When is the time to talk about consumer-facing AR apps in enterprise?

The release of Magic Leap One was supposed to be the “magic moment” for consumer AR, the development that finally got consumers excited about augmented reality glasses. Needless to say, it wasn’t. Despite the billions in funding, awesome concept videos and mainstream media attention, Magic Leap did not suddenly big-bang the consumer AR market into existence with the launch of its much-hyped headset.  

Though Magic Leap the product may be “just another HoloLens” aimed at consumers; Magic Leap the company did a lot in 2018 – through strategic partnerships with AT&T, Sennheiser, and Wayfair – to impress upon consumers the potential for augmented reality beyond Google Glass and Snap filters. In addition, 2018 saw a number of relatively normal-looking smart glasses hit the market, including Focals by North and Vuzix Blade, which make a far stronger case than Google Glass did in 2013 for putting our smartphones (and AI assistants) on our faces. And just this week at CES 2019, nreal debuted colorful, 3-ounce AR glasses that look like everyday sunglasses and ThirdEye unveiled its X2 Smart Glasses, “the smallest standalone 6oz mixed reality smart glasses with built-in SLAM.”

Why should any of this matter to enterprises? Is it still too early to talk about consumer-facing AR applications in enterprise that aren’t branded mobile apps? I don’t think so. It’s possible to serve the existing enterprise market and simultaneously prepare for one that doesn’t yet exist. Today’s companies know they must prepare for a future in which augmented reality glasses are a standard tool in the workplace, even if they’re not yet deploying AR solutions; why should companies not prepare for a future in which consumers own smart glasses (or, if not own, are at least accustomed to AR in a heads-up form factor)?

Though AR Insider estimates there are only around 129 million active mobile AR users; there are nearly one billion AR-enabled smartphones around the world capable of exposing their owners to the benefits of AR. This represents a huge potential market with opportunities for new revenue streams and services in retail, travel, hospitality, airports, even field services. There are untapped applications for AR glasses in the consumer-facing aspects of business in industrial sectors, as well: Manufacturer AGCO, for instance, uses smart glasses on the plant floor and for public tours of its factories. With the number of consumer-friendly devices now (or soon-to-be) available, the time is now for organizations to begin innovating around these products in order to engage with customers in new ways, including providing pairs of smart glasses for temporary use by customers during interactions with the business.


Current Consumer AR Market:

Furniture retailers like Ikea and beauty brands like MAC are already capitalizing on AR via new try-before-you-buy features in their mobile apps. Although companies aren’t sharing the data, AR shopping experiences built with ARKit and ARCore presumably help to increase conversion rates and average order values while reducing returns. But are consumers aware that this is augmented reality? Are Snapchat users aware that AR tech powers the app’s face and world lenses? In a recent study by GlobalWebIndex, 70-75% of respondents aged 16-44 said they were aware of AR. Awareness, however, is not the same as experience: In the same survey, only 35% of 16-34s said they had experienced AR in the past month. The best way to sell immersive technology is through experience, the level of which is currently low among consumers. There have been no killer AR apps and I suspect that many smartphone users do not register that they are experiencing AR when they do. I expect this to change as AR is integrated with other everyday form factors, including car windshields and kitchen ovens.

One day, according to analysts and futurists, smart glasses are going to replace smartphones altogether, but the transition to head-worn mobile computing is proving less predictable and slower than imagined. The reality is there are a number of significant barriers to consumer smart glasses adoption as well as a number of positive signs for the future of the consumer AR market. What’s throwing us off, as Charlie Fink points out, is the comparison to smartphones, which took only two years to reach mass adoption. Charlie argues that while the iPhone was innovative it was still a mobile phone, whereas smart glasses are an entirely new product, a new purchase much like the personal computer was in its day and the Apple Watch was in 2015. The adoption factors are similar, too: Design (form), user interface (function), utility (content), enjoyment, cost, and social acceptance.

Both personal computers and smart glasses require(d) big changes in consumer behavior. Mass adoption of PCs took 15 years. I was one of the first kids in my class to have a computer at home. My father, a lawyer, had his own computer at work, so he purchased a laptop for his home office. My brothers and I played games on it (floppy disks!), leading to the purchase of a second “family” computer. Might the new wave of consumer-friendly smart glasses follow this pattern, with businessmen, designers and technologists first to adopt and convert the rest of us?


Positive signs for consumer smart glasses in 2019

Apple is very serious about augmented reality; Tim Cook calls it a “profound platform” and market researchers are predicting a release date for the company’s rumored AR glasses as early as 2020 (2022 or 2023 is more likely). Given Apple’s design cred and clout with consumers, it’s not hard to imagine Apple being the first to come out with sleek smart glasses that look no different from regular glasses and offer enough style and functionality to make hands-free AR apps a part of everyday life. After all, the Apple Watch has made watch-wearers out of people who never used to wear a watch.

In addition to Apple’s belief in AR and the latest iPhones, which seem to be built for running AR apps, there are other positive signs for consumer augmented reality: Magic Leap is offering $500,000 grants and support to developers who build design, engineering, architecture and other creative software for its headset; and it was just announced that the company’s partnership with AT&T is expanding to include enterprise AR. AT&T has also promised nationwide 5G by 2020, which is necessary for higher quality AR experiences. I can see Magic Leap finding a niche in B2C use cases, which would increase consumer exposure to wearable AR beyond in-store retail apps and social media.

Source: Vuzix

Vuzix Blade and Focals by North are promising, as well, not only because they’re more stylish and lightweight than anything that came before but also because of popular apps like Alexa integrated with the technology. Vuzix and North have taken bold steps into the consumer market: Vuzix, for instance, was marketing Blade on Instagram and at New York Fashion Week. While the company hasn’t even cracked 1,000 followers on Instagram, it is smart to experiment on the social platform that gave rise to influencer culture and has become mandatory for brands today. Vuzix also recently partnered with AccuWeather to provide local weather information to Blade users, who can tap on the glasses or ask Alexa to bring up forecasts right in their field of view. Blade went on sale to the public earlier this month for $999, a price point that’s still too high for consumers but just right for what Vuzix calls “light enterprise” use cases.

I have to say that Focals are better looking than Blade. The cost is the same but the mainstream appeal of North’s branding, social presence, and Warby Parker-esque sales model make Focals (in my opinion) the best effort yet in consumer AR. Focals can replace one’s prescription glasses, sync with Android and iOS devices, and offer a degree of customization: Shoppers can choose between classic and round frames in black, tortoise or gray, and you have to get fitted at either North’s Brooklyn or Toronto showrooms. The integration of Uber and exclusive in-store availability are genius, yet even Focals won’t make smart glasses mainstream.


Investing in consumer-oriented devices outside the workforce

In 2017, DigitalBridge found that 56% of 18-24-year-olds would be more likely to use AR if it were offered to them via a wearable device, and 69% would be more loyal to the brand that offered this. Retailers are arguably having the most success getting smartphone owners to use AR by solving a real consumer pain point. (IKEA Place was actually the second-most downloaded ARKit app in a 2018 survey.) It seems inevitable that AR will reinvent the shopping experience, but why not also the personal banking experience or the dentist’s office, hotel, post office, etc.?

I don’t know which device will win over consumers or what the breakthrough app will be, though it will definitely be practical as opposed to a game. Nevertheless, with AR invading our cars and homes and startups introducing new consumer-friendly smart glasses, consumers should have more opportunities to experience the technology in 2019. Businesses that regularly interact with consumers don’t have to wait for smart glasses to completely usurp smartphones to begin benefiting from consumer-facing applications of devices like Blade. My prediction is that 2019 will be the year of light enterprise use cases, with companies purchasing early consumer smart glasses for employees to interact face-to-face with end customers and for consumers to use in places of business.

It’s telling that one of the very first use cases of Google Glass involved Virgin Airlines staff processing first-class passengers for their flights and that every automotive manufacturer seems to be experimenting with “loaning” AR headsets to shoppers in dealerships. There is ROI in businesses investing in consumer smart glasses if it solves a customer problem or improves customers’ interactions with the business. The other side to this is that consumers do want to try immersive technologies but they don’t want to pay for the devices right now. Here are three applications I imagine business-wide:

  • Product testing: Enabling consumers to clearly envision a product or service. Right now, mobile AR apps offer this but there hasn’t been much innovation around incorporating smart glasses into the in-person shopping experience, improving the in-store experience, and drawing customers back into stores. (Imagine entering a grocery store and grabbing both a cart and a pair of smart glasses to help you make informed decisions or being able to preview how to use a KitchenAid blender while at Bed, Bath & Beyond.)
  • Guidance and context: Showing directional information via a digital overlay in airports, malls, banks, and other large places of business. No physical signs, reduced frustration, and less pressure on employees to direct customers. Additionally, providing contextual information via digital overlay to help customers make decisions (nutrition information, product reviews, etc.) and get more out of their experience of the business.
  • Engagement: Beyond marketing gimmicks, engaging consumers to interact in new ways with products, buy more and stay longer at the business, increase brand loyalty, etc. (Imagine wearing smart glasses around a wine store to learn about where each bottle came from, hear stories about famous wine-producing regions, read reviews, etc.)

Conclusion

Personally, I’m excited about all the new consumer-friendly AR products, and not because I think they will be a hit or want to buy one myself. The arrival of products like Blade and nreal light marks an intermediate stage in consumer smart glasses adoption in which businesses provide consumers with the opportunity to use these devices risk-free in the (non-industrial) office, at stores, in office reception areas, etc. 2019 should see an expansion in enterprise use cases beyond industry into more mundane areas of business and commerce, in turn providing a much-needed push to consumer AR.

 

The Enterprise Wearable Technology Summit (EWTS) is an annual conference dedicated to the use of wearable technology for business and industrial applications. As the leading event for enterprise wearables, EWTS is where enterprises go to innovate with the latest in wearable tech, including heads-up displays, AR/VR/MR, body- and wrist-worn devices, and even exoskeletons. The 6th annual EWTS will be held September 17-19, 2019 in Dallas, TX. More details, including agenda and early confirmed speakers, to come on the conference website.


Augmented World Expo (AWE), the world’s #1 AR+VR conference and expo, returns to Santa Clara, CA May 29-31, 2019. Join us for the biggest AWE yet and help celebrate the show’s 10th Anniversary! Apply to speak and/or exhibit at AWE 2019on the event website.

 

Image source: nreal

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