SAN FRANCISCO, United States — In September, Apple made an important announcement. Its new operating system iOS 11 will have some major new features, including advanced augmented reality (AR) capabilities that will be available in up to 300 million phones worldwide by the end of 2017. Google followed with the announcement of their own AR software, ARCore, which will be available in 100 million phones soon thereafter. The investment made by the two tech giants comes as AR has been billed as an imminent game-changer for not only retail, but also for consumer-facing industries like travel and hospitality.
For those not familiar with AR, it is a technology that allows users to seamlessly blend virtual objects with the "real world" by viewing them in live action as superimposed 3D imagery on the screen of handheld devices, like phones and tablets. But while AR is not a new technology, it has mostly played second fiddle to virtual reality (VR).
Unlike VR, which still isn’t widely used for a variety of reasons, AR does not require dedicated immersive hardware, like headgear, goggles and gloves. AR is built to work with smartphones and tablets; devices that are already in the hands of most consumers in the developed world. In industries like retail, where the bridge between online and offline is often manifested through consumer smartphones, AR can significantly benefit businesses.
By many accounts, the first indication that AR could be a global consumer phenomenon was when Niantic Inc. released Pokemon Go in 2016, an app that has since been downloaded over 750 million times and driven over $1.2 billion in sales. While Pokemon was a lightweight 2D AR experience, it showed consumers and brands the potential of an immersive, mixed reality consumer phone application. Did you know that Pokemon Go has driven over 500 million in-person visits to sponsored physical locations? It’s incredible.
Apple’s ARKit and Google’s ARCore will up the ante in a significant way when they bring advanced 3D capabilities to 400 million phones in the coming months. Amazon's new AR app, ARView, allows customers to visualise how furniture and home decor will look in their homes or office. Retailers like Ikea, Houzz and Wayfair have also released compelling AR apps that demonstrate just a small slice of the potential retailers can achieve.
In September, Burberry introduced an AR feature to its smartphone app, which lets users digitally redecorate their surroundings with Burberry-inspired drawings by artist Danny Sangra. Other premium players to test augmented reality include L’Oreal, whose Makeup Genius app — which lets people test beauty products on their phones — has been downloaded by more than 20 million users. Meitu helped drive sales for Charlotte Tilbury: 13 percent of users who tried the lipstick through the app clicked the "buy" button.
For fashion specifically, mass availability of advanced 3D AR can enable immersive digital experiences right in the palm of any customer’s hand. Users can interact with garments, virtually try them on, compare pieces side-by-side and visualise looks in the very room where they are standing. Within three years, it is safe to predict that an “AR View” will be an expected part of every brand’s digital shopping experience and will help increase conversion and reduce returns, the two key metrics that have greatly suffered in most online apparel businesses.
Still, the fashion industry is far from ready for AR, let alone other advanced technological innovations coming their way. Here are a few ideas to help brands and retailers better identify, develop and deploy these new technologies:
1. Invest in an experienced innovation team
Companies — big or small — that are serious about innovation need to hire well for the job. Employ senior executives that are most successful at leading innovation and are focused on it as a full-time role. They need to be given autonomy to discover new ideas and the authority to green-light new initiatives. They and their team must also have the internal political capital required to successfully navigate the entire organisation to make sure things get done or these investments will be worthless. To that end, boards and chief executives must unequivocally support innovation by ensuring that the company is committed at all levels to embrace new ideas, and accept that while there will be successes and failures, both provide important opportunities to learn and evolve.
2. Commit to an evaluation and deployment process that encourages speed
Since most fashion companies are not in the business of advanced technological developments (yet), many new ideas are discovered and deployed via partnerships with smaller tech start-ups. Because of this, it’s important to streamline the discovery and deployment process. If you find companies that are interesting, develop a practiced procedure for quickly meeting with them, consistently assessing their capabilities and getting something on the market. If your standard partner contract is over 50 pages, toss it out. When working on partner-led innovation, short, simple agreements are the best way to avoid unnecessary delays and money spent reviewing and amending overly complicated documents.
3. Implement a test protocol to get consistent, actionable feedback
When working with technology start-ups or trying your own ideas, quick iterative tests are the best way to deploy new concepts. With that in mind, it’s important to agree on a standardised test or proof of concept and philosophy — public-facing if possible — where your company can try new things and get feedback from customers. Creating a well-oiled protocol will allow for more experiments with more partners, and thus, more learning, which should make your company smarter. Don’t be afraid to test in the open. Today’s consumer expects brands to try new things with them. They often love being a part of these experiments and will be happy to give you valuable feedback that will help you serve them better — and make more money in the long term.
4. Expect change and invest in tools that facilitate it
When you invest in technology, do so with adaptation and change in mind. Lightweight, modular and cloud-based solutions are the way to go, whenever possible. One of the most painful and difficult tasks is working with a rigid, outdated technology platform. In many cases, legacy systems are the single biggest roadblock preventing companies from innovating. If you are sitting on those systems now, your best bet is to cut the cord as soon as possible and invest in more flexible platforms .
Global change and technological innovations are coming faster than ever and this rate will only increase with time. In order to reach constantly connected, time-poor consumers, companies must invest heavily in the people, platforms and partnerships that will keep them truly ahead of the curve. It doesn’t take any augmentation to see that fact. Nowadays, it’s a reality.
Ari Bloom is the chief executive of Avametric, a San Francisco-based fashion & retail technology firm.
The views expressed in Op-Ed pieces are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Business of Fashion.