Augmented reality (AR) is not a new trend in retail, as it has been in the developmental stages for many years now. However, the level of progress in AR-based retail technology seen in 2020 alone was more impressive than anything that had come before. As for virtual reality (VR) technology, which is often mistaken to be the same as or very similar to AR tech, 2020 was perhaps the biggest year for the technology to showcase some of its brilliant applicability in entertainment. Unfortunately, that progress had little to do with retail.
Why Didn’t Virtual Reality Grow Bigger in Retail?
There was a time when AR and VR were almost exclusively identified with the future of gaming, but it was soon realized that augmented reality had far more potential in retail than gaming at the moment. Virtual reality, on the other hand, remains confined to entertainment for the most part still today. The primary issue with VR’s applicability in retail is the fact that it creates a more immersive experience, at the cost of sensory confinement. Whatever an individual might experience during a VR session or experience, is limited to the virtual world of the software itself.
Theoretically, retail VR software that was developed to help potential customers take advantage of an immersive, virtual, “in-shop” experience should have been a huge hit. However, it was not a feasible option in most cases, and it still is not in 2021. Highlighting the main contradictions between what was needed and what is available in VR tech should be able to explain the issues better:
- There simply isn’t enough power in most computers to run a proper, lifelike retail shop simulation of high quality in VR
- The initial attempts made to create retail simulations were done with low-quality images and missing details, which did nothing to impress potential customers
- In addition to owning a powerful PC, users must also have a compatible VR headset to use retail simulation software packages, which vastly limits VR’s scope to reach potential customers
- Due to VR software and hardware components being in their early stages, the expensive equipment and apps needed to be replaced every now and then to keep them valid
- The cost of VR software development and regular hardware replacements could not be justified by their comparative ROI in retail.
VR experiences are now mostly limited to marketing in offline booths and large retail units, where the hardware necessary to run a proper simulation in full resolution (QHD or higher) is already present. In 2020, when everything had to shut down for a while, VR lost its utility in retail almost completely because those powerful PCs, VR software simulations and public VR headsets were no longer of any use in a world threatened by Covid-19. Virtual reality did make huge progress in gaming, however, but as far as the retail industry was concerned, it could not help the market much last year, if at all.
Growth in Augmented Reality was Fueled by Need in 2020
The old saying about necessity being the mother of invention would be a perfect expression to describe the reason behind AR’s rapid growth and value during 2020. As offline retail came crashing down in the middle of global lockdowns, growing panic and severe restrictions in an attempt to control the spread of Covid-19, augmented reality provided opportunities for online and offline retailers in multiple segments to keep their businesses alive.
Retailers could replicate a reliable experience for their customers who were stuck at home, without anyone having to risk an infection. Offline retailers who were smart enough to open online portals and payment gateways used AR to provide potential customers with a mixed reality experience. They started accepting easy payments through those online channels, and hygienically delivered their products to the customers’ doorsteps. Now, it is important to highlight that the same could not be said about VR, because almost nothing that limited VR in its applicability in retail was a limiting factor for AR.
Consequently, more retailers now wanted to incorporate mixed reality applications within their websites or launch exclusive AR apps of their own. This meant that the need, demand and salary for computer engineers, computer science experts and app developers related to the augmented reality sector reached an all-time high as well. This is not a trend, but the future.
Covid might be history by 2022, but now that customers and businesses know what augmented reality can do, the sector will not be losing focus in retail anytime soon. In fact, the same applies to almost any field of computer science today, be it for game development, software testing, SaaS or data science and architecture. Anyone who already has a technical background and decent work experience should look for an adequate and affiliated online Masters in Computer Science, Data Science or Software Engineering right now, so that they can make the most out of the slowly surging boom in a post-covid job market.
Why AR Succeeded Where VR Failed
As mentioned, augmented reality did not have almost any of the shortcomings which kept virtual reality confined to gaming and controlled, in-house simulations only. Looking at the few crucial differences should explain why AR succeeded in retail, but VR could not:
- AR or mixed reality doesn’t require a headset, or even a powerful PC
- Both AR and VR have smartphone apps, but VR apps on smartphones are too low quality to be considered acceptable for retail simulations
- AR simply relies on the phone’s cameras to insert a few high-quality image projections onto the user’s own location, making the experience more suitable for retail in general.
Augmented reality has a much higher ROI, because it can reach more people, does not require heavy investments at all to enjoy or experience, and it is capable of producing some really good mixed reality projections/simulations, even from smartphones. For example, when you can almost exactly replicate the real-life effect of placing a particular piece of furniture in a corner of your room with your smartphone, buying furniture from home naturally becomes a lot easier and more feasible.
AR is not the only factor which is expected to have a bigger than ever impact on retail in 2021, but it will still be one of the most prominent ones in the US at least. After going through the brief details discussed here, it should be possible for relevant businesses to get some foresight into the market’s near future. Alongside personalized digital interactions and intelligent customer profiling, augmented reality should be a part of any retail strategy for maximizing 2021-22.