Will augmented reality kill the retail store?
Samsung’s new augmented reality make-up app is set to change the face of shopping
Wearing the hottest new shade of eye shadow, you stare at your visage on a mobile phone. You can’t help but wonder: was your mother correct when she said yellow undertones make you look as if you have scurvy? So you try a shade with stronger hues and begrudgingly admit that she may have been right (again).
You click the purchase button on the selfie screen of your phone, where you have been virtually trying on the newest line by cosmetics retailer Sephora, and are informed that your make-up purchase will be delivered to you in two days.
This might seem like a scene from a sci-fi blockbuster, but it is happening somewhere in Seoul today.
Augmented reality (AR) is the superimposition of a computer-generated image on a user’s real world view. In the example above, AR allows you to virtually try on different shades of make-up until you’ve found the right fit.
Through this added layer of imagery or information on top of a camera-based image or video, users can find new ways to interact with the world around them.
Though it has been around for a while, AR was presented as the less interesting cousin during the rebirth of virtual reality (VR), which fully submerges the viewer in a completely generated world or situation.
However, contrary to the big promises of Oculus Rift’s Palmer Luckey, VR has done little to change the world, save making some nausea-inducing video games and helping medical professionals hone their skills.
AR, on the other hand, has quietly infiltrated societal and social awareness in a way that is neither othering nor intrusive, as most tech breakthroughs often seem to the masses.
You — or at least your kids — have been using AR to turn yourselves into cats with Snapchat selfie filters for years. Yelp has since 2009 been using AR to help users find the best restaurants on any street they point a phone at. Google Translate allows you to live translate signing. And the Plascon app lets you see what a particular paint colour will look like on a wall without you having to pick up a brush.
Last week tech start-up Ubiquity6 launched an app that lets users experience AR with others. Until now AR has been a somewhat singular experience restricted to the individual user. With Ubiquity6, users can scan a room in seconds and interact with friends and family as though they were there.
Big cellphone brands such as Apple and Sony have tried to sell AR as a big-thinking concept that allows you to add digital dinosaurs to videos at the click of a button. But it was only a matter of time before someone saw the full potential of the technology.
At its presentation at the recent Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, Spain, Samsung unveiled its AR relationship with cosmetics brands Sephora and CoverGirl, showing how to make purchases with a cellphone camera.
The technology is only available for use in the US, China and Korea, but Samsung has promised it will soon extend this to include other brands and products in other countries.
Samsung’s announcement was a fairly subdued one, but it has enormous implications. The company has inadvertently and casually commodified AR and, in doing so, it has changed the face of retail forever.
But what does this innovation mean for companies?
Firms will soon be able to unlock new sales opportunities using technology that can show potential customers what their products look like in real time.
And it’s only the beginning. Users will soon be able to tap on an Instagram post and buy the clothes off an influencer’s back, straight off the image. Better yet, if you see someone walking down the street wearing sneakers that you like, all it will take to buy yourself a pair is snapping a picture with your phone’s camera.
Samsung’s tech works with an integrated chip built directly into the camera. This allows the camera to process information fast enough to allow Samsung’s artificial intelligence (AI) platform, Bixby, to recognise products and directly link the user to the seller. Payment is seamless, with Samsung Pay.
Factoring in tech like Ubiquity6’s social shareability creates the possibility of entire augmented and interactive virtual stores in which users can share experiences with friends, sale assistants and other actual humans, not AI derivatives.
These developments won’t bring on the death of bricks-and-mortar stores just yet. People still like the tactile feel of physical objects — even if your image in the changing-room mirror haunts you long after you’re done.
It is also unlikely to have any real effect in SA for some time, thanks to our crippling data costs and spotty coverage — not to mention our abysmal history of failed online stores. But change is coming — and it’s coming to a screen near you.