The Augmented Engagement Ring
By Ali Moheet, i-Showcase, inc
Physical reality often has drawbacks, particularly for a jewelry retailer. Stocking pieces can be an expensive, time-consuming process, and as tastes change, the problems of storage rise to the forefront. When can pieces be rotated in and out of display? How can retailers keep their products safe?
An answer for the 21st century retailer is to simply abandon physical reality entirely.
We haven’t yet reached a state of affairs where we can live in a parallel digital reality, but technology has reached a point where we can superimpose an artificial reality on the world around us. And, fortunately for us, an example of this advancement is at hand: The careful observer of trends may have noticed a recent preoccupation among younger smartphone users—Pokémon GO.
Pokémon GO was a game developed in 2016 as a joint project between Niantic, Inc. and video game powerhouse Nintendo. The premise of the game is simple: Players download the game as an app on their phones. Utilizing a smartphone’s connection to Niantic’s databases and its built-in camera, players see their real-life surroundings on the phone screen. The game then takes advantage of a smartphone’s gyroscope and its own proprietary algorithms to determine where the “ground” is. On the ground captured on the screen (which can be bodies of water, different kinds of pavement or grass, etc.), Niantic places one of the Pokémon creatures from Nintendo’s games. This creature, superimposed on the landscape, can be interacted with by the player-cum-owner of the smartphone.
Retailers who have read this far may not understand what a video game has to do with their business, but the answer lies not in the game, but in the technology of which Niantic and Nintendo took advantage.
Known as “augmented reality”, this technology is allowing for a fusion of the all-digital world with the physical one in surprising and inventive ways, and Pokémon GO has merely been the most visible face of this revolution in technology. Augmented reality, however, is merely a subset of a larger trend called “computer-mediated reality”. Computer-mediated reality comes in a multiplicity of forms, and its subset of augmented reality includes algorithms that superimpose objects on reflections or camera shots. Additional technologies that can be considered subsets of computer-mediated reality include concepts like holograms and devices that directly intermingle human sensory input with a constructed reality (such as virtual-reality headsets).
Retailers may currently be aware of virtual reality and holograms, as those concepts date back to the 1950s and 1940s, respectively, but breakthroughs in VR and holographic development are making these technologies a game-changer in how people interact with their realities, and economies of scale have rendered them more accessible for all audiences.
Both Forbes (“How Brands Can Win With Millennials In The Experience Economy”, July 2017) and CNBC (“Millennials are prioritizing ‘experiences’ over stuff”, May 2016) have noted that millennial shoppers are moving away from “shopping for products” and opting, instead, for “shopping as experience”. It’s impossible for jewelry retailers to completely divorce themselves from products, but by turning to cutting-edge, interactive computer-mediated realities like augmented reality, VR, and holograms, retailers can rebrand themselves as an experience-driven pursuit that merely ends in a product being purchased.
The canny retailer, rather than viewing computer-mediated reality as a toy, sees its subsets as a method of creating a brilliant experience that draws millennial shoppers into a brick-and-mortar storefront, which is the end goal for any retailer looking to maintain its sales.
In episode six of the science-fiction comedy show “Futurama”, “A Fishful of Dollars”, the show’s protagonist, Fry, heads down to the department store to buy a pair of briefs he saw in an advertisement. Once there, Fry tries on a pair of the briefs in a changing room.
What he sees in the room’s mirror is himself as a handsome, muscular man surrounded by women. Fry is pleased, until he sees a disclaimer in the mirror—“Objects In The Mirror Are Less Attractive Than They Appear”.
A funny joke for 1999 has become a prescient commentary on the nature of computer-mediated reality in 2018. While the show’s example is likely too ridiculous to ever be the standard state of future technology, current trends permit something similar to what the episode predicted.
Cameras, mirrors, and kiosks are currently capable (to varying degrees of efficacy) of altering the presentation of images captured on their surfaces. Pokémon GO aside, the most common example of this phenomenon can be found in Snapchat and Instagram filters. A contemporary reader may have seen these filters in action, watching little videos in which the recording party has had his or her face altered in some interesting way, including a “face swap” between two parties, adding flower crowns to one’s head, and even subtly altering the color and shape of one’s face.
Though used for fun in Snapchat and Instagram, the technology behind these filters can also be utilized in business and advertising. Companies such as ModiFace, EON Reality, and INDE have developed mirrors that permit retailers to place their products on customers without actually using the real-world products in question.
Some of the earliest adopters of this technology have been makeup companies, such as Sephora and MAC, who’ve installed augmented-reality mirrors in their stores so that customers can have the contours of their faces scanned and virtual versions of the brands stocked by the retailer digitally applied. The benefits are apparent to all parties: The companies reduce shrinkage from their products being used, sampled, or stolen; and customers can try on a literally endless combination of makeup variants without mess, application skill or time, or fear of hygiene concerns.
The issues of shopping for makeup aren’t the same as the issues that surround jewelry shopping. However, augmented-reality technology can—and has—been easily adjusted to the jewelry industry. The technology firm Augmentes and diamond group De Beers have introduced methods of displaying nonexistent jewelry on the images of men and women captured on computer screens. Any kind of jewelry, either bridal or fine, can be digitally superimposed on shoppers in this way, as well as watches—evinced by the Watch AR Plus app offered by BSEtec.
The benefit of AR for retailers is an immediately apparent one. Research by Retail Perceptions in its 2016 article “The Impact of Augmented Reality on Retail” found that 40 percent of polled shoppers would pay more for a product experienced through AR, 61 percent feel more positively inclined to shop at a venue that offers AR, and 71 percent said they would more frequently shop at an establishment that offers AR.
These numbers reflect the assertion that younger shoppers prefer a unique retail experience over other variables. With this in mind, should jewelry and watch retailers take advantage of AR in their stores? The answer is a resounding “yes”.
We mentioned in a previous issue (“Omnichannel Marketing”, Jewelers & Technology Magazine, issue 2) that the philosophy of omnichannel marketing requires yoking all avenues of customer access (brick-and-mortar, online, smartphone, print, etc.) under one banner, and AR provides another, powerful venue for customers that appeals to their desires—by allowing customers to customize and visualize their watch and jewelry choices, they are more likely to form a personal connection to the piece at which they’re looking.
Physically installing AR technology in one’s business can also be a simple enterprise. According to the 2017 National Jeweler article “Web Tech Co. Brings Augmented Reality to Jewelry Industry”:
Rapid City, South Dakota-based Riddle’s Jewelry is [Augmentes’] first jewelry retail partner. The 65-store chain has said that since it partnered with Augmentes this year to redesign its website, e-commerce sales were up 30 percent in April and May, and 400 percent in June compared to last year.
Developers of AR technology have options that range from in-store kiosks to Instagram-style apps that can be into integrated into existing e-commerce and mobile commerce platforms, including customers’ smartphones and tablets used by floor employees. On-floor AR apps installed on employees’ tablets also allow floor employees to pull up information about the piece in question, too, which allows for a more engaged and customer-friendly response to shoppers’ curiosity.
Kiosks, like the “nail bar” offered by the Burberry Beauty Box in London’s Covent Garden, can also be installed to allow customers a personalized experience without having to turn to on-floor employees. Combinations of augmented reality and physical reality are nearly limitless, and companies are capable of creating bespoke AR tools for clients in any industry.
For the retailer concerned about the feasibility of AR, it should be noted that AR is hardly a rare technology in the jewelry industry. LinkedIn’s May 2017 article “Augmented Reality in Retail” observes that jewelry is among the most productive areas of AR development: AR technology has a 25 percent market actualization in the jewelry industry (compared, for example, to 60 percent for furniture, 55 percent for clothes, 25 percent for cosmetics, and 22 percent for toys).
A hologram, as a scientific principle, is “a photographic recording of a light field”. In laymen’s terms, this means that holograms capture three-dimensional renderings of objects, rather than two-dimensional ones (as with a photograph). These 3-D renderings are produced when light (which exists as a wave and a particle) sent from one projector strikes light sent from another projector perpendicularly.
One of the big power players in the jewelry industry’s computer-mediated reality technology field is Holojem, which won first prize at the 2016 JCK Think Tank. Holojem, which is a Jewelers Mutual Insurance Company collaboration with Excelion Partners, is a fascinating technology that was designed to function as a kiosk, either for turnkey operations or installed inside retailers’ stores.
The science behind Holojem—which is a practical application of holograms—captures high-fidelity 3-D images of jewelry in a “pyramid” on top of the kiosk. For customers, their selected jewelry appears as a floating 1:1 representation that they can move with their hands. Additionally, Holojem offers its technology in app form. A portable plastic pyramid distributed by the company, when placed on a smartphone screen, can be used to display a proportionally sized hologram of a selected piece of jewelry.
While Holojem is the power player of the current jewelry hologram industry, the technology is hardly so obscure that other designers aren’t—or won’t be—getting into the field. Still, the process of observing jewelry in three dimensions is something best done by AR and 360° rendering added to websites, since AR can be used to directly superimpose computer-mediated products onto reality, and 360° rendering doesn’t require special technology to be added to websites. Holograms don’t add much to that and remain limited by their special projector requirements.
However, that jaundiced comparison to other products leaves out one crucial element: Holograms are unparalleled attention grabbers. Apparel’s 2017 article “Can 3D Holograms Transform Shopper Marketing?” highlights the value that holograms can bring to the jewelry retail industry. First, holograms are, by their nature, an “immersive sight and sound experience”, meaning that, compared to other, more passive forms of advertising (such as banners and posters), holograms engage human senses in an active manner. Second, holograms can permit a synchronization between customer engagement and on-site employees who can close the sale that the holograms originally opened. Third, holograms allow retailers a unique method of merchandising to customers that offers a clear ROI. The example given by Apparel is that of the “Provision 3D Savings Center kiosk”, which is a hologram kiosk designed by Provision Interactive Technologies, Inc. These kiosks offer interactive 3-D advertising and coupons that lead customers to a brick-and-mortar store’s point of sale.
Provision notes that their kiosks lead to an average ad purchase influence of 40 percent. The customer coupon redemption rate at the point of sale is a remarkable 44 percent. In human terms, this data shouldn’t be surprising. As a common feature of science fiction, holograms still hold a powerful sway over the imagination of the public. Decades of “Star Wars”, “Blade Runner”, and “Star Trek” have primed consumers for the “cool” that holograms can bring.
Virtual reality is the third prong of computer-mediated reality technology available to jewelry retailers. The irony of virtual reality, however, is that, while VR is a technology more widely understood by the general public compared to AR and holograms, its applications for the jewelry industry are more “situational” than those of AR and holograms.
Virtual reality has become truly advanced, judging by its use in state-of-the-art video games, such as “Resident Evil 7: Biohazard” and “The Inpatient”. However, VR technology has yet to reach its apex—1:1 renderings (or a near-approximation) of reality. Moreover, the current requirement for tactile responses for the user of VR tech requires bulky headsets, wires, hand controls, and enough space to move.
However, despite those drawbacks, VR does offer users a kind of intimate experience that AR and holograms may lack.
Some of the most useful VR projects for the jewelry industry have been, in a way, “metajewelery” related. In other words, VR has been used to bring customers to places in the chain of jewelry and watch design that they wouldn’t otherwise have been able to see in person or give them a taste of lifestyles the brands want associated with their products.
For example, GN Diamond has developed VR tech that allows potential clients a glimpse into the mining procedures that bring the company’s diamonds to the market. Piaget, to accentuate its luxury background, has offered the “Piaget Polo Experience”, which allows customers with VR headsets to experience, firsthand, a polo match. Parify, a U.K.-based LED lighting company, has even utilized VR technology to show retailers how their showrooms can be altered with different lighting.
According to the 2016 Google consumer survey, 41 percent of adults surveyed are interested in trying out virtual-reality technology—and that fact can be parlayed into success for retailers who are looking for an alternative method of capturing customer interest. As established, millennials and young adults entering the independent consumer phase of their life are more interested in experiences than products. Thus, retailers can, from the local environment of their storefronts, transport potential customers to anywhere in the world.
It would be a mistake to overlook computer-mediated reality technology. The simple statistic culled from LinkedIn’s research—that AR technology has a 25 percent market actualization for the jewelry industry—should be a powerful indicator to retailers that the future of the industry is inarguably moving toward a future that integrates physical, online, and computer-mediated realities into one cutting-edge experience.
Fortunately, technology has reached a breaking point in which augmented reality, holograms, and virtual reality are widely available to retailers at every budget level. ROI on computer-mediated reality tech is immense. Blippar, an AR company that develops unique AR and artificial-intelligence campaigns for consumers, released a piece of information through Lisa Hu, the company’s senior vice president: “Blippar campaigns have an average dwell time of 75 seconds.”
At one minute and 15 seconds, that beats the length of the average television ad (15-30 seconds), radio ad (15-60 seconds), and attention paid to internet ads (roughly 15-30 seconds granted by the average viewer). In an era of shrinking consumer attention spans, the fact that computer-mediated reality can capture that relatively gargantuan span of time from a consumer should serve as a lighthouse in the sea fog of an unstable market.