By Brendan Scully

Not long ago, many would have considered virtual and augmented reality technology to be something you’d be more likely to find in Star Trek than your local electronics store. That’s no longer the case. Now that major companies like Google, Facebook, and Sony have announced or launched VR platforms, it’s clear these technologies are not a thing of science-fiction fantasies. Skeptics need only look to the immense success of Pokemon Go! to realize that consumers are ready for the types of experiences VR and AR can offer.

Retailers looking to provide their customers with innovative ecommerce services should pay attention. The potential that augmented reality serves to enhance customer experience and give brands a boost on the competition are noteworthy. Here are just a few of the possibilities AR offers to ecommerce companies.

Overcoming Obstacles

AR can dramatically change the way customers shop. For instance, imagine a consumer is browsing an online shop, trying to select new furnishings for their apartment. They might be reluctant to make a purchase if they’re not sure how a certain item would actually look in their home.

Through AR technology, they can superimpose a scale image of that lamp onto an image of their shelf or nightstand, getting a better sense of whether or not it’s something they’d actually be interested in buying.

A Sephora app takes a similar approach, allowing users to take selfies and apply virtual cosmetics, instead of heading to a store to try them in person. Other cosmetics companies have followed suit, including big brand names like L’Oreal and Yves Rocher.

One of the major obstacles ecommerce companies face involves convincing shoppers that a product is right for them. In person, they can test it before buying it. Online, they have to evaluate an item based on a few pictures and a description. Augmented reality for ecommerce will change that, allowing customers to virtually ‘try before they buy’.

Blending E-commerce With Brick-and-Mortar Establishments

Ecommerce platforms offer consumers a wealth of useful information, including customer reviews and information about related products. AR technology can bring this holistic digital experience to brick-and-mortar stores.

Shoppers can view a product through their smartphone, using an app which would recognize the item and provide all the important details available online. This also gives retailers an opportunity to direct shoppers to similar products they may be interested in. LEGO has already employed a similar method, allowing customers browsing in their store to scan a product in a kiosk that gives them a view of what the finished project would look like.

It could also help companies bring more customers into their stores. In the future, it’s possible to imagine a retailer launching a service in which an AR “concierge” guides customers through the store, directing them to departments or products they might enjoy.

Offering Value, Standing Out

It’s important for companies using AR to treat it as more than just an entertainment tool. To use it effectively, they need to make their AR services truly valuable to customers. Being able to “use” a product from the comfort of your own home isn’t merely a bonus feature; it leverages AR to provide consumers with a legitimately useful experience.

However, the novelty of AR technology shouldn’t be dismissed entirely. Again, customers may take it for granted in the future, but right now, it’s still fairly new. That means companies with numerous competitors could use AR to stand out. If five different companies sell essentially the same products, but only one allows shoppers to virtually interact with those products via AR, that company will have an advantage over the competition.

Customizing the Experience

Augmented reality can make it easier for users to customize the shopping experience.

For example, shoe mavens Converse offer an application that allows users to try on their shoes directly from their own home. By simply  pointing their phone at their foot, an image of their footwear appears directly on their phone screen so users can see what wearing them would look like. For other clothing brands, a similar technique lets users swap between styles and colors without ever having to remove a true piece of clothing.

Virtual and augmented reality will make online shopping more personal, unique, and exciting. The companies that pay attention to these technologies will be the ones most likely to benefit.

Brendan Scully began his career as an undergraduate research assistant at Dartmouth’s Tiltfactor Labs, focusing on the potential for humanistic design in Augmented Reality. Now he is an Augmented Reality Producer and currently CEO of Scully Creative Labs LLC based in Brooklyn, New York where he oversees a portfolio of internal and client-sponsored product development initiatives. Follow us on Twitter: @bscully.