Is Walmart’s innovation leader right that the AR revolution is a sure thing?

Discussion
Source: "Place IKEA furniture in your home with augmented reality" - IKEA
Jun 12, 2017
Matthew Stern

Pokémon Go may have come and gone, but big names in the retail world are making serious investments in the future of augmented reality (AR) and believe that mass adoption of the technology is soon forthcoming. That was the main takeaway from a session last week at the Internet Retailer Conference and Exhibition in Chicago given by Imran Ansani, principal manager of innovation at Walmart Labs.

“Earlier this week Apple had their worldwide developer’s conference,” Mr. Ansani said. “The big revelation was not some new iPad or a Mac Book Pro or anything fancy like that. It was [an augmented reality developer’s kit] called the ARKit. That kind of gives you an understanding of how important augmented reality is to some of these bigger players, and what we can start expecting to see in the future.”

Despite the current lack of a “killer app” or point of critical mass, Mr. Ansani sees AR as reaching ubiquity in the next five years. In fact, he believes the smartphone will become obsolete in favor of AR-enabled devices that allow people to interact with computers in a “more natural” way.

“The iPhone will give way to the ‘iGlass’ or whatever is coming next,” Mr. Ansani said.

Mr. Ansani noted incipient uses for AR in product design, warehouse picking, sales, marketing and training. He predicted that in-home previewing of where furniture fits in the home, like what’s offered in IKEA’s home furnishings AR app and other similar pieces of technology, will become table stakes for customers who are trying before they buy.

“Look at augmented reality in the future as ‘experience being the content,'” Mr. Ansani said. “Customers want to be able to touch, feel, hear and then buy. They want to engage all their senses. It’s not one at a time, it’s not a video here and a brochure there and an experience online, it’s pretty much a convergence of all of the senses that gives them a sense of understanding of what it is they’re buying, why and telling that story. That’s what AR enables them to do.”

“We’re moving from an information age to an experience age,” Mr. Ansani said.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS: Will Walmart Lab’s Imran Ansani be accurate in his prediction that AR — delivered through non-smartphone devices — will become the primary way of interacting with technology? What roadblocks might there be along the way to the retail AR revolution Mr. Ansani and others are anticipating?

Please practice The RetailWire Golden Rule when submitting your comments.
Braintrust
"Once AR is mainstream, using AR to make physical shopping more like the Amazon-like experience we expect today will become commonplace."
"I think we still need to see the killer app though — AR strongly lends itself to home furnishings retail. "
"...let me say I’m more bullish about Ansani’s argument than some of my distinguished RetailWire peers."

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29 Comments on "Is Walmart’s innovation leader right that the AR revolution is a sure thing?"


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Keith Anderson
BrainTrust

The potential is very high, but the timing is equally uncertain.

For AR to become mainstream or even a dominant mode of interaction, its perceived value will need to exceed the effort and investment required. And at a minimum it will need to be positioned as a “normal” or even “cool” way to shop.

When the enabling technology is affordable to the typical household and retailer, when its benefits or impact on shopper behavior and experience are enduring and when it is culturally accepted beyond technology enthusiasts, AR has a real shot at transforming commerce.

Charles Dimov
Guest

I agree with you Keith. Timing is everything. We are still early in the AR space. It’s great that Walmart is experimenting with it already. On the novelty factor, this might gain some traction but AR is definitely not Main Street technology yet. There’s a good chance that people might come into the store to try it out — at a special AR booth for example.

Max Goldberg
Guest

The use of AR will grow, but not at the speed that Mr. Ansani predicts. At this point in time most consumers have little or no experience with AR. It will take time for them to learn about the technology. Also, consumers seem to be in no hurry to discard their mobile phones or trade them in for other devices.

Sterling Hawkins
BrainTrust

There’s a little company called Snap that has already brought AR to market in a significant way. Sure, Snapchat isn’t a commerce vehicle (yet); however, it has familiarized many with AR and how it works. I do agree that AR doesn’t have a “killer-app” for retail, but with the big players we have jumping into this race, I don’t think it’ll be long.

Phil Masiello
BrainTrust
As a marketer, I am intrigued by AR technology. I can see a million benefits in using the technology to enhance the selling experience. I have studied it and have an affiliation with an AR development group. But so far, there is one major obstacle. The consumer. According to a recent study, 53 percent of consumers under 35 don’t see the value in AR outside of gaming. There were some other insights such as concerns about motion sickness and the lack of content. The success of AR is going to depend on the quality of the content, the value of the content and the device it is delivered on. I don’t believe that wearables/glasses are going to be the answer. In order for the technology to be adopted by a mass market, it needs to be integrated into the apps we use frequently and standardized. All of the people hyping AR are the tech people and the hardware manufacturers, which is great. But in order for it to succeed the consumers need to jump on… Read more »
Ian Percy
BrainTrust

Sure, this is all very exciting stuff.

What is sad is that with all our gifts and abilities and the enormous capability of our brains, we have not ourselves learned how to directly augment our daily reality. I have news for those who think they are on the bleeding edge — the “experience age” has been in existence since the beginning of time. Indeed, there is nothing else. And instead of learning how to talk to machines more “naturally,” wouldn’t it be great and more helpful to the human experience to be able to talk to each other and to our own spouses and kids more naturally?

Dave Nixon
BrainTrust
Dave Nixon
Data Analytics Solutions Executive, Teradata
2 years 5 months ago

For this technology to take off, and become mainstream, the access to the tools needs to be more seamless and easy. Integrate or build the AR application directly into the camera software. This is where QR codes fell apart. Secondarily, the digital product models need to be as realistic and look as lifelike as possible or the differences can become a distraction to the buying experience. But AR and corresponding VR will help bridge the gap between digital and physical retail and should drive engagement if done correctly.

Nir Manor
BrainTrust

I believe that in order to reach the tipping point there must be an AR “killer app” that will show clear value and friendly UI to consumers.

Shep Hyken
BrainTrust

AR is here and it is going to be a big deal. Online or in-store, AR will help consumers make informed decisions. Example: How will this new couch look in my living room? I’ll use a picture of my living room (on my smartphone, tablet or desktop) and the AR program will put the couch right into my living room. I’ll be able to view it at different angles, change colors, etc. It’s like I get to take the couch home and see how it looks — without having to take it home. While the focus of this article is on Walmart, take a look at what Sephora is dong to showcase their make-up products. As Mr. Ansani says, it’s about “experiencing the content.” It’s not a gimmick. It’s real and it’s only getting better.

Ben Zifkin
Guest
2 years 5 months ago

Yes, it is a sure thing. The only question is about the timing of it. Over the next few years, you will likely see the typical innovation cycle. Some retailers will do interesting experiments with it. It will be more of a marketing cost to the business. Next there will be glimmers of hope in terms of showing a return on some of that investment with evidence of specific programs driving sales. Then the good companies will operationalize it rather than treating it as an innovation project. Finally, the laggards will follow suit. It is a sure thing but I’m just not sure if this cycle is three years long or 10 years long. I would suspect it is somewhere in the middle.

Stefan Weitz
Guest
While I appreciate the sentiment and techno-optimism of Mr. Ansani, we should expect our mobile devices to be with us for years to come. There are too many fundamental breakthroughs required to mainstream AR in any very-near future, including better battery tech, breakthroughs in optics that require bending the laws of physics, higher speed networks (although 5G should be widely available by 2020) and of course the killer app without which most of this tech is just for tech’s sake. That said, once the requisite pieces of technology exist the shopping experience will be vastly different. I’m reminded of the game Second Life from the early ’00s where brands would purchase and set up virtual storefronts for the 1 million inhabitants of the gamespace. Once AR is mainstream, you can imagine an entire Gold Rush of companies and brands clamoring for the hottest virtual real estate to appeal to the users. Or even if there is no virtual simulacrum of the physical world that exists in the space, using AR to make physical shopping more… Read more »
Michael Day
BrainTrust

Unlike AI which has universal data-driven potential (across retail formats, categories and demographics) and will continue to produce more sophisticated customer journey and personalization tools, AR’s impact on retail looks more limited. That said, I can see Walmart developing next-gen tools and deploying AR to help drive sales and margin in categories like furniture, outdoor patio, jewelry, apparel, etc.

Harley Feldman
BrainTrust

AR will not become the primary way of interacting with technology, but it will have its place among others. The experience created by AR can be quite immersive and help the user see 3-D space as if the user is somewhere else. This is useful to create scenes helping the consumer visualize products in places difficult to see in 2-D photos like furniture preview.

The roadblocks to AR will be cost and if it requires a new device, there will be significant challenges. AR on a smartphone is convenient and has no additional cost. Even if the phone AR is not as well done, the convenience will be a huge benefit. Full AR with special hardware will likely be only hosted at retail stores.

Pavlo Khliust
Guest
AR is a great tool to help us visualize the product and tell its story. As we receive more than 90 percent of information through visual interactions with the world around us, augmented reality has the potential to become a primary way of delivering the necessary information to secure the purchase of most products. It will positively impact the square footage of physical stores as well, through enabling a semi-virtual way shopping by simply using the AR-type panels. A huge milestone lies in the development of hardware/software solutions to seamlessly deliver AR experiences to people at an affordable rate. Smartphones, tablets and future “iGlass”-types of devices will greatly enrich customers’ shopping experience while they are online and they will add value in brick-and-mortar stores through features like “see it in action,” “how it’s made,” detailed information reports, etc. That will stimulate the growth of the whole industry, focused on AR-enabling materials, hardware and software solutions, design, etc. While great in theory, it will take an uncertain amount of time and investment to win over retailers… Read more »
Lyle Bunn (Ph.D. Hon)
Guest

Beyond its connectivity, the camera is the most important component of a smartphone. Add in geo-awareness with information access and the consumer experience can go to whole new levels of browse, discovery, learning and trial. The critical success factor is information access, so the call to action is for content management along the supply chain of product production, distribution and retail. Consumers base buying decisions on information and so making this available is the next plateau of a paradigm that tells the story, sells the story and respects customer time. AR will differentiate consumer experiences as it find its way into point-of-purchase, retail, way-finding, events and city-scaping.

Mohamed Amer
BrainTrust
Mohamed Amer
Independent Board Member, Investor and Startup Advisor
2 years 5 months ago
Mr. Ansani is spot-on when he says, “[consumers] want to engage all their senses. It’s pretty much a convergence of all of the senses that gives them a sense of understanding of what it is they’re buying, why and telling that story.” To the extent that AR, in a digitally-charged world, can bring in multiple-sense experience and help tell and bring that story to the consumer, it will be a big element of retail’s future. For many in retail we can say that it’s always been about experience. The biggest change today is that the main character in this experience is no longer the product with the customer stepping into the story. Now the product has to enter into the story as the supporting cast for the main character: the customer. It’s subtle but critical to creating a successful future for retailers. Mr. Ansani is taking the right steps as long as he views technologies, like AR, as being in a supporting role in delivering the experience customers deserve and, in the future will, adamantly… Read more »
Ken Lonyai
BrainTrust

AR in and of itself is mono-sensory: vision. VR too.

Ian Percy
BrainTrust

An obvious — and brilliant — observation Ken.

Ken Lonyai
BrainTrust

It’s cool that Imran has acknowledged what I’ve been doing for the last 15 years. He’s right in saying “They want to engage all their senses.”

AR is just one piece of that full experience. Other things like interactive scent, haptics (textural touch), and sensing technologies (facial, voice, affective) are all elements that have their place in creating truly immersive experiences.

The big problem with brands and retailers is that they feel innovative by delving into one area of experience at a time. Lately, all the hype is on voice, so that’s where the focus is. Previously, it was on AR and that fizzled, but now with Apple making a big announcement and Walmart’s validation, the buzz will circle back to AR again. The real killer app and value add is piecing it all together to create a real HUI (humanized user experience). And of all the major brands, Microsoft is the one quietly moving the farthest in that direction with HoloLens.

Cathy Hotka
BrainTrust

I’m with Mr. Ansani. I’ve talked to a number of retailers who can’t wait to use AR to empower customers to see furniture in the context of their homes, to allow customers to try makeup and hairstyles virtually and to let them test paint colors and try on eyeglasses. Given the benefits and the ease of deployment, there are some pretty compelling use cases out there.

Ryan Mathews
BrainTrust
At the risk of losing my well-deserved mantle as a cynic when it comes to discussions of “the next big thing,” let me say I’m more bullish about Ansani’s argument than some of my distinguished RetailWire peers. Sure, timing is everything and — as we have seen in the virtual reality (VR) space — the idea of applying what I prefer to call DER, (digitally enhanced reality, which includes AR, VR and other technologies) has historically proven much more popular in theory than in practice. We are currently — depending on how you count — in the middle of our third or fourth wave of VR hype. No wonder people are skeptical. But I think it’s a mistake to look at one aspect of these technologies — and there are a lot of them we never talk about — and say you are waiting for it to “arrive.” Let’s draw an analogy to medical science, say cancer research. What typically happens is that dozens, hundreds, maybe thousands of labs around the world are working on… Read more »
Frank Poole
Guest
2 years 5 months ago

Yes, it will happen, but retailers won’t be the ones controlling it. It will be third-party service providers who allow you to map your home or apartment or backyard, then use your smartphone to place items you see in a store into your scanned environment. (This really isn’t even all that complicated … I suspect there’s a version out there already.)

But this won’t stop Walmart, Kohl’s and the rest from dumping massive amounts of capital into yet another tech initiative that’s way outside their core competencies.

Cate Trotter
BrainTrust

I think AR will be part of the picture but probably not the primary way of interacting with technology. I think we still need to see the killer app though — AR strongly lends itself to home furnishings retail. Customers can see how new furniture looks and fits in their home, change their curtain colors, change their carpet, etc. Those kinds of purchases are not something that the average person does regularly though. For AR to become a normal part of shopping, retail needs to find everyday uses for it. Developments in makeup mirrors and apps are a great example of this.

Kai Clarke
BrainTrust

Yes, AR or some form of it will eventually shape and change our perceptions of ecommerce and online shopping, but it is not retail that is driving this. Instead, it is gaming and video sharing which drives this technology and its adoption. At this point, it is still a nascent technology solution looking for a problem.

Lee Peterson
BrainTrust

The main roadblock we’re hearing when we talk to consumers is trust. It reminds me a lot of the internet in general 15 – 20 years ago. Especially now that we know that machines get smart and gather history to sell us “other” things. We hear, “I don’t want that in my house so it’s telling someone else how I think and act!” A lot like you did 15 years ago about giving CC info online. Same with AI.

As a tool, it’s obviously fantastic, but I think, like the internet in general, it’s going to be a long road to full adaption in the center of the bell curve, especially for Walmart customers. As before, look for young people to lead us to that promised land.

Kenneth Leung
BrainTrust

I think consumers are ready for AR when the access method is socially acceptable. Google glasses taught us that socially, consumers are not ready for very intrusive technology. We are already accepting people walking around staring at their screen to access and post information, when they figure out the non-intrusive user interface for AR like smart ear bud, it will spread….

I still don’t know why all the focus on AR is on visual cues, why not audio cues paired with voice recognition? Everyone’s got headset on anyway.

Vahe Katros
Guest
Vahe Katros
2 years 5 months ago
AR without content is just plain R. So … how do they get the content? Hypothetical: Walmart has all these networked relationships. What if they were to do the same thing they did on the supply chain side and create a set of content standards for each category and each product? Instead of Vendor Managed Inventory, we can call it Vendor Managed Interactions. Do you think they can charge vendors for the AR visual real estate they occupy — based on the premier spaces on the lens perhaps? Instead of end aisle, it would be end iris? And what if they tagged and set rules on the content so the augmentation is personalized using the famed trading area attribute richness evolved over the years from their store data model. And what if the take their Partner Knowledge Base and create a set of API’s for the knowledge base so that our vendors only need to enter data once?! And what if they enabled customers and third parties to enhance the content? And what if they… Read more »
Jennie Gilbert
Guest
There’s no doubt that AR and VR technology hold a lot of promise in retail; it could help solve some real challenges consumers face today, like picturing what certain furniture would look like in their living room. But while everyone’s focusing on the AR technology itself, and what type of device we’ll consume it on, we’re missing a huge roadblock standing in the way: product data. The best AR technology in the world isn’t going to be useful if manufacturers don’t also invest in creating new product data that meets the new and much more demanding needs of this technology. Our firm currently aggregates and normalizes product data for over 1,200 brands of major appliances, furniture and mattresses and today it’s difficult to get a — as in one — picture of everything they produce … let alone enough to see each item in 360 degrees, in every color or fabric it comes in, with every door open or with every option customized. There’s already a huge gap in quality of product data and I… Read more »
Camilla Ley Valentin
Guest

The question is less are they right and more are consumers ready? Retail technology is changing so quickly it is important to keep consumer benefit in mind and not innovate just for the sake of it.

wpDiscuz
Braintrust
"Once AR is mainstream, using AR to make physical shopping more like the Amazon-like experience we expect today will become commonplace."
"I think we still need to see the killer app though — AR strongly lends itself to home furnishings retail. "
"...let me say I’m more bullish about Ansani’s argument than some of my distinguished RetailWire peers."

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