Newcastle University Business School

The Power of Augmented Reality

The power of augmented reality

Augmented reality (AR) is an emerging technology that’s rapidly changing the way in which companies interact with their customers.

How to realise AR’s potential in promoting and selling products is a challenge that has been taxing marketing experts around the globe but new research by Newcastle University Business School could help to shed light on this puzzling dilemma.

Dr Ana Javornik, Lecturer in Marketing at Newcastle University Business School, says: “AR technology is not a new concept; it was first developed in 1968 at Harvard University when computer scientist Ivan Sutherland created an AR head-mounted display system. However, almost 50 years on, it is clear that marketers have yet to fully exploit the potential of AR in a commercial context.

“Some manufacturers have used the technology to highlight various production processes, for example, but in a consumer context some AR apps are sometimes still seen as gimmicky rather than useful – however this trend is really starting to change.

The important thing to keep in mind is that if the potential of AR is to be realised, companies need to focus on gaining a better understanding of how the technology influences consumer responses.”

Dr Javornik has spent several years researching consumer responses to AR in different situations. In one laboratory experiment, participants were asked to look for their preferred model of sunglasses or furniture by using an AR app or a static image. The results consistently showed that when participants saw the element in an AR environment – such as seeing a pair of sunglasses simulated on their face or a virtual chair in their office – it created a far more immersive experience for them than if the sunglasses were simply stuck on their online photo or if the furniture was located in a random virtual room.

Dr Javornik says: “From this experiment we could see that people using the AR app had positive attitudes towards it and were willing to tell others about it. However, in that context these effects didn’t seem to extend to the products themselves or the brands, just the technology.”

Further experiments were conducted to determine how attitudes to the brands could change if the app was tailored more closely to the consumer’s individual preferences. One study explored how consumers use AR to try on make-up in a store. The app used in the study allowed participants to put on virtual lipstick or eye shadow that moved with their faces.

Not only did participants enjoy experimenting with different looks and styles, the fact that the AR app was deployed in a familiar retail setting meant that they related to the products as well as the technology. In other words, they were more likely to buy the products and acknowledge the value of the app as a useful shopping tool, not just for playing around.

Another study showed that when participants frequently used a similar AR make-up app on their phones over a five-day period, they reported that the technology was not only enjoyable but also useful in helping them decide which make-up they wanted to buy.

Dr Javornik says: “If the AR experience is just a one-off episode, which was true of the laboratory experiment, people will automatically be drawn primarily to the technology, especially if they haven’t tried it before. However, if the AR app is cleverly used in an environment that the customer can relate to, it has the capacity to influence consumer purchase activities.

“AR is therefore useful to consumers as it can, for instance, help them to decide which products to buy before physically trying them on or to experience something in a new way. Marketing experts can also use my research to adapt their AR strategies to fit the changing needs of their customers.

“Consumers don’t want their lives to become digitalised, they want to use elements of the virtual world to improve aspects of the physical world in which they live. This is one reason why people like Snapchat’s AR feature, which allows users to play with different visual effects to transform ordinary videos into shareable stories.”

There are limitations to AR, however. The technology is currently not sufficiently advanced to allow for accurate 3D modelling in certain situations, so there is much advancement that is expected to emerge in the field in the coming years. However, the potential for AR is vast and the technology is being applied across a whole host of industries, including tourism, retail, computer gaming, fashion and manufacturing.

Dr Javornik says: “AR apps could offer innovative stakeholder engagement with cultural institutions, as we have shown in an interdisciplinary project where I collaborated with University College London, English National Opera and creative agency Holition. We observed the attitudes that opera singers and theatrical make-up artists developed for virtual ‘try-on’ apps: the AR mirror showed the potential to support singers as they were getting into character and building their roles, while make-up artists perceived it as a helpful tool for developing the artistic looks for each character. Visitors also interacted with the mirror to see what they’d look like as one of their operatic characters.”

AR can help companies and public sector organisations to promote and sell products, win and retain customers and boost the appeal of their brand. It can also educate consumers about an expensive product or brand they really care about. As the technology becomes more sophisticated, the potential of AR will increase rapidly and marketers who can successfully integrate it into the customer experience will be the ones who stand out from the crowd.

Consumers don’t want their lives to become digitalised, they want to use elements of the virtual world to improve aspects of the physical world in which they live.

Dr Ana Javornik

Lecturer in Marketing