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What Is Augmented Reality (AR)? A Practical Overview
Everything that you need to know about augmented reality.
Augmented reality (AR) is a technology that lets people superimpose digital content (images, sounds, text) over a real-world environment. AR got a lot of attention in 2016 when the game Pokémon Go made it possible to interact with Pokémon superimposed on the world via a smartphone screen.
Augmented reality (AR) is a technology that lets people superimpose digital content (images, sounds, text) over a real-world environment.
Since then, augmented reality has become increasingly popular. Apple introduced its ARKit platform in 2017, and Google launched web API prototypes later that year. And then there are Apple's AR glasses, rumored for launch later this year, which will let wearers have AR experiences without looking down at a phone.

In other words, AR is on the verge of becoming a part of everyday life. If you're still wondering what exactly it is, you're in the right place. In this article, we'll explore what AR is with a focus on its practical and commercial applications.

What is augmented reality (AR)?

Augmented reality is what it sounds like: reality, enhanced with interactive digital components. The most commonly used AR applications these days rely on smartphones to showcase the digitally augmented world: users can activate a smartphone's camera, view the real world around them on the screen, and rely on an AR application to enhance that world in any number of ways via digital overlays:

  • Superimposing images, digital information and/or 3D models
  • Adding real-time directions
  • Inserting labels
  • Changing colors
  • Altering the user or their environment's appearance via "filters" on Instagram, Snapchat, and other apps
Various devices can display AR, and the list is only growing: screens, glasses, handheld and mobile devices, and head-mounted displays.

In understanding what AR is, it's also important to understand what it is not.

AR is not a fully immersive experience like virtual reality (VR). While virtual reality requires users to don a special headset and pulls them into a completely digital world, AR lets them continue interacting with the physical world around them.

Common Augmented Reality Use Cases

So what is augmented reality used for these days? A lot more than helping people track down pocket monsters. In fact, in 2020, nearly every industry has found ways to apply AR technology to improve processes and outcomes. Common uses include…

Training and education
Dynamic, AR-based instructions let people perform new tasks more easily and quickly than traditional training methods (like instruction manuals). As wearable devices like AR-powered smart glasses, AR contacts and AR headsets become more widely available, the potential for training via augmented reality will be tremendous.
Entertainment
AR has been enhancing entertainment for years. In 2012, a hologram of Tupac Shakur appeared onstage with Snoop Dogg at Coachella. This year, a fully CGI avatar who happens to be an Instagram influencer was signed by talent agency CAA. And to adapt to the realities of the COVID-19 pandemic, the band Real Estate offered a "Quarantour," meaning an AR-powered tour to replace the live shows it had to cancel because of worldwide quarantines.
Selling
These days, it's possible to virtually try on or try out a variety of merchandise before buying via augmented reality apps: Sephora's app lets you view cosmetics in AR on your face; IKEA offers a chance to "see" furniture in your home; paint brands let you virtually view colors on your walls; Warby Parker makes it possible to "try on" glasses frames without actually visiting a store location or ordering samples. Pre-pandemic, these offerings provided a way to enhance in-store experiences or make life a little easier for busy shoppers. Now, they've made it possible for many brands to sell to shoppers stuck in their homes. AR applications for eCommerce are poised to become the norm.
Gaming
Today, dozens of other games incorporate AR elements. The popularity of AR games is no surprise, as gaming was one of the most obvious early applications that many people saw for AR and VR capabilities.
Today, most of these augmented reality experiences are made possible by smartphones. However, the development of more advanced AR devices (like Apple's AR glasses or Microsoft's Hololens) could open the door to even more applications.

The benefits of AR are only continuing to expand to new sectors, such as healthcare, manufacturing, utilities, telecommunications, education, and public safety.

Imagine, for example, viewing IKEA furniture in the comfort of your own physical environment via AR, ordering it online, and then receiving it with assembly instructions that projected themselves right on the pieces in the box, thanks to your AR-enabled glasses. The possibilities are endless and endlessly exciting.
Selling with Augmented Reality: A Closer Look

While all of the use cases for augmented reality mentioned above are intriguing, the one most relevant to most companies–especially in a time when businesses around the world have been forced to close their doors to foot traffic–is AR-powered selling.

Why You Need Augmented Reality Now

TechCrunch recently called AR the answer to plummeting retail sales during lockdown.

We couldn't agree more. Adding augmented reality to an eCommerce site helps you sell more and keep more of your revenue. This happens via three major mechanisms:

  1. 3D tech like AR increases user engagement by 66 percent. The longer a customer spends on your website, the more likely they are to buy something. Even if they don't purchase during a visit, the increased engagement means they've developed a relationship to your brand and your product, which makes them more likely to make a purchase in the future.
  2. 3D tech like AR increases conversions by 40 percent. In addition to keeping people on your site longer, AR can actually boost sales. This is likely because AR gives users more information than static 2D images. In addition to offering 3D views, it can show what a product looks like in a user's space, making it much easier to make a buying decision.
  3. 3D tech like AR reduces returns by 35 percent. So in addition to selling more, you can expect to hang on to more of that revenue. This is particularly important if you're used to relying on in-store sales. eCommerce returns can be up to five times higher than those for goods purchased in brick-and-mortar stores.
One final benefit augmented reality offers eCommerce retailers: as many as 40 percent of customers are willing to pay more for a product if they can experience it through AR. This may be because AR gives eCommerce customers greater confidence about a product and its quality before clicking "buy," which makes them more confident paying a premium.
Brands Using Augmented Reality Successfully in eCommerce

So how can you bring augmented reality to your eCommerce site? These six brands have found a variety of ways to do that successfully.

IKEA Uses AR to Power Furniture Shopping at Home

The IKEA Place app uses AR to let furniture shoppers view furniture in their homes. Key to the success of this app: it scans a room to get its dimensions and then shows how furniture would fit with 98 percent accuracy.

Dulux Paint Uses AR to Show Paint Colors on Customers' Walls

With its Visualizer App, paint company Dulux lets shoppers see how more than 1,200 paint colors would look on their walls. This solves the age-old problem of trying to visualize a tiny square color sample expanded to cover a room.
Try this AR application if… your product looks very different in its container or on the shelf than it does in use (makeup, paint, curtains, wallpaper, etc.).
Lego Hidden Side & Bic Kids Layer Interactive Games onto Real Toys

Lego's Hidden Side AR app offers kids an additional way to engage with their Legos: it layers a ghost-hunting game over the physical creations. In quarantine times, a feature like this can turn a product from a nice-to-have into a must-have, especially for working parents looking for ways to keep kids busy.
Bic Kids offers a similar app that uses virtual reality to let kids "gamify" drawings they've made via.
Wannaby & Warby Parker Apps Let Shoppers Try Stuff on at Home

The Wanna Kicks app by Wannaby lets shoppers try on sneakers from home (see Figure 4). All users have to do is download the app, hold out their feet, and select from available sneaker styles to see what various shoes would look like on their feet.
The Commercial Opportunities for AR: Only Growing

Augmented reality has the potential to improve many aspects of the customer experience, even when that experience happens within the confines of the customer's living space. It combines the real and virtual world in real time, with all the visualization capabilities of in-person shopping and all of the ease of staying at home.

In an age of increased reliance on eCommerce, this means that AR is a powerful visualization tool that brands across industries can leverage to improve their relationships with customers and ultimately improve their bottom lines.

But don't just take our word for it. Below are just a few statistics that indicate that the impact of AR in business is only growing:

  • 61% of consumers say that they prefer retailers that provide AR experiences.
  • 71% of shoppers say that they would shop more often if they could use AR.
  • Using AR technology in eCommerce can increase conversion rates by 40%.