Augmented Reality – The Next Big Thing in Retail? I Hope Not

A lot has been said and written about Augmented Reality recently, so much so that it is now acceptable to just refer to this fledgling technology as AR. However, just in case you have been out of the loop for the past 12 months let me summarise what AR is in as few words as possible: “The solution for every problem known to man, ever.”

Seriously, that’s what I am picking up from the various blogs and articles I read as well as the conferences I attend. AR is being heralded as this messianic solution. From automotive solutions to advertising, medical to media, everybody is raving about it. However there is one sector that seems to be more excited about AR than any other... retail.

The “official” definition from Wikipedia states:

Augmented reality (AR) is a term for a live direct or indirect view of a physical real-world environment whose elements are augmented by virtual computer-generated imagery. It is related to a more general concept called mediated reality in which a view of reality is modified (possibly even diminished rather than augmented) by a computer. As a result, the technology functions by enhancing one’s current perception of reality. (

AR is clever, it really is. There are some amazing uses and applications out there. Currently the biggest use of AR is a set of smart phone applications displaying relevant information overlaid on a map or image of the real world using the phone’s camera. If you want to try this out for yourself and you have a smartphone, you can download Layer or Yelp from the respective app stores, it’s free.

Layar is a real success story; it has raised $4.4m in various funding rounds and has spawned numerous spin offs and copycats. But here is the problem, most of them are terrible. A very large furniture company recently launched a feature that allowed you to design your dream room online. You could then view it via an AR application that involved either printing or picking up a special card in store. It’s a complete gimmick. Sure it was good fun but did it really help me in my quest to home furnishing nirvana? No, not a chance. The technology was slow. It was frustrating to use and entertainment value aside, who prints things anymore?

Another example comes from an online fashion retailer that allowed you to try on various accessories, hats, sun glasses and, quite disturbingly facial hair, all via the comfort of your webcam. It was hilarious fun; we managed to turn my five year old daughter into our vision of a 20th century European dictator, with a trilby hat. Would she look anything like the image being represented on the screen if she really had the hat on? Again, no, not a chance.

Retailers need to wise up. Yes this is all great fun, but when it comes to the important point of selling product, AR is a long way away from being the panacea many industry experts are predicting. I was completely staggered to discover a huge high street brand recently advertising for an Augmented Reality expert to join its team. The same company has no basic mobile offering, a crazy ecommerce strategy and it’s being humiliated on the high street on a daily basis.

In retail, regardless of sales channel, there is one enduring truth. You will succeed if you are accessible in the right market, have the right product, at the right price with the right level of service. This is basic stuff. At the moment, AR for retailers is a complete distraction. Today it fulfils none of the above pre-requisites. If anyone tells you an investment in AR over the more traditional marketing methods will help to sell more product, they are lying.

The popularity of AR seems to be being fuelled by venture capitalist firms that have pumped in a lot of money and are now desperate to find a revenue opportunity. It’s the Virtual Reality of the 90s and the Artificial Intelligence of the 60s all over again.

I don’t mean to sound like a complete technophobe. AR will play an important part of the future as the technology matures. But for retailers it’s not here yet, not even close.