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How Would This Chair Look Over There? How AR is changing the way we buy online

If you’ve ever found yourself reaching for your smartphone and hunting Pokémon in the middle of a busy high street, you’re probably quite familiar with the concept of Augmented Reality (AR).

But even for those of us who don’t have the urge to catch ‘em all, AR has been lauded as ‘the next big thing’ for a reason; its potential is limitless.

Like Virtual Reality (VR) before it, AR looks certain to disrupt a number of industries and fundamentally change the way we interact with both our smartphone and the world around us. And thanks to a huge announcement by Apple at the most recent WWDC, we’re going to be hearing – and seeing – a whole lot more of AR before the year is out.   

So, What Is Augmented Reality?

Put simply, AR brings together digital information with your immediate surroundings in real-time, via your smartphone, tablet device, or AR headset. In contrast to VR – which creates a completely virtual environment – AR overlays new information on top of the real-world environment.

Pokémon GO is perhaps the most obvious example of mainstream AR adoption over the past year, with millions of players taking to the streets in search of Pikachu and his pals.

Or perhaps you’re more familiar with Snapchat’s filters? When you add some bunny ears to your bonce, you’re actually playing with Augmented Reality!

But before 2017 comes to a close, Apple will make sure AR is in the hands of millions more with the introduction of the ARKit framework, which will be supported by iOS 11 (set to be released in autumn of this year).

ARKit will integrate the iOS camera with motion features, allowing developers to create striking AR experiences for both the iPhone and iPad. This means Apple’s devices will be primed for AR from the word go, instead of relying on third party applications.

The way we interact with information and the world around us will change dramatically – and it’s something Apple’s CEO is particularly excited about:

“I regard it as a big idea like the smartphone. The smartphone is for everyone, we don’t have to think the iPhone is about a certain demographic, or country or vertical market: it’s for everyone. I think AR is that big, it’s huge.” – Tim Cook, Apple CEO

No Assembly Required

During his demo of the ARKit platform at WWDC, Apple senior vice president of software engineering Craig Federighi mentioned a forthcoming partnership with everyone’s favourite purveyors of flatpack furniture, IKEA.

This project would deliver an AR app geared towards helping consumers make reliable buying decisions from the comfort of their own home. With smartphone in hand, users will be able to place digital representations of IKEA products in their home, allowing them to check if the furniture fits, both dimensionally and aesthetically.

IKEA executive Michael Valdsgaard has suggested that the app will play a key role in improving customer experience, with between 500 and 600 products planned for inclusion at launch. What’s more, new products will be available to browse first on the new app.

And although it won’t be an option in the first iteration of this innovative AR application, Valdsgaard conceded that buying IKEA furniture directly within the app could – and probably will – be a feature in the not-too-distant future.

Screaming with Excitement

AR has been on the fringes for quite some time, and IKEA has previously dipped its toe into its waters with a similar app. However, while the early version required users to scan pages of a catalogue, Apple’s ARKit will ensure the AR functionality is baked in, resulting in a smoother and more consistent user experience.

So, it’s little wonder Tim Cook is so enthusiastic about it. He even went so far as to tell Businessweek that he could scream with excitement. To suggest that Augmented Reality will be every bit as big as the smartphone is quite a claim to make, and Cook and Apple look primed to back it up.

The partnership with IKEA is only the beginning, and it gives a confident nod to the way things will change when it comes to shopping online.

The Possibilities Are Endless

From autumn 2017, consumers will be able to decorate without eyeballing specs or breaking out a measuring tape. Simply point your phone at the space where you’d like to place your new sofa or bookcase, and get a real-time, digital representation of that product in situ.

And just think of the possibilities of that technology for the modern consumer. You could swipe through 3D versions of takeaway food on your coffee table as you choose your next meal, hang paintings or change the colour of your walls, or even try on hats or sunglasses before you buy.

It’s little wonder Tim Cook is ready to scream with excitement; the Augmented Reality apps coming to iOS 11 will transform the way we interact with information and purchase online. Unlike VR, which has a high barrier to entry owing to its current hardware requirements, every Apple device (and every modern smartphone before long) will be primed and ready for the AR revolution.

At this point, the only limit for its application is your imagination.

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