The recent debut of app-less or web-native augmented reality could prove to be a tipping point for the technology’s adoption in home furnishings retail.
Just as the transition from flip phones to smartphones opened up the world of e-commerce to the mobile phone user, app-less options may have a similar impact when compared with AR apps. Although AR technology has been available for seven or eight years, its cumbersome and disjointed interface has limited widespread adoption.
To use AR in an app, for example, consumers need to leave the retailer’s website and open the AR app on their mobile device, then search and locate the same product in the app in order to virtually place the item in their home. Once a consumer determines she wants the product, she then closes the app and returns to the website to complete the purchase.
“With app-less or web-native AR, there will be a much higher adoption rate,” said Janus Jagd, founder and CEO of furniture technology provider Cylindo, which recently debuted its web-native AR in partnership with custom furniture company Interior Define. “This is the biggest advance in AR since its birth. At this point, it should finally become widely adopted.”
With web-native AR, consumers click on a button on the webpage where the item is displayed. This automatically opens the AR interface on their mobile device with the same product already displayed. Consumers can then view the product virtually in their home, close the AR and purchase the product.
“For the first time, every new smartphone will now be AR-ready, and most people will have an AR-capable device in their pocket at all times,” said Beck Besecker, co-founder and CEO of furniture technology provider Marxent.
Currently, most AR can only manipulate one object at a time. Tech companies believe the next step is to develop collaborative AR environments allowing users to manipulate virtual products in the same environment from separate devices.
“This will be especially useful for consumers looking for furniture and home décor products,” said Artur Arutyunov, marketing director with tech company Augmentes. “Consumers will be able to shop and see how products will look in their home while friends, loved ones or interior designers, will be able to select, place, customize and rearrange products in that home from anywhere in the world.”
The home furnishings industry is in a unique position to lead the way with this technology. Tech providers say AR isn’t yet easily adaptable to be used to display clothes and shoes virtually on the user.
“But, 99% of people are ready to easily use AR to visualize furniture, rugs and decorative accessories in their homes,” said Jon Cheney, founder and CEO of tech company SeekXR. “I predict that at the High Point Market in two or three years, more than 50% of furniture brands will have AR on their websites.”
VR, poised for expansion
The road for mainstream acceptance of virtual reality has been much slower due to barriers such as a high price point, slow software, the time-consuming nature of building a realistic VR environment and the need for the user to be tethered to a graphics processor or computer while wearing special goggles.
But many tech providers believe over the next few years those obstacles will be overcome since the VR hardware will get more powerful, lighter and easier to use. Three-dimensional room planners and VR showroom experiences keep rolling out nationwide and are getting better and more sophisticated.
“In the next year, Coohom plans to launch an interactive VR app, called KoolVR, on high-end VR devices that are currently available like HTC Vive and Oculus Rift,” said Toby Wang, vice president of technology company Coohom. “Users will be able to swap products in and out in real time as well as changing upholstery on products, and opening/closing the curtains in their virtual environment.”
Due to its experiential nature, VR can also be used as a tool to get consumers back into physical stores. Currently, most VR systems are too expensive to appeal to a majority of in-home users. For example, the popular Oculus Rift headset can run upwards of $400.
“For a brick-and-mortar store, having just one VR system, where consumers can interact with their products, can help create an entirely new brand experience along the buyer’s journey,” said Israel Medina, founder and CEO of 3D omnichannel platform Rendy.
Tech provider Marxent recently partnered with Macy’s to launch VR shopping experiences in 90 of its stores nationwide, which the company billed as the largest in-store VR rollout in retail history.
But currently, compared to other consumer electronics, the adoption rate for both AR and VR devices is low. Many tech companies, such as Apple, Google and Microsoft are now allocating significant research and development budgets to make the technology more user-friendly. For its part, Microsoft currently owns more than 10 thousand AR/VR patents.
“Studies show consumers need five to seven touchpoints before purchase,” said Jagd. “Allowing consumers to interact with product using AR offers an additional way reach out to consumers that can lead to the greater likelihood of an e-commerce or in-store purchase.”
A mix of realities
Another option which involves the merging of the real and virtual worlds is mixed reality, which enables users to produce new environments and visualizations where physical and digital objects co-exist and interact in real time. Tech experts say it offers the benefits of AR without the complete immersion of VR.
Wearable technology such as smart glasses from Apple and Google should become widely available to consumers sometime between 2020 and 2022, according to experts, with technology that will be powerful enough to measure and make decisions about the world around us including a camera that can recognize objects.
“The main challenge now is that we are still running around with cell phones,” said Pawel Ciach, co-founder of tech company Intiaro, which also recently added a web-native AR to its platform. “Soon we will have the ability to wear lightweight glasses to access the mixed reality.
“Imagine all the possibilities that will come with the unlimited screen size such technology provides. In the long run, we can even have contact lenses or direct interface to the brain, which will allow for full immersion in mixed reality.”
Enabling the future
Experts say the most important thing for manufacturers and retailers to do in order to take advantage of any emerging new technology is to become future proof by creating channel-agnostic 360-degree, 3D product images.
“Seems that the way a lot of companies do it today is creating almost disposable 3D renders that are good-enough quality with low-enough cost,” said Michal Stachowski, Intiaro co-founder. “However, it’s far better to invest in good 3D models and have them ready for future applications. Images will soon be able to be rendered in a fraction of a second by going to the server and bouncing back instantly at a much lower cost compared to today’s static solutions. Future proofing your company’s 3D assets is crucial.”
By the end of 2019, 10% of all furniture SKUs will exist in 3D, meaning it has the potential to become the floor model of the future, according to Marxent.
“The way we search for products has changed, and having a website that’s just a directory of products is already passé,” said Besecker. “This year, you’ll see even more retailers and manufacturers launch 3D applications, as the culture as a whole moves to inspirational shopping using designed photos to guide the purchase process. You can imagine Pinterest on steroids.”
Tech companies suggest that retailers and manufacturers find a partner with the ability to leverage 3D with a variety of uses and develop long-term plans to keep up with emerging technologies.
“New visualization technologies, such as 3D holographic projections will allow for a truly seamless integration between the physical and the digital worlds,” Arutyunov said. “Five to 10 years from now, AR will become as commonplace as the Internet and WiFi is today.”