Our real-world and the cyber world have never been closer. With ever-decreasing sizes and increasing sophistication, the computer is truly mobile like never before (smartwatch, anyone?) The future promises to make all kinds of smart computing devices ubiquitous in our daily lives, from smart home automation and appliances to smart clothing and cars. As they’ve become more miniature and powerful, computing devices have seen increasing use to eliminate the line between the real and digital worlds to create a new kind of reality called “Virtual Reality”.
VR vs. AR
In a sense, Virtual Reality (“VR” for short) refers to any simulated computer environment with interactive elements. However, in modern parlance, VR specifically refers to a fully immersive experience in a simulated world, where one is isolated from the real world by using an enclosed simulator or VR goggles. Other technologies allow a sort of “Blended Reality” existence by overlaying simulated objects in the real world and displaying both on a display screen (e.g., a smartphone screen), with varying degrees of permissible interactivity between the real world and virtual elements. Depending on the level of interactivity, the technologies are called Augmented Reality (AR) or Mixed Reality (MR). In general, all AR is MR, but all MR is not AR. However, in common usage, AR seems to be the more widely recognized term for AR as well as MR applications, so we will use that in this article to mean both technologies.
Figure 2: VR use in business
VR has been in business use for ages. Beyond military simulators and specialized film & entertainment industry use till the 1990s, VR was increasingly adopted for multiple scientific and medical applications in the first decade of the 2000s. With faster, more powerful VR goggles and smartphones, VR has also seen adoption in engineering, education, art, and gaming applications.
Virtualization without Isolation – The Rise of Augmented Reality
Figure 3: Concept art of a mobile-based AR app
For all its promise however, VR’s major limitation is its requirement for complete isolation from one’s surroundings. Augmented Reality, on the other hand, is all about enriching one’s real-world experience by overlaying digital information on it when viewed through any digital screen- especially smartphones. This has myriad uses, from the useful (e.g., Google Lens’s real-time translation feature or Directions feature can be a welcome relief from confusion in new places with unfamiliar languages) to the entertaining (remember Pokémon Go?). One of the most exciting technologies in this space is AR Glasses, a sort of smart glass panel worn over the eyes which allows users to access digital information while still being aware of the world around them. The idea has been touted as a game-changer in every field, from field surveys in remote areas to adding contextual video and image data in education, city planning, etc. However, affordable, and wide use of AR Glasses is still a thing of the future.
Figure 4: Google Lens directions
Figure 5: AR in gaming -Pokémon Go
Figure 6: AR Glasses- clearly the future, but still in development
In the near future, AR applications are getting adopted for widespread use on existing platforms. For example, social media platforms are incorporating a technology known as WebAR, which allows AR objects to be displayed directly on websites- no special app or headset required. This could be a gamechanger, as it puts both the creation and consumption of AR content in the hands of the consumers. YouTube has already rolled out a feature that lets viewers try on different lipstick shades in real-time while watching certain make-up tip videos. Facebook released its Spark AR platform for free, allowing users to create their own AR filters for Instagram, among other applications. The same technology holds a lot of promise for a variety of other applications for marketing, beta testing certain products, and eCommerce.
Figure 7: 3D face mask filter based on AR technology for Instagram
Other, more specialized applications continue to be of immense potential in the Retail and FMCG industries. A hugely promising use-case for virtual try-on stores for make-up, jewelry, clothing, glasses, accessories, footwear, etc., has gained an increase in momentum in the context of Covid-19 related social distancing, which has reduced footfall to physical stores globally. Faster and more widespread internet access through 5G is expected to also hold major impacts in high-density markets around the world. By some accounts, the Virtual Try-on industry is expected to cross USD 6.5 Billion by 2025. The technology is widely expected to be adopted in some form or another by every major physical as well as eCommerce retailer.
Figure 8: AR-based footwear virtual try-on app
Figure 9: Virtual Try-on for rings
Beyond virtual try-on stores, highly sophisticated AR (sometimes called “Mixed Reality” or MR) adds serious muscle to AR’s capabilities. Microsoft Hololens for example, is a serious attempt to put powerful AR capabilities in the hands of architects, engineers, game developers, filmmakers, and medical researchers, among others via a sophisticated headset that is a powerful, self-contained holographic computer. A somewhat less computation-heavy application like the Ikea Place app seeks to incorporate features like spatial recognition and orientation to create a furniture app that not only allows a realistic assessment of a particular piece of furniture by allowing users to “place” it in an empty space but also includes features like orientation, where the app recognizes which direction the object is being viewed from to create a life-life view.
Figure 10: Concept art of architects collaborating using AR glasses.
Figure 11: Microsoft’s Hololens series of headgear features powerful computing capability to create a rich AR experience
In an increasingly digital world, expanding one’s reality using technology is the key to remaining relevant as a business. Virtual interfaces represent a new, exciting way to cross geographical boundaries in retail, expand simulation capabilities, and put the power of tech-driven marketing in the hands of every business.
Opportunities and Challenges
In the medium term (1-7 years), AR and MR applications are poised for massive growth. From a retailer’s perspective, digital try-on rooms, including physical booths / AR mirrors and smartphone apps represent an important growth avenue, especially in the context of the post-Covid19 “New Reality” of consumers’ shopping behavior. However, it can be a massive endeavor to digitize the entire inventory. In some cases, photogrammetry is possible, but in many cases with complex visual details (e.g., jewelry), one needs access to talented 3D graphics artists, a good work setup with calibrated monitors and high-end computers, and most of all, a good business understanding.
Even with a digitized asset library, the work is far from finished. The creation of a sophisticated try-on system, whether it is purchased off-the-shelf or created in-house, is key. Finally, the marketing, roll-out, and ROI Impact of the creation has to be measured. One of the best ways to accomplish AR implementation is by working with an execution partner like Manipal Digital Systems, which regularly handles global projects with end-to-end scope of digitizing/ creating original 3D art, deploying the characters and art into existing or new AR apps, and planning the entire marketing and roll-out campaign.