Using Virtual and Augmented Reality to Bridge the Digital Divide

Last March we watched news stories showing the world enthralled with chasing down virtual monsters with their smartphones. And just like that, we were introduced to the power of augmented reality. Not coincidentally, virtual reality experienced a renaissance in 2016 with new VR headsets available for everything from mobile phones to video games. The public's newfound love with virtual immersion is an opportunity for retailers, but just how much remains to be seen.

2017 looks to be a watershed year for mixed reality, that jumbled space where the real world and virtual world intersect. Both virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) look to play a part in how retailers can use mixed reality technology to create the best possible customer experience. Here are a few examples of the early adopters.

Gap – The brand synonymous with mall retailers has introduced a new virtual dressing room app that shows users how clothes will look on different body sizes. While merely representing a "typical" body of each size (2, 4, 6, 8, 10), the app shows how each size of an item looks on each specific body size. As representation of personal attributes becomes more mainstream, it wouldn't be too much of a stretch to imagine the same functionality, but on exact personal dimensions. Coupled with other mobile apps already in the store (such as multi-store inventory searches), Gap is pushing itself to bridge the gap between the virtual and real worlds.

Rebecca Minkoff – The world-class designer brand known for embracing and using technology as a strategic force has built smart dressing rooms into its branded stores. Smart dressing rooms allow users to touch the mirror, turning it into an interactive device where shoppers can get more product information, recommendations on accessories, see other sizes or colors, and even order them from the store they're in or somewhere else. Designed by eBay to create a great interactive experience, the smart dressing rooms are also being piloted at Nordstrom. Now, if they could just order coffee, too.

Converse – An original standard in branding, Converse delivered its first augmented reality app last year, which enables users to see exactly how a pair of shoes would look on their feet. The app maps a virtual shoe onto a picture of the user's foot, essentially turning the phone into a dressing room. Converse has seen higher conversion rates – always a good thing – but they're also seeing fewer returns since users have already "tried the shoes on" before ordering.

Adidas – The global sports brand that lives on innovation has used Microsoft Kinect to build a body scanner that sits in their physical stores. With the help of a trained employee, customers are scanned head-to-toe, which allows them to try on clothes virtually. The best part is that once you're scanned, you can try on clothes virtually when you're shopping online (at home) or when you're physically at the store. Like others, Adidas is also building smart technology into its dressing rooms for a more interactive product experience.

But wait, there's more. A set of new technology providers is popping up to deliver augmented and virtual functionality for everyone, not just those with the biggest and deepest pockets. It will be interesting if one day we look back at 2017 and wonder how we ever shopped without mixed reality. It's fun to watch it grow from the humble beginnings of virtual runways on websites to the magic mirrors and virtual fitting room apps launching now. No matter where the technology goes, the winners will be the retailers most responsive to users' needs.

Susan Wall is vice president of marketing for Bronto Software, a cloud-based marketing automation provider.
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