Unlike Wifi, AR has no commonly recognized symbol indicating its availability.
Consumers have expressed an interest in augmented and virtual reality as part of their shopping experience, but when only one-third of US shoppers say they have tried AR, and only 11% own a VR system at home, we have a ways to go to reach a tipping point of adoption.
There are several challenges involved in getting consumers to adopt. Ergonomics definitely plays a role. I recently discovered a VR gym in San Francisco, that provides the gear and the space to work out. However, it also notes that the VR visors are protected and cleaned, in order to avoid an “ick” factor in using what is basically a VR system for public use – and heavy, sweaty use at that. And, for AR to achieve easy and ready use, some kind of eye-wear is required. But anything that goes over the eyes has to take into account reading glasses in an aging population, as well as people who need corrected vision but can’t wear contacts.
But probably the biggest challenge is simply making consumers aware that AR content is available. This is especially important for AR over VR – to make a consumer aware that VR content is available, you need something akin to a VR visor on a silver platter. But for AR, it’s far more complicated.
Reducing The Friction
Three steps are required in order to access an AR experience.
First, consumers have to be aware that an AR experience is available. The Wifi symbol has become ubiquitous – on the doors and walls of pretty much every retail and restaurant establishment anywhere. There is no such symbolic equivalent – yet – for AR. But especially now, when AR experiences are few and far between, awareness that an augmented reality experience is even available at all should not be assumed. It’s far more common for an object to have no meaning in an AR context than for some kind of meaning to be there.
Anyone trying to get consumers to try an AR experience have to interrupt an existing expectation that there is no AR experience available. That means that, in the early years of AR adoption, consumers need more than just a symbol – they need something that jars consumers out of their habitual processes, and offers enough of an enticement to convince them to make the time investment to try something new.
Right now, too many AR experiences don’t offer a payoff worth the effort involved in getting to the experience. I’ve tried several brand-driven AR experiences. I’m not sure the value of seeing a virtual bottle of wine on my kitchen counter (I think I would prefer the real thing). And while the miniature version of a rock band on my end table has a novelty factor, it’s really not enough to make it worth trying that again.
Retailers need to anticipate early on that they will have to “jump up and down” to get consumers’ attention, but if they’re going to have to make that much effort to break into consumer awareness to get them to try something new, they’re going to also have to make sure that the payoff is worth it. Right now, in the early days , when most AR offerings are a bit gimmicky, that’s going to be tough.
The second step is to facilitate access to the AR experience. Part of the downfall of QR codes was that phones don’t come with a “standard” app for accessing QR codes – it’s not like you can just point the camera at a QR code and access the content behind it. You have to have a special app.
There are lots of choices for whatever that app can be, but personally, while I have an app called Scan Life that I downloaded ages ago, not only do I not encounter QR codes in the wild with enough frequency to remember that it’s even there, I’ve found over time that the app becomes less and less capable of recognizing the barcodes that I encounter. At this point, unless the barcode is in the context of a retailer’s app that I already have on my phone, I’m probably just going to skip the experience because the friction of what it takes to access that experience is just way too high.
For retailers and brands, most AR experiences are delivered through the retailer’s app, or through a third party that is branded as the retailer. That means even when a retailer has broken through the consumer’s mental blinders to make them aware of an AR experience, they must make sure the consumer has the app they need in order to actually access that experience.
I tend to be pretty generous with the number of apps I keep on my phone, but I find I’m in the minority. It appears the best recent data on consumer app downloads and usage comes from 2017 – consumers have an average of 80 apps on their phone and use 40 in a given day. But over half of consumers in a 2018 survey reported they have deleted an app in one week ago or less. Are consumers willing to go through the effort of downloading the app, registering as a user (undoubtedly required), and then finally getting to the AR experience? With experiences as easy to access as Snapchat leading to only one-third of consumers having tried an AR experience, it seems the answer by the majority is a resounding “no”.
Finally, there is the experience itself. In addition to the ergonomics of accessing the AR experience – ideally, as friction free as tapping glasses in the future – there is the ergonomics of navigating within the AR itself. I’ve used AR apps that established a reference point that was awkward on the wrist. Or that lead to something that was too zoomed in or too zoomed out, and the only recourse was to exit the app and start all over again. Too many of those restarts, and it doesn’t matter if the experience is the most innovative AR concept ever created. The friction to access it becomes too high.
The Bottom Line
AR/VR suffer from the same challenge today as mobile payments or QR codes – the activity is not universally accepted or applied, and is not reliable enough as an experience to be an every-day expectation. With AR, there may well be an evolution that moves consumers from the act of pulling out a mobile phone in order to access an AR app to wearing an always-on wearable. But at the moment, consumer behavior has not advanced even to the point where there is more than an occasional willingness to pull out the phone and try. And even that behavior is generated through the considerable effort of breaking through consumer awareness to get the trial in the first place.
Just like WiFi succeeded with its signal symbol, retailers are going to need a universally adopted symbol indicating the availability of an AR experience, and a tipping point of products and locations that use that symbol in order to get consumers trained to the point where they might actively seek it out. Until then, AR will have limited opportunities in retail.