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When Asda wanted to bring Halloween to life in its stores, it turned to augmented reality. The British arm of Walmart used technology from Zappar to allow shoppers to take part in a monster hunt around the store.
Customers were given masks with so-called “Monster Vision”, to help them spot the mischievous Fang and Fangle characters who were hidden in red-coloured floor stickers.
Using Zappar’s free smartphone and tablet app, parents and children were able to scan the masks to reveal augmented reality content.
Augmented reality, using technology to provide an additional layer of reality on to the existing world, is being adopted by a variety of retailers.
“It’s about adding entertainment and “infotainment” [a mixture of entertainment and information],” says Caspar Thykier, chief executive and co-founder of Zappar. “We provide a layer to let people look at the world, and let people receive information.”
The company’s approach works by focusing the inbuilt camera at a predetermined point, which reveals something that can only be seen using the device – an animated character coming to life or a virtual fashion show, for example.
Augmented reality is being used in a variety of applications, from allowing consumers to try on cosmetics and jewellery virtually, to so-called “magic mirrors” whereby a shopper tries on an item of clothing is able to see that garment in a different colour.
Uniqlo, the casual clothing company, has installed a magic mirror in its San Francisco store. In Burberry’s flagship in London, meanwhile, special technology is woven into clothing and accessories, and these transform mirrors into screens displaying catwalk images.
Graham Long, vice-president of Samsung’s enterprise business team says augmented reality is part of what is known in the trade as “retail theatre”.
He says: “Five years ago, retail theatre started at the point you arrived on the high street. Today retail theatre is starting with my son designing his next pair of Nike high tops on the sofa with his Galaxy tablet.”
One of the most advanced applications of augmented reality is L’Oréal’s Makeup Genius.
With Makeup Genius, the user takes an image of themselves using an iPhone or iPad. The app uses a facial mapping technology that shows them what the make-up looks like on their face as they move, smile and pout into the virtual mirror of the phone’s camera. An Android version of the app is due by 2015.
Customers can swipe through a range of cosmetics, or a number of suggested “looks”, try them on virtually, send a picture of themselves to their best friends for an opinion and, once selected, they can buy the cosmetic online directly from L’Oréal.
“That is going to be a game changer,” says Kate Ancketill, chief executive of GDR Creative Intelligence, a retail insight and trend consultancy.
But store groups are now looking beyond augmented reality to virtual reality, using the Oculus Rift, or other headsets.
Ms Ancketill says virtual reality differs from augmented reality in that the wearer’s entire experience of the world is changed, making the process much more experiential.
Samsung believes virtual reality could be useful in travel retail. Customers could take a virtual tour of their destination to provide a much more realistic experience than a brochure can provide.
“Virtual reality can give a much richer experience,” says Jon Francis, enterprise solutions manager at Samsung.
However, Miss Ancketill says that at the moment, virtual reality can only be used on a small scale.
While retailers are forging ahead with virtual and augmented reality, there is one area that continues to prove challenging – virtual fitting rooms, so that shoppers can be sure that the garments they order online will fit. Dealing with returns is an expensive element of serving online customers online, and cutting this cost would make web-based retailing more profitable.
Metail, a company whose technology enables users to create three-dimensional models of themselves to virtually try on clothes while shopping online, works with several companies, including its first customer Tesco, fashion chain Warehouse and fashion retailer House of Holland.
Shirtmaker Hawes & Curtis has teamed up with biometrics company Fits.Me, to provide a service that enables online shoppers to see how their clothes would look on them, based on their exact measurements.
Ms Ancketill says virtual fitting rooms are particularly difficult when an online retailer sells many different brands, because each will have their own particular fit. Another element is the extent to which different fabrics stretch.
“There are lots of people looking at that, and it has been experimented with by various brands, but we have not seen one that has yet achieved real breakthrough,” says Ms Ancketill.
“[Retailers] are all working on this, but I think it will never completely be cracked in the sense of perfection. It’s not totally solvable, but certainly systems now are getting them nearer to it,” she adds.
Luxury and online shopping have always been uneasy bedfellows – the tension between exclusivity and the mass access created by the internet can be hard to reconcile.
Then there is the challenge of creating an online environment that replicates the experience of shopping in a luxury retailer.
Jimmy Choo, the upmarket shoe retailer that recently floated on the London Stock Exchange, has come up with a way to replicate the luxury experience online with the creation of a virtual showroom on its website.
The company worked with London based technology provider Avenue Imperial, to create the virtual store.
Avenue Imperial used high-definition panoramic photography, together with technology similar to Google’s Street View.
Nick Rossi, founder and chief executive of Avenue Imperial says this approach can be used to create a version of any retail space, which he dubs “vtail”. “We can use that model to create a virtual recreation of any space,” he says.
Users can explore the different collections, touch on each individual shoe to see it in detail and buy it from the site.
“In the luxury space, the physical shopping experience remains very popular and important. That is what we are trying to bring to life,” says Mr Rossi.
Not everyone will have access to a flagship store, and a virtual showroom is a way for shoppers to engage with the brand’s flagship, even if are far away from it. Virtual stores also contain no other shoppers.
“[Shoppers] want more than the two-dimensional experience,” says Mr Rossi. “That is why we are bringing it to life.”
He adds: “The luxury space is about more than just a product catalogues. If the catalogue experience was so great, Argos would have taken over the luxury industry 50 years ago.”