Mixed reality will reinforce retail’s human touch

25 : 03 : 2019 Retail : Technology : Customer Experience

Why shoppers’ physical connection to real products, combined with an augmented environment, equals the perfect blend of cool, real and practical.

Castrol EDGE: Titanium Ice by UNIT9 Castrol EDGE: Titanium Ice by UNIT9

Imagine using MR and IoT to place a virtual shoe on a plinth, with the shopper customising it using natural gestures through an augmented interface.

Maciej Zasada, technical director, UNIT9

Mixed reality (MR) became a thing when the original MR concept, Magic Leap, burst onto the scene in 2015 with compelling videos of whales crashing through gym floors. The world was agog at its potential to place incredible images within our real-world surroundings. And the retail world was quick to take note.

Although the Magic Leap One finally launched earlier this year – albeit only in North America – it doesn’t quite deliver on what was originally promised. And while Magic Leap has furiously spent the past four years trying to break the laws of physics, its competitor, Microsoft’s HoloLens, was cracking on with developing a MR headset that worked rather well. The difference? HoloLens was making a land grab for practical enterprise use. Instead of giving us videos of whales in gyms, we got clips of not-quite-as-sexy virtual elevator maintenance.

But that all changed earlier in 2019 at Mobile World Congress when Microsoft launched the HoloLens 2. Featuring enhanced image processing, a larger field-of-view and a more comfortable, lighter design, it brings heightened potential for vastly improved user-experience and aesthetics. Suddenly HoloLens and MR got interesting again.

With research showing that 41% of customers expect retailers to offer access to MR, consumer hunger already exists. And now that HoloLens 2 is on the market, retailers have an opportunity to fulfil these expectations. But should they?

We live in the experience economy and smart retailers have become woke to the pulling power of wow-factor in-store experiences. Until now, virtual reality (VR) has been the standard go-to for retailers that want to invest in highly memorable moments. The problem with VR, however, is that as the name itself suggests, shoppers are transported into an entirely virtual world, with a virtual product that takes them away from the real retail space and real products. With MR, however, the customer can still interact with all things physical.

Castrol EDGE: Titanium Ice in-car experience by UNIT9 Castrol EDGE: Titanium Ice in-car experience by UNIT9
MR merges the 2D, 3D and 4D worlds, helping brands to ensure products remain authentic and unforgettable

While MR has mostly been used as a ‘try before you buy’ tool in retail, where products are digitised and placed as a synthetic layer over a real physical setting, HoloLens 2 brings increased sophistication to the medium. It allows brands to flip the dynamic by using MR to put real products in an augmented world. Crucially, this means that people can still feel the real product: its weight, texture, material – the very features that make it ‘it’.

Take auto retail as an example. Sampling the car as a virtual entity in a VR experience doesn’t feel authentic. Sitting in the real car in a dealership gives a better sense of what the product feels like – those comfortable leather seats, that inimitable new car smell. But the car is stationary. It's far more impactful to get a sense of how the car would feel on the road. This is where MR can shine. With HoloLens 2, the dealership environment could be transformed into the open road. The customer’s physical connection to the real product, combined with the augmented environment, builds the perfect blend of cool, real and practical.

When MR is used to augment the physical surroundings of a product, brands can unleash retail magic. When other technologies like Internet of Things (IoT) devices are thrown into the mix, creative possibilities grow exponentially. Just imagine using MR and IoT to place a virtual shoe on a plinth, with the shopper customising it using natural gestures through an augmented interface. With 57% of marketers saying that personalisation technology is key to unlocking true one-to-one customer experiences, what’s not to like?

The feel of a product can be its most distinguishing factor. But these unique qualities don’t come across authentically in VR – nor TV, web or print, for that matter. MR, however, merges the 2D, 3D and 4D worlds, helping brands and products to remain authentic while furnishing customers with unforgettable wrap-around digital experiences. In my view, MR won't replace the tactility of shopping, but it certainly will enhance it.

Maciej Zasada is technical director at UNIT9, a global innovation company that creates immersive in-store retail experiences for brands.