Think of the scenes at the Gap in Minority Report. And then imagine it's not dystopian sci-fi but the lifestyle-enhancing future of shopping where there's no line between online and offline shopping. That's what happens when you layer virtual information over the physical world—and then add commerce.
The Shop Around the Corner
For retail, the most obvious application of augmented reality is on your phone, via location-based services that can tell you if a shop you need is right around the corner. Zagat is first to market, on the Android platform, with NRU (pronounced "Near You"). (Rumors have it that obvious competitors, such as Yelp, are readying their own AR apps as well.) In addition to ratings and wayfinding for nearby restaurants, it includes information from the Zagat shopping guides.
Information at Your Fingertips
This project by recent design-graduate Giuseppe Costanza, which uses image-recognition software to tell you more about the food you buy, illustrates that we're moving towards more fine-grained information apps. This kind of data should let us make better choices at the register, and once you open that sort of possibility, the potential for more socially responsible shopping starts to boggle the mind.
No Assembly Required
"Augmented reality" isn't limited to smartphones. The coolest in-store information kiosk out there comes from Lego: Hold a box up to the screen, and it shows you what the set would be like, assembled. The only danger? The AR machine may be cooler than the toy itself. Can we get one of those to go?
Meanwhile, at home, probably the most interesting concept in development right now is Zugara's Webcam Social Shopper. Using motion-capture technology, it creates a virtual dressing room. Your movements allow you to navigate among selections, and the software calculates your orientation, so that you can adjust the garment to your body. Obviously, fit is the number-one reason why you'd even bother trying something on, and this doesn't help you at all with that. You'll have to wait awhile for more precise, custom fits, but this is a cooler version of holding up clothes against your body to get an initial feel.
Trade 'Em All
Augmented reality will not only create new tools for shopping, but it may very well also create an entirely new class of products. At this year's CES, Total Immersion showed off animated Pokemon trading cards, which have an animated, on-screen component, but also interact with each other:
To the Future
Clearly, we're just scratching the surface of what's possible with AR. If this takes off, it won't be long before someone is trying to present additional offers and discounts through a virtual coupon directory, which you could access on your phone by pointing it at something on the shelf. Or layer Amazon product reviews or Consumer Reports on top of any product you point to. Likewise, AR might allow physical stores to actually shrink, as AR makes it possible to show only a few sample items in store, while providing a wealth of online options in real time. And that might be the ultimate lesson for AR and retail: The days of discrete experiences with online and offline shopping are over.