January 14, 2011 8:10 pm

Next big trend: virtual fitting rooms

Customer tries on a virtual watch

So there you are, sitting in front of your laptop at home and you see a watch you like. “I wonder how that would look on my wrist?” you wonder. Then you print out a little piece of paper embedded with a barcode, wrap it around your arm and hold it up to a camera on your computer and, bingo, there is your arm, adorned with a virtual watch. You can turn it this way and that, decide how chunky is too chunky, and whether stainless steel is better against your skin than rose gold.

Welcome to augmented reality (AR), also known as interactive video technology, which is set to transform the consumer experience. “It’s the next step in creating a seamless experience for the consumer at home, closing the gap between the store and online shopping,” says Chris Sanderson, co-founder of Future Laboratory, a trends prediction agency. “The technology has been around for a couple of years but it’s been experimental. This year we’re going to see a major uplift.”

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The marketing group ABI Research predicts the market for augmented reality in the US alone will grow to $350m by 2014, from $6m in 2008. Total annual revenues from AR-enabled mobile apps are anticipated to reach $732m in 2014 based on their findings, up from less than $2m in 2010. With that in mind, a host of fashion and luxury brands is already working on augmented reality projects.

This month Ebay launched an AR app that allows anyone with an iPhone 4 to try on pairs of sunglasses digitally by superimposing the design over the user’s face (captured in the phone’s camera). In November, clothing retailer H&M launched an iPhone app with GoldRun, an AR start-up, that allows shoppers to try on outfits virtually, take photographs of themselves and create their own personal look books of autumn collections to upload on Facebook. And Atol, a French eyewear company, has recently introduced a new in-store and online AR project in which customers can try on any piece of eyewear and see themselves live on video.

“There’s a huge opportunity for companies, particularly in fashion and retail,” says Myles Peyton, sales director at Total Immersion, a UK-based AR retail specialist. One of the biggest retail categories to embrace AR technology has been fine jewellery and watches. In October, Boucheron launched an app on its website that allows visitors to “try on” collections. Tag Heuer in March launched an AR online project. It used paper bracelets that, when waved in front of a webcam at home, activated a live video with the timepieces shown magically on the wrist. Tissot also initiated a project with Selfridges last spring that allowed shoppers to try on its watches virtually via a specialist screen in Selfridges’ store windows.

“Tissot witnessed a 50 per cent surge in visitors to its site as a result of introducing the augmented reality project with Selfridges,” says Peyton. Likewise, watch sales at its Selfridges counter rose 85 per cent during the promotion. Tag Heuer’s response online was also favourable.

Rob Diver, managing director of Tag Heuer UK, says: “Gone are the days where you can just have a straightforward transactional website and expect to just make a lot of money.”

As Antony Comyns, head of e-commerce for Hawes & Curtis, says: “It gives online customers extra reassurance.” The shirtmaker has a “virtual fitting room” on its site for men’s wear and will launch a similar programme for women created in collaboration with Fits Me, a US company that has developed an adaptable mannequin that can change itself (once a customer’s measurements are put in) to adapt to any of 100,000 body shapes. Comyns says the collaboration has led to an 18 per cent rise in sales as well as reducing the number of returns due to mis-sizing.

However, James Gardner, chief executive at Createthe Group, a creative agency that works on digital campaigns for Marc Jacobs, Burberry and Dunhill, says AR “needs to get better. Holding up a barcode of embedded picture to the screen is making the customer work. Technology is supposed to make things easier.”

Peyton agrees that AR is “still in its infancy. The consumer experience needs to be refined,” he says.

Jonathan Chippindale, chief executive of Holition, a London-based AR retail agency (who collaborated on the Tissot, Boucheron and Tag Heuer projects), is exploring options to add texture and depth to the appearance of clothing online, “so it looks like it’s actually on, and matches the drapes and contours, not just layered on top.”

Not that augmented reality is expected to replace the store experience. Tag Heuer’s Diver says: “The two complement each other. Nothing will replace the emotional context of actually physically putting something on but what it can do is give them a taste. It supports the process of buying.”

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Let’s try it on for size

EBAY FASHION APP

What: An iPhone 4 app that allows users to “try on” T-shirts, sunglasses or cocktail wear, and share on Facebook. (Images can be resized to fit the body in the picture.)

How: Just download the app from iTunes and you’re away. The app is easily navigable. (YouTube demos are online to help.)

Did it work? Yes but you need a friend to photograph you for full-length clothing or trousers. Not all products have been shot with this in mind (ie folded T-shirts and sunglasses with the handles shown, instead of front on). You can try on multiple items to create “virtual outfits” which is fun, then click straight through to buy them.

Available: Free from iTunes.

TISSOT

What: Tissot’s interactive website, which allows users to “try on” watches virtually.

How: Download and print out a wristband (embedded with code), cut it out and wrap around your wrist. Download the software to your computer. Hold your wrist in front of your webcam and voilà! A moving picture appears on screen with an image of the watch in place of the paper.

Did it work? 10 out of 10 for novelty – but cutting out paper shapes feels decidedly low-tech and is also fiddly. The site looks good though, and also allows you to switch colour and strap details.

Available: Free from www.tissot.ch/reality

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