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What Is Augmented Reality (AR)? Why add AR on ecommerce stores?

71% of shoppers say they would shop more often if they could interact with AR tech.

71% of shoppers say they would shop more often if they could interact with AR tech.

In the spring of 2020, most of the world was forced into their homes. Retail stores across the globe closed their doors for months; some halted their services altogether. Others took an innovative approach to making their retail space more COVID-19 amenable – and augmented reality was one such approach. 

As consumers flood to the online space, retail e-commerce sales are now projected to grow more than 11% worldwide between 2022 and 2025. Retailers are feeling the pressure to become more advanced technologically, and as such, more stores are implementing both AR and VR solutions.

Considering that 71% of shoppers say they would shop more often if they could interact with AR tech, it's no surprise that AR is becoming more commonplace in retail; it’s possible that you have already come across the technology in-store or online without realizing it. 

But what is AR? Let's dig into the history, evolution, and future of this fascinating technology.

What is AR?

Put simply, augmented reality (AR) is the overlay of computer-generated content on the real world. This can be in the form of sound, video, graphics, or GPS data. 

It has been around in some form since the 1960s, but it was only in recent years that the technology advanced to the point where AR could be used by businesses and consumers daily.

The big shift was mobile apps like Snapchat and Instagram. With nascent AI technology that allowed for things like background filters, object detection, and more, AR began seamlessly integrating itself into general consumer consciousness.

From there, platforms like Google Maps began integrating AR to assist you with directions, and other tech companies like Meta (previously Facebook) started promising to scale up their AR and VR operations so users could interact with each other in a virtual world. 

These are just some of the ways that AR is being used today – but we’ve only scratched the surface.

Augmented Reality vs Virtual Reality

You may be wondering, “Isn’t the Metaverse virtual reality?’ It is, at least in part. But augmented reality and virtual reality are two different things, and both will exist there. Let's take a closer look at the AR vs VR comparison.

Virtual reality is a completely immersive experience where you are transported to a different world. This can be used for gaming, entertainment, or even training simulations. 

Augmented reality, on the other hand, adds computer-generated content to the real world. It does not transport you to another place; instead, it enhances your current surroundings. 

For example, you might use AR to see directions overlaid on a real-world street, while in VR you would be transported to a completely computer-generated street, which you could then explore.

History of AR

It is important at this point to go back to the beginning, as it might seem like AR is a brand-new technology. In reality, it is much older than many people think, though it wasn’t always referred to in the same fashion.

Source: ResearchGate

Humble beginnings

In 1962, American filmmaker Morton Heilig introduced the world to the Sensorama, which some have dubbed the first VR experience. Truly, it should be known more as the first AR experience; it used real-world effects like wind, smells, and noise to simulate riding a motorcycle down the streets of New York. 

At this time, and for years afterward, there wouldn’t be a phrase for AR. Not until some aerospace engineers decided to throw their hat in the ring.

Coining the phrase

Tom Caudell and David Mizell, researchers at Boeing, coined the term in 1992 with their paper, “Augmented reality: An application of heads-up display technology to manual manufacturing processes.” 

Even three decades ago, the possibilities and potential of AR were already being explored – but the computing power to bring it to the masses was still years away.

A new generation

As the page turned on the 20th century, society began shifting toward smaller and smaller devices. The potential for AR started to grow. In 2003, Sony released the EyeToy: a webcam that tracked player movement and displayed it on the screen in real-time. This was a huge step in not only gaming, but also general computing. 

Soon after, companies like BMW started to use AR for print advertising, leveraging the increased computing power of devices to place digital objects in the real world. This allowed people to see what a product would look like in their own home without ever having to leave their living room! 

As it worked for print advertising, it soon worked for e-commerce, with companies like IKEA and Lowe’s following suit.

How AR is used today

It’s present day, and AR is nearly ubiquitous in online shopping. Try-it-on and see-it-in-your-space features are now commonplace for many retailers. 

With Avataar’s out of the box solution, companies can quickly convert their 2D product catalog to 3D for use in AR. The AR experiences link to the e-commerce store’s product pages to provide an immersive experience for customers looking to buy products online.
Need a new couch? See how it would look in your living room with a few simple clicks! Wondering if a refrigerator will fit in your kitchen? Use your phone camera to place the refrigerator in your space and tap to see if it fits! 3D and interactive AR for e-commerce provides companies with endless benefits, including:

  • Increased conversion rates: An immersive experience means that customers are more likely to purchase items. Retailers using 3D AR have reported upto 94% increase in sales conversions.
  • Reduced returns: Customers can try before they buy, meaning that they are less likely to return items that don’t fit or look quite how they thought.
  • Improved customer satisfaction: By providing a realistic representation of products, customers can make informed decisions and are more satisfied with their purchases.

These are just a few of the many benefits that AR brings to e-commerce. And as technology continues to evolve, we can only imagine what new possibilities will be made available to businesses and consumers alike!

Where AR technology is going

AR's implementation is being helped along by SaaS companies providing turnkey solutions on platforms like Shopify and BigCommerce, meaning it is quickly advancing through the e-commerce space to provide interactive experiences for customers online.

But the walls of your internet browser are not going to hold it for long. The increase of "Phygital" retail experiences will bring AR to the brick and mortar stores of old, allowing things like experience zones, infinite aisles, and even hologram sales assistants. Check some more examples of what that might look like here.

Roadblocks that stand in the way

This isn't going to happen all at once, as implementing AR will require significant investments in time and money for retailers – though those costs are coming down with new turnkey solutions

The other potential roadblock is data privacy concerns. As we become more comfortable sharing our location and personal information, companies must be transparent about how they are using it and ensure that consumers' data is secure.

If these issues can be overcome, the future of AR in e-commerce is looking bright. We've come a long way from a few exhaust fumes and a fan blowing in your face!