoption of the technology we won’t see lots of these services. AR can facilitate the user getting to a bigger or richer experience, though we’re unlikely to see it until the technology is in the hands of enough people. Though that feels like it’s only a matter of time.

While that adoption curve does its thing, though, a lot of brands will want to be associated with this trend, which is only getting stronger. This is important. Gradually extending AR capabilities now will allow brands to establish credibility of the technology and build ‘muscle memory’ with customers. This means that customers will be more accepting of the extended services that will inevitably be rolled out in the future.

Right now there are already a number of brands using AR with customers. Ebay helps its sellers find the right box to ship their products in, for instance. It’s not oppressively AR, it’s just a useful service.

The future winners…

Retailers have a tremendous opportunity if they can work with the technology in the right way. They already possess the capability to put virtual objects ‘into’ a customer’s home through AR; we’ve seen this with the likes of IKEA or Nespresso. Mixed reality is following fast. It extends a world of possibilities for creating higher value exchanges where virtual products respond and interact in real-time with the customer’s environment. For examples, imagine smart glasses or mirrors that allow you to ‘try on’ digital clothes to see if they suit you before you buy? The saving on reduced returns alone could save millions for retailers.

There are some real life-changing possibilities for AR too, when you look into the world of healthcare, for example. Surgeons and medical practitioners are already using tools that overlay various scans and test results to diagnose conditions more quickly. But imagine if this kind of service could be applied to the new era of medical services like Babylon. It could empower people to do more in their own homes to find answers to their medical questions.

As the overheads and barriers to developing AR drop, we should see access to these new experiences continue to grow. The tech will become more accessible and cheaper to buy. Content will become simpler to produce as more developers become accustomed to building it. There is definitely a path out in front of us for augmented reality technology, but it’s a journey that needs to be done in stages. Starting with putting more AR capabilities into the hands of consumers.

Dan Moran is the managing partner, head of product management at Karmarama (Accenture Interactive).

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