Augmented reality is everywhere these days. It's been around for a few years now in the form of face filters on Snapchat, Facebook, etc. and app-based experiences have popped up from IKEA, Warby Parker, and others that are ahead of the curve in offering their customers the best online shopping experience possible. Many have wondered if augmented reality would have a bigger impact than its predecessor of virtual reality, which to many in the investment and tech world has been underwhelming in its impact on everyday life. As it turns out, AR is having a pretty major impact, and its reach is already many times that of VR because of the innovations in smartphones that billions of people already have in their pockets.
Studies related to the impact of AR on eCommerce are beginning to surface, and the numbers are astounding. 30%+ increase in conversion, reduced returns, less disparity between customer expectations and increased consumer trust in the brand. AR is beginning to approach, in many cases, the effectiveness of having someone walk into a physical store, but without all the costs and headache of maintaining a retail location that seems doomed to fail in this age of retail locations closing at the highest rate ever.So, if AR works so well, how do you get started? It may seem like a daunting and expensive task (and it can be if you approach it incorrectly), but hopefully the following ideas can act as a guide to get you on the right path.
(1) Before you start anything, 3D models of
your product need to be created
If at some point in your AR experience, you want customers to be able to view your products in their space, digital twins, or 3D models of your products are required. Many companies have already been doing this for years, and they are certainly ahead of the game. Moving forward, these 3D models should be a standard in your product imagery process. Just like you see unbelievable CGI in movies with models that look so real you can't tell the difference, it is now possible to create incredible 3D models of all of your products. There are 3 primary ways to make this happen (in order of least expensive to most expensive):
- Use the design files that were used to manufacture your product. These are likely some sort of CAD file that can be exported into several 3D formats that can be used in AR experiences. The best AR providers will be able to use these outputs and convert them into usable content with little to no effort. Here is an example of a product created from a CAD file. Not all companies have access to these files, especially if you are a reseller, but there are other ways to make this happen.
- 3D model creation is an art that some can do incredibly well. To me (as a non-developer or 3D modeler), what these people can do is incredible and nigh unto magic, in my opinion. They can look at a picture of a product and then create a model from the ground up. Here is an example of a product created from scratch by just looking at a picture. This option is the most popular right now because of the associated costs. Most models can be created for $150-350, depending on the complexity of the model. This is Seek's preferred method for quickly onboarding and launching AR for eCommerce companies.
- 3D scanning is a newer technology that has a long way to go before it is cheap enough and widely available enough to be used at scale. There are incredible scanners that can be purchased for roughly $25k each that produce great results. They are not plug and play devices, though, and require hardware and software training. The average cost of 3D scanning an object is $1000 (this would be for something like a table). Cheaper options are out there, but they aren't very good yet. There are several companies out there, including Qlone (our favorite), that are focusing on building tools that allow your phone to become the scanner. They are very much limited to small objects at this point, but as phone manufacturers include more depth sensors and better cameras, this will become better over time. Here is an example of a 3D scanned object.
(2) What types of features do you need?
There are so many things that can be done with augmented reality content, so defining this early in the process will help you determine where you can publish it, how much it will cost, and what team you'll need to get there. Of course, start with the end goal in mind. What do you want the consumer to do? Do you have a furniture that you want people to be able to see in their space? Do you want people to be able to try on a hat or glasses? Do you want it to just be something fun and shareable to surprise and delight your audience? Do you want social reach? Or are you just trying to increase conversion rates?
Once you have this nailed down, you can begin to differentiate what capabilities platforms have. I'll address a few of the different types of features you might be able to take advantage of for your use case.
Face scanning. Snapchat lenses have been around for some time, and so most people are familiar with face filters. Since face scanning has been around for a while, many platforms are capable of doing this beyond Snapchat, including Instagram and Facebook. The web is even capable of doing this now. This becomes very powerful because it can be integrated directly onto the product page on your site, keeping the user engaged in the traditional eCommerce flow they're used to.
True-to-size and plane tracking.
It's a bird, it's a plane, it's Superman! Just kidding. :) Not that kind of plane. We're talking about surface mapping and tracking. Cell phone cameras are quite powerful now, and they are able to detect how far the floors and walls are from the device. Because of this measurement, products can be displayed true-to-size through the camera view. For furniture, this is a MUST. Will the table fit? What will this hot tub look like on my deck? Without accurate plane tracking, this isn't possible. AR is about much more than just showing a 3D model in a camera view--it needs to be about allowing the customer to see what the product will look like in their life. Apps can do plane tracking pretty well now because of ARKit and ARCore (technologies created by Apple and Google for iOS and Android respectively). Recently, Apple launched technology allowing iOS users to have access to this technology directly on the web. Seek then built a cross-platform solution that brings this functionality to Android on the web as well.
Target or marker tracking. Target tracking ties an experience to a specific image or anchor in the real world. For example, Snapchat recently activated the Lebron James Snapchat lens that require users to be at a Footlocker location, open up Snapchat and then point the camera at a mural on the wall (see that example here). This can be a great experience if you want users to do something in store. Most target tracking experiences happen within an app, but Seek's web-based AR technology can do this on the web as well.
Interactivity. Do you want customers to be able to play a game, spin the object, resize it, change the color, etc? To go into every detail about this here would double the size of this guide, but here are the basics. Web-based AR is still at the point where basic product viewing (typically one product at a time) is the only thing possible if you want true-to-size tracking. Of course, this will improve over time. If you don't care about true-to-size, then more interactions can be done on the web. If you have a target tracking, just about anything is possible from an interactivity perspective. Inside of a custom app, the sky is the limit. Facebook, Snapchat, and Instagram have very specific functions that you can utilize within experience design, and you can learn these by going to their specific studios to learn more.
Sound. Sound is an incredibly powerful tool for all media (where appropriate). Just try and watch Lord of the Rings or Star Wars without sound--it's pretty boring. Turn up the volume, and you are sucked into another universe and it tugs at your emotions. When used properly, sound can add an additional element of reality to make the user believe what their eyes are seeing. If Spiderman appears on your camera to be standing in front of you, is there sound that can add to this experience? Some web-based AR experiences can have sound. Apps certainly can. Sound isn't necessary for eCommerce in most cases, but for the entertainment industry and other related use cases, sound can take the experience to the next level.
This is certainly not an exhaustive list, but you don't need to be an expert here either. Make sure you find a great partner that can walk you through these questions and who understands how to leverage these technologies to achieve your desired outcome.
(3) How are people going to access the content?
In a proprietary app? On the web?
This, in my opinion, is the most important component to consider when beginning with augmented reality. How are people going to get to this content? How many barriers are you going to put in between your audience and the content or between the content and the product? What demographics will see your content based on each location? Are you going to put this on a social platform? A brand-specific app? Directly on your website?
Since this article is about the best practices for eCommerce, where is the best place to really put this content? The next obvious question is "where do people shop for your products?" If you sell most of your products on Walmart.com, then figure out if Walmart.com has a solution for AR directly on their website. Or maybe in their app? If you sell most of your products directly on your website, then that's where this AR functionality should go.
Until recently, it was only possible to build AR capabilities into an app. A very popular furniture website that we work with has shared some interesting statistics with us that we'll keep confidential to protect their identity. This brand has spent millions of dollars on their augmented reality features in their own proprietary app (that they have to then manage for both iOS and Android), and they see unbelievable increase in conversion from this AR. Average mobile conversion without AR is about 3.5%. With AR, it's 11%. I'll let you pause for a moment to digest that. 3.5%-->11% and the only difference is AR. Massive difference. But there's a problem. Only 5% of their total traffic uses their app! Millions of dollars and incredible technology built, but 95% of their audience is missing out.
Now, augmented reality on the web is possible. Through Seek, it is possible on iOS and Android with true-to-size accuracy. Seek is currently the only platform in the world capable of doing this. Two very important points here:
- When AR is available directly through the website a MUCH larger audience is reached. People just don't want to download brand apps. Some will, but most won't.
- When AR is available directly on the product page, there is no major change in behavior from the customer. Consumers are already accustomed to clicking on a picture or a video, so if the AR functionality can be embedded directly into a picture on the website, then the customer doesn't have to change their behavior to access this powerful product visualization.
(4) How good is the augmented reality solution?
True to scale? Interaction? Ease of access?
Most brands don't have the budget to take on AR by themselves. For this reason, many companies will choose to find a partner to deliver this service. Millions of developers around the world have access to repositories, tutorials, and relatively easy tools that can be used to create seemingly complicated AR demos. This makes it hard to distinguish who really knows what they are doing and who can deliver a scalable solution. This is where the details really matter. Here are a few points I would address when evaluating a potential solution:
- Ease of installation - How many hours will your tech team have to spend adding code to your website? Do they have to do separate installations for every single item? Unique installations per platform? How will it be maintained?
- Content management - If you have 100+ products (or 10,000 products like many of our customers), how will you manage this content? Is there an easy interface that allows you to manage these files and improve upon them when necessary.
- Content creation - Can the company handle content creation? Or will you have to find a separate vendor for this piece? Keeping everything under one partner will make it easier for everybody involved. Content creation is an art, but it is more than just making it look pretty--files have to be optimized for mobile viewing and formats need to be compatible. This is harder than it may sound. Having a partner that can deliver the A to Z solution ends up saving time and headache.
- Content conversion - If your brand already has 3D models of their products, the odds of them being AR ready are relatively low. There are very specific formats that work well for mobile and some that are just terrible. We came across a solution about a month ago that purported to be the "best AR solution out there" and they were using a file format called OBJ. This is a bloated on format that is terrible for mobile performance. Think back to the days of BMPs for images and compare that to today with JPGs and PNGs. The difference is night and day for performance. This is a complex issue, and because of the fast-changing AR market, there are probably formats we still haven't seen that will jump onto the scene and complicate further.
- Content optimization - Is the content optimized for mobile? Many 3D models are beautiful, but they are 30 MB or maybe 500 MB. How is a user going to feel when they have to sit there waiting to download a large file in order to view a product? Downsizing content to be under 5 MB is an art that few have mastered. This is actually one of Seek's advantages, as our 3D conversion/optimization pipeline is the most powerful out there.
- Content deployment - How easy is it to put new content on the website? Can the content be deployed to multiple platforms or devices? Can it be shared on Facebook? Can it be shared on Snapchat? Etc.
- Cross-platform/device capabilities - Does this work on just iOS? Just Android? Will it work on future devices (addressed more in the next section)?
- Ease of use for the end user - Is the interface clean, simple, and intuitive? Does the user have to download an app? Do they have to learn a new platform to see your content?
- Does it just work? - Some experiences have so many specific conditions that have to be perfectly met for the experience to turn out that half the time, it just doesn't work! Test what you are doing and ensure that the experience won't frustrate your customer, but that it will drive them to want to associate more with your brand.
The details matter, and if the wrong path is chosen early on, it can be expensive and time-consuming to fix later. Look at the companies that have been around the block and have considered these issues. Seek is the leader in this space, and the focus has always been on making it easy for brands to create/manage content and then easy for users to access and use the content.
(5) What about the future?
So, you're planning on spending tens of thousands or maybe millions of dollars on some beautiful AR experiences to bring your brand to the next level as they shop for your products. Great! Your customers will love it! But what happens when the next phone comes out? And what about those AR glasses I've heard of? How do I keep up with devices like Magic Leap and Hololens? Don't they require completely different formats, apps, and installations? These are all valid questions.
The AR world has passed its state of infancy, but it is a fast-moving toddler that is nearly impossible to keep up with. And just like a child that never stops growing, it's expensive to keep up with and develop for every platform. For most brands, it's downright impossible. They have to pick a platform or two and just roll with it, hoping to capture whatever audience might be on those platforms.
When Apple launches their AR glasses, the world will change--and fast. Take a moment to explore the possibilities of AR glasses, and you will be astounded at how game-changing this technology will be. But again, trying to keep up with this technology for your brand is a drain. You almost feel like you need to hire an entire technology team to manage this for your brand. Trust me, even for the biggest brands, this is nearly impossible due to the massive upkeep that would be required for every single solution. Already today, there are half a dozen major ways to deploy AR, and they all use different approaches, technology and content!
At Seek, this is a major focus for us. In our mission to keep things simple, Seek takes this worry out of the equation for all brands that host their content with us. Think of us a little bit like YouTube. You give YouTube a video, and YouTube gives you a link. That link can then be used just about anywhere--on a website, in an app, in a text, in an email, accessed through a QR code, etc. If YouTube adds 10 more devices to their list of supported platforms and improves their streaming technology, your link doesn't change, it just becomes more powerful over time. Seek does the same thing with 3D files. You give Seek a 3D model, and Seek will provide a link. This link detects the device type and delivers the best experience possible for that device. As Seek adds new devices like Magic Leap, Hololens, Apple Glasses, Facebook glasses (they're doing it too), and other devices we haven't even heard of, your content hosted through Seek automatically is upgraded to be compatible with these systems.
Hopefully this guide will help you as you consider starting or expanding your current AR efforts. Having delivered industry-leading solutions in the augmented reality world for years now, the Seek team is proud to be able to offer solutions that cover the bases as outlined above. They can help you launch augmented reality for your brand in a fraction of the time you may think it requires, and now that the primary barrier to augmented reality has been eliminated (the app), eCommerce is fully ready to embrace AR.
Many of the world's leading brands already trust Seek with their web-based AR solutions, and customers are enjoying this new age where web-based shopping can approach the effectiveness of in-store shopping. Please head to https://seekxr.com if you want to learn more about how Seek can help launch augmented reality for your eCommerce brand. And don't forget to leave your thoughts/questions in the comments!
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