The recent news that Facebook is to embrace augmented reality in a big way by embedding AR into its apps demonstrates the technology is gaining traction, or, in modern marketing parlance, becoming "sticky."
Augmented Reality, or AR, is the ability to overlay digital information and experiences onto the 'real world' using a smartphone or other enabled device. One company that is jumping into the commercial opportunity is Basingstoke, UK-based Ads Reality, a firm that specializes in creating AR solutions for the retail sector. From AR window displays to in-store and out-of-home (OOH) solutions, it offers a complete end-to-end service allowing brands to deliver enhanced customer experiences.
Each of its AR products -- AR Mobile and AR Window -- are designed to captivate and connect with customers. This allows retailers to achieve their goals of increasing footfall, improving engagement and obtaining a higher level of conversion, claims the company. Brands already using its technology include Sainsbury’s, GAME, Microsoft and Unilever.
Richard Corps, managing director of Ads Reality, is keen to stress that AR is not just "cool tech" -- it is serious business technology. "It is serious stuff and over the past few years the development of this technology has really taken off. We can overlay any physical object with an array of digital information that is held on the web using AR," which in turn offers up significant commercial opportunities "for different business verticals, with everything from online recipes and nutritional information to video game demos."
AR as a business utility
And it isn't just retailers that are taking advantage, says Corps. "We have a particular focus on the retail sector, which includes the retailers themselves, brands and agencies. But we are seeing other opportunities in the automotive, education, medical, military and other sectors."
AR's Broad Appeal
Ads Reality's Richard Corps believes augmented reality can have a significant impact on business opportunities across multiple verticals.
This view is supported by Fujitsu, which has its own AR solutions. Fujitsu EMEIA (Europe, the Middle East, India and Africa) executive Conway Kosi says: "While AR is currently an extremely trendy concept for consumers, in fact the most valuable applications of the technology can be found in the business world. We have been working in the utilities sector with AR, allowing engineers to help fix problems even if they do not have the skills themselves.
"Fujitsu's AR software has enabled workers at Japan's Metawater Co. to recognise issues before they have manifested themselves by projecting information directly in front of the engineers. The potential benefits for utility companies are clear, in significantly increasing efficiency."
Kosi said organisations in every industry should embrace AR opportunities now. "The more 'glamorous' advances of AR in the mainstream can be focused on giving consumers a short term experience, but businesses must take this one step further and integrate AR within their organisation now, or fail to deal with the impact that digital disruption will undoubtedly bring."
Fujitsu's Conway Kosi: "The potential benefits for utility companies are clear, in significantly increasing efficiency."
But first things first, and with the much-hyped virtual reality (VR) in mind, how is AR different from VR? Corps explains: "AR overlays digital information in the real world, allowing you to still see the physical objects that sit in the real world. VR is fully immersive, so you are immersed in a virtual world where you can't see the real-life objects around you."
And if firms are going to utilize AR capabilities, what people and skills will they need within their workforce? Corps says: "We have provided a very easy and simple 'drag and drop' solution so that even non-technical people can use our platform. As a technology, it sits very well alongside other e-commerce content management platforms. We also offer support and training for all our retail customers. If a retailer does want to manage it themselves, we would have a 1-3 month training period where we sit with the retailer so they fully understand how to use the platform."
An AR future
And what of the future? Is there a roadmap for general AR advancement? During the next 12 months, says Corps, there will be much broader adoption of AR by retailers and brands globally. And with the increase in the power and ability of mobile devices, the experiences will "become bigger, bolder and better," he says.
Looking ahead over a 24-month period, we will start to see the emergence of 'mixed reality' (MR), he predicts, where we'll be able to see images and products in an AR environment using wearable devices, such as glasses or even contact lenses, to deliver the experiences.
"We are already thinking about the right applications for MR within retail, as it will still be using the same underlying technology," Corps says.
The 5G catalyst
But while AR might be starting to make inroads, some experts believe the widespread use of AR, at least in the UK, might not happen until 5G mobile networks, which will enable faster and more data-rich wireless broadband services, are up and running. The mobile industry is working intensely to publish the initial 5G standards during 2018, and that work will be used by the UK government to decide on how to allocate 5G spectrum.
Professor Maziar Nekovee, head of engineering and design at the University of Sussex, and former head of 5G research at Samsung, says: "With technologies like virtual reality and augmented reality racing ahead, we really need 5G in order for our infrastructure to catch up. From 2020, VR and AR will become commonplace on mobile devices and will deliver the first big transformation of the 5G era."
He adds: "Then we'll see explosive growth in the Internet of Things from around 2025. Things like smart cities, automation and smart grids for factories of the future will become a reality. This is a brave new world."
So, by the sounds of it, AR isn't just about making sure consumers are being offered the right, cheeky offers in a retail environment -- it's there to establish a bridgehead so we can all move into a new truly digital world.
— Antony Savvas, contributing editor, TechX365