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How augmented reality technology is shaping the future of retail, banking and hospitality

Published April 28, 2021

Just how big of an impact will AR make in the world?

Innovations in augmented reality (AR) technology are blurring the lines between physical and digital realities. Through smartphones and other digital devices, consumers can wear products virtually, receive financial advice or even see how meals will look before ever stepping foot inside a restaurant—and the potential for what AR can deliver virtually is just beginning.

AR technology allows users to experience “an enhanced version of the real physical world.” The technology really hit the mainstream in 2016, when “Pokemon Go” saw millions of users around the world journeying out to capture digital creatures overlaid on the physical world through their smartphone cameras. The technology works by adding visual, sound or other sensory elements that don’t exist physically to what people see and hear through enabled devices. 

Now, AR has moved far beyond the days of Pokemon Go—fundamentally changing the way we can shop, bank and dine. Here’s a look at what it’s doing for each industry.

Retail customers can “try before they buy” in delightful ways and AR benefits retailers, too

For retailers like Home Depot, Nike and many more, their customers can virtually see how a product looks, whether it’s on their body or in their home—without ever visiting a store. During the pandemic, that has been a lifeline for retailers and shoppers who couldn’t visit a store in-person. And after COVID is under firm control, AR “try before you buy” is likely to continue with added benefits like minimizing the risk of time-consuming return and refund processes. It also increases conversions by giving customers less reason to second-guess their purchases.

The best way to decide whether or not to buy something is to experience the product firsthand. But visiting a store, as consumers have seen most recently, isn’t always possible. And it’s often not the most convenient way to shop for people strapped for time. So, retailers are using AR technology to make the shopping experience more efficient—and exciting. Who doesn’t love being able to see what a new couch would look like in their living room—without having to buy it first, perhaps put it together and finally physically place it in the room?

And retailers are enjoying the benefits of AR, too. Walmart started testing augmented reality technology in some stores in 2020—with the aim of accelerating the process of getting products to the floor without employees having to scan each box individually. As Sarah Perez writes in TechCrunch, “instead of scanning the barcode on boxes that are ready to go, the app will use [augmented reality] technology to highlight those boxes. The hope is that this will help to move the product to shelves, and in front of customers, faster than before.”

Sportswear retailer Lacoste uses augmented reality technology in a way that’s more in-line with how Pokemon Go used it, by overlaying an image through smartphone cameras. Their app—focused only on footwear for now—allows the customer to place their foot in a designated spot before pointing their smartphone camera at it. A virtual representation of what the shoes would look like on the customer’s foot is then displayed.

Lacoste lets customers virtually try on shoes using augmented reality technology.

Almost 60 percent of retail shoppers use their smartphones while in-store to supplement their need for more information on products. While that’s convenient, AR technology makes finding product details information easier, especially when it comes to product details and shareability. And brands are cutting down the time it takes to search for that information on a website by letting shoppers simply hold their smartphone up to a sign, displaying all the necessary information and letting users seamlessly share it with their networks.

Read more: Back to the future: What pop culture got right about modern retail—and what’s coming next

Financial institutions are using augmented reality technology to revolutionize the customer experience

In some ways, the financial industry is behind retail when it comes to digitization, but consumers want the same digital-first experience in their banking, too. So adopting new technologies is important to keep up with digital demands as the customer experience evolves. That’s why many financial institutions are using AR technology to blur the lines between brick-and-mortar and digital banking—giving customers greater support and payment experiences through technological innovation.

A balance of virtual and physical assistance

Consumers love the convenience and ease of banking online, but they still want to count on in-branch assistance for more complex financial advice and for smaller transactions, too. Major financial institutions are using AR technology to offer that balance.

Starting in 2018, Wells Fargo designed its own augmented reality experience through which customers can get real-time banking assistance from a human teller within a virtual space. And not only can their customers perform transactions, they can also play video games and do puzzles because according to Jennifer Copeland, vice president and experiential marketing manager at Wells Fargo they wanted to show their customers ““There’s more to us than financial products. We are able to show you a good time.” It’s a great example of how AR not only brings your customers more ease and convenience, you can increase customer engagement, too.

Comarch, a Polish fin tech, is using smart wearables (like smart watches), smart phones and headsets to deliver an “AR ecosystem.” The interaction starts by a bank staff member reaching out to a customer via their smart watch who then turns to their smart phone for more information and eventually an AR enabled headset where the customer can have a virtual meeting with the banking staff member and the customer’s entire portfolio is laid out in stunning graphics.  

So with experiences like that will bank branches become obsolete? Not likely. Customers want access to whatever banking form matches their specific needs. And when money is on the line, nothing beats human interaction. As John Aves writes in CustomerThink: “Customers still want personalized face-to-face interactions and help with more complex financial decision making...Best-in-class banks recognize that branch innovation sits at the crossroads where the physical is fused with digital to create a seamless, differentiated experience in the new normal.”

Alongside the ability to receive human assistance virtually, augmented reality phone applications can help users locate ATMs and bank branches—including directions and distance—all by using the smartphone camera to scan the street. These apps can also convey information about services and offers that are curated for each specific user. 

Augmented reality technology guides users to ATMs and bank branches.

Payment card security and digital banking access are also improved through AR technology. Improvements to biometric security and the advent of virtual credit cards will help deliver peace of mind and frictionless payment experiences to customers, too.

Related: Humanizing digital banking through conversational AI

Restaurants serve up engaging dining experiences through augmented reality technology

Augmented reality technology allows customers to undergo a full sensory experience, from a restaurant’s ambiance to playing AR tabletop games with friends and family, and even viewing their meal being virtually prepared. This all makes dining out more exciting and enjoyable through the use of technological innovation.

The dining experience, digitized

Going out to eat is something most people enjoy, but they always want it to be convenient and if it’s not, they may have a bad experience. To help with this, Visa has integrated locating and paying at a restaurant using AR technology. Their application allows users to choose a food outlet from a layered map, then browse the menu and—if they want to—complete payment before ever stepping foot in the restaurant.

Once they’ve arrived at their desired dining destination, restaurants can use augmented reality technology to deliver a truly immersive end-to-end dining experience. 

First, restaurant patrons can scope out a restaurant’s layout in augmented reality and reserve their ideal seating arrangement ahead of time. Users can then enjoy AR tabletop games to pass the time while they get settled in—a great way to beat restlessness, especially for families with young kids.

Next, orders can be completely customized, with AR allowing users to select ingredients and garnishes and even visualize how the meal will look when it arrives. This leaves no chance for misunderstanding between the front of house and kitchen, so meals come out perfect every time.

Discerning diners can know what to expect before placing an order thanks to augmented reality technology.

To round off the experience, augmented reality technology can even provide cultural and historic insight into different dishes. This is huge for people who enjoy the thrill of trying cuisines from around the world, and they can share the experience with their friends easily through social media.

The future of augmented reality—what’s next?

“Before AR technology can reach its full potential, it must become more than an afterthought on mobile devices,” according to a Maryville University blog. And largely so far that is true and it means that wider adoption and a better understanding of its power will need to happen before augmented reality’s potential is truly realized.

Global tech giants predict that augmented reality could even replace the smartphone, solidifying it as the next greatest technological leap in our everyday lives. What form this will take exactly remains to be seen, but the endless potential of augmented reality technology is certain to have a profound impact on all industries in the future. Stay tuned!

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