vol 8, issue 4

Apps augmenting reality to drive retail sales

12 April 2013
By Aasha Bodhani
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Tesco's Discover app

Tesco’s AR-enabled magazines allow users to download the free Discover app and learn more about foodstuffs before they buy

Tesco's Discover app

Download the free Tesco Discover app and use the sample page reproduced below to experience AR

Oxfam’s Shelflife app

Oxfam’s Shelflife app enables its customers to discover the stories behind items on sale

Oxfam’s Shelflife app poster

Oxfam’s Shelflife app promotional poster

Volkswagen augmented reality app

Volkswagen augmented reality app brings its Golf Cabriolet to ‘life-like’ focus

McDonald's TrackMyMacca

TrackMyMacca lets curious burger buffs learn more about the ingedients of their eats...

McDonald's TrackMyMacca

...The app also helps allay concerns about sustainable sourcing with other menu items, such as Filet-O-Fish

Leading retailers are turning to augmented reality to drive sales, brand reinforcement, customer relationships, and to improve the shopping experience.

The success of e-commerce has caused retailers to find ways of adopting the personalised interactivity of online shopping to make the offline shopping experience more compelling. To this end augmented reality (AR) could prove the most effective technology for getting potential purchasers to engage – and spend – more.

The AR trend aims to build consumer relationships, boost revenue channels, and add value to the shopper experience. The omni-channel approach relates to how retailers can attract their target consumers across multiple traditional and non-traditional interactions. These include e-tail and e-commerce, use of social media, plus in-store technology such as virtual mirrors and touchscreen digital signage – all integrated in a physical store, and often making use of shoppers' own mobile devices, ranging from tablet PCs to smartphones.

Retailers have traditionally relied on print advertising campaigns to promote products, whether advertised in magazines or billboards; the industry is now redefining its business model by implementing newer marketing strategies, that are made available to customers in the store itself.

AR technology holds multiple attractions for retailers. It allows consumers to interact with products, enabling them to feel closer to the 'real world' equivalent. It works like standard AR applications by superimposing animated graphics, audio, and video over a physical environment that's being photographically depicted in real-time. Typically, a smartphone or tablet with a camera and AR-enabled software can trigger the data to view the AR presentation. AR advertising and marketing campaigns typically come in the form of a mobile app.

According to market-watcher Juniper Research, retailers are keen to deploy AR capabilities within their apps and marketing materials, which will amount to $300m in revenues, this year. The analyst's 'Augmenting Reality – Enhancing Mobile' report reveals that polled retailers now perceive AR as a fully-fledged means of increasing engagement with consumers, as a means of providing additional product information or in the form of branded virtual games and other activities. While retailers are showcasing AR applications, however, the report cautions that the lack of consumer awareness of AR remains a potential inhibitor, and of the technological limitations of AR-enablers (such as phone camera, GPS, and digital compasses), which can result in AR experiences failing to live-up to consumer expectations.

The Juniper Research report also points out that even some of the higher-end smartphone cameras lacked sufficient sensitivity to trigger the AR experience unless lighting conditions were optimal. This aside, the report revealed 2.5 billion AR apps will be downloaded on smartphones or tablets per annum by 2017. This demand is good news for app developers: AR is setting new challenges for software designers. 

As well as driving sales, retailers are also pushing for special customer experiences. In the run-up to Christmas 2012 UK high-street fashion chain New Look partnered with Blippar – one of the leading providers of mobile AR development and delivery platforms – to develop AR-enabled window displays to launch model and actress Kelly Brook's new cosmetics range in December 2012. For the duration of the campaign consumers could download the Blippar app, and 'blipp' Brook's signature which features on the window display, and virtually 'try on' her nail varnish range, as well as have their picture taken with her image.

Another high-profile AR campaign involves supermarket chain Tesco launching cover-to-cover AR-enabled magazines, including Real Food, Tesco Magazine,Wine Magazine and Better Value. Consumers can download the free Tesco Discover app, developed by AR app design specialist Aurasma, onto any smartphone device to access how-to videos, learn more about the product, and buy groceries.

The April/May 2013 edition includes an array of AR-enabled features, such as the front cover uploads a video of BBC-TV's 'Great British Bake-Off'-winner John Whaite's specially-shot interview in which he enlarges on his passion for baking. Other pages enable users to view other videos, buy ingredients or find out more about them, visit Tesco's Facebook and Twitter platforms and learn how to make different cocktails, and to find out more about Tesco's wine selection. Tesco's virtual Wine Magazine AR-features includes 'buy now' functionalities and videos of wine specialists explaining different types of wines, but in particular the original source of the ingredients, its vintage, and what foods match well.

Although the current examples of AR in retail depend on customers' own smart devices, this is not the only model for delivering the AR to the shopfloor. Lego, for instance, led the way in 2011 (albeit with a slightly different delivery model) by introducing a AR feature into its branded stores worldwide. This was based on customers taking boxed Lego products to a static AR device – DigitalBox – that displayed a real-time reflective video image'that superimposed AR features based on the specific product being presented. For example, some of the actual fully-assembled models in 3D that could be created from any given size of Lego set appeared on screen on the lid of the box, and could be viewed from multiple dimensions as the customer presented the box from different angles.

Additional piloted projects include charity Oxfam's Shelflife app, which lets consumers learn about a donated item's 'history', and fast-food restaurant McDonald's TrackMyMacca app, which gives an insight to where ingredients in a McDonald's meal originate from. Automobile manufacturer Volkswagen AR Golf Cabriolet app lets users explore the vehicle and play with its features. 

Further information

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Charity: Oxfam

Oxfam has introduced an innovative way of bringing AR to selected vintage and second-hand donations. By combining AR and Quick Response (QR) codes, the Oxfam Shelflife app enables consumers to discover the stories behind Oxfam's donated items, and donators to share their own stories for items they have given.

The concept is based on an idea developed by the Tales of Things and Electronic Memory (TOTEM) initiative. TOTEM explores the relationship of personal memories and real-life objects and provides a context for sharing of personal and social memories through digital media. This is a collaboration between five UK universities; University College London, University of Edinburgh/Edinburgh College of Art, Brunel University, University of Dundee, and University of Salford.

"From the retailers' perspective, as long as the customer can access a 3G network from their smartphone they can use the app," says Oxfam project manager Stuart Harrison, "but, user experience would be enhanced by the retailer providing Wi-Fi hotspots in their shops."

"Things are increasingly becoming a combination of physical and virtual things; embracing technology that allows consumers to see the immaterial data that is connected to the material thing is becoming as important as simply selling the physical thing," says Dr Chris Speed from TOTEM and Edinburgh College of Art. "Helping shoppers get access to this information informs their purchase and can foster good relations between the consumer and your brand; it builds trust."

Speed adds: "Current interpretations of AR often involve the augmentation of visual media. We like to think of Shelflife as AR for physical media. By scanning an Oxfam product that is tagged with a Shelflife barcode, the app links immaterial stories with the material artefact, forming a sort of AR connection between the past and the present."

The project aims to promote sustainability by encouraging shoppers to look beyond consumerism and instead the personal attachment to objects.

The technical architecture of TOTEM consists of a Web application called Django that provides backend services and different clients that access this service via different application programming interfaces.

Users who register for a free account on the project website can add new objects to PostgreSQL, a user-generated object database, via a Web browser interface or an iPhone or Android mobile phone. During this process people are asked to provide meta-information, such as name and location, and a story about the object.

When a new object is created the service creates a QR Code that can be printed and attached to the object. When consumers scan these tags, they can learn about its history ' where it was made, who has owned it previously, and so on.

Tales can be told using text and any additional media that can be referenced via a URL. The system is capable of analysing provided URLs and rendering media from social services such as YouTube, Flickr and Audioboo in an integrated media player interface. The Web interface provides additional functions such as a commenting system, display of the location of things and tales on a map, search, creation of groups, user profiles, email and Twitter notifications.

Oxfam Shelflife is being piloted in 10 UK stores: Cheadle, Chorlton, Didsbury, Sale, Withington, Whitworth Park, Oxfam Emporium, Oxfam Originals; plus the Alderley Edge and Altrincham Bookshops.

Fast food: McDonald's

Earlier this year, fast-food chain McDonald's launched the TrackMyMacca app with the promise of taking consumers 'behind the scenes' of their meal. McDonald's Australia partnered with advertising agency DDB Sydney and ACNE Production who created the digital experience. Using an Apple iPhone, the app utilises image recognition software to scan the packaging and GPS to determine which restaurant he consumer is in. Together this presents the origins of the ingredients based on the user's location.

The European food industry's reputation took a knock with the recent revelations regarding beef-based meal products being contaminated with horse meat. Consumers are increasingly curious – and concerned – about the sources of their food, and about its environmental context.

Though not implicated in this scandal, McDonald's is a veteran of wrestling with perceptions of consumer trust; this Australian app may provide valuable reassurance over the chain's processes and ethics. Once the app is downloaded, users can point the device at the packaging where they will see a message appear which reads 'Okey Dokey. Currently tracking your...' the message soon disappears and floating bubbles will appear with ingredients in them, such as beef, cheese, pickle, lettuce and bun. The user can tap on each bubble to discover where the ingredients came from and hear from farmers, fishermen and bakers.

TrackMyMacca only works with food that comes in specially marked boxes, such as McChicken burger, Big Mac, Filet-O-fish, Chicken Nugget and French Fries boxes.

Using an iPhone's GPS the app determines which restaurant the customer is in, it then utilises image recognition software to work out which product the customer has scanned. This data is then combined with the date and time and McDonald's supply-chain data to detail the journey of the ingredients.

To creatively bring the story to life, the app applies graphics software Unity4 to create the animated 3D universe that has been built around the five McDonald's products featured in the TrackMyMacca's app.

Automotive: Volkswagen 

In 2011, German car manufacturer Volkswagen implemented AR marketing strategies to mark the comeback of the Golf Cabriolet. After nine years of absence, the manufacturer and creative agency Agence .V. used the technology to promote new features specifically in the showrooms in France.

Consumers can visit showrooms, where the sales teams are equipped with iPads containing the Volkswagen Virtual Golf Cabriolet app. By aiming the iPad towards a marker point on the installed podium, the vehicle appears on screen in 3D and to scale. The users can rotate the vehicle, change the colour of the bodywork and the style of the wheel rims and virtually open and close the soft-top roof.

To create the app, Total Immersion first designed a 3D model of the car and the animation of the roof opening and closing using 3D animation software Maya. Then using Total Immersion's authoring tool D'Fusion Studio, it configured the recognition of the vehicle image and added the 3D model of the car on top of it. Once completed, the AR scenario was exported, compiled and published into XCode, a language that creates mobile apps compatible with iPhones and iPads.

Backgrounder developer platforms

There are two different types of AR. First is marker-based AR, this is where a camera on a smart device is able to recognise a marker or an image in the real world, which then calculates its position and orientation to augment the reality. This enables developers to overlay the marker or image with content or information such as audio, video and images. The software tools used to develop these applications are ARToolKit, FLARToolKit and FLARManager for Adobe Flash, SLARToolKit, NyARToolKit, LinceVR, HandyAR, Total Immersion – D'Fusion studio, Unifeye Mobile and AR-Media.

The second is Global Positioning System-based AR; these enabled apps to use GPS to track landmarks and other points of interest which in return users can receive additional information about the location or receive directions to reach there. The software tools used to develop GPS applications include Layar, Wikitude and Junaio.

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