SEATTLE, WA — August 3, 2017. Two new patents filed by Amazon shine a light on the e-commerce giant’s ambitions with the emerging technology of augmented reality and how it can be used to revolutionize online shopping.
The two patented technologies, “Augmented Reality Presentation” and “Forming a Representation of an Item with Light,” would essentially allow customers to try on items like clothes and jewelry from the comfort of their home using a system of sensors, projectors, and cameras.
First popularized to the world by the mobile game Pokémon Go, augmented reality seems to be a trend that is ripe for an explosion in the coming years. Unlike its close cousin virtual reality, users don’t wear bulky headsets. In augmented reality, virtual images and graphics are layered on top of the existing real world rather than in a virtual world — or more accurately, the physical environment around a user is “augmented” by computer-generated elements.
Amazon’s push into AR is just the latest huge investment into the burgeoning technology. In the first quarter of 2016, companies invested over $1.2 billion in augmented reality and VR — more than 25 times the total amount invested in all of 2014. And according to projections from IDC, a market research firm, revenues from augmented and virtual reality are set to skyrocket in the next few years from $14 billion in 2017 all the way to a staggering $143 billion by 2020. With these facts considered, many experts and investors view augmented and virtual reality as the tech world’s next two big frontiers to conquer.
Although other major companies like Apple and Google were among the first to spearhead investment into augmented reality, Amazon’s arrival is the biggest splash when it comes to e-commerce and will surely redefine how we shop for products online. The internet retail behemoth, now synonymous with e-commerce, looks set to resolve the major issue with shopping on the web — not being able to try things on before buying them.
Amazon’s solution to this is essentially a mobile dressing room. No matter where you are, you will be able to try on their products using their patented tech. The way the technology works is by using a three-dimensional sensor to map out data points on a customer’s body and then using those points to display an image of the item on the customer’s body in the physical world. An example from the Amazon patent says if a shopper wanted to try on a watch, the technology would recognize the arm and hand in relationship to the customer’s phone and would actively display the watch on his wrist in real time. If that wasn’t enough, the technology would go so far as to render reflections on the face of the watch as any light from the room bounced off of it.
“The items may include jewelry, eyeglasses, watches, home furnishings, and so forth,” said the patent’s authors. “Users who wish to purchase these physical items may find that the experience of purchasing is enhanced by more realistic presentations of the physical items on devices.”
On top of the recently launched patent, Amazon filed a different AR patent back in 2015 called Reflector-based Depth Mapping of a Scene. This patent revealed a complex augmented reality system that would allow users to project images to the rest of their environment by using nodes set up around a room. This would enable customers, for example, to see how a piece of furniture might look in a specific spot of their living room or how a lamp might look on a certain dresser. Another patent, released at the same time and paired with this one, would allow customers to manipulate objects and projections by doing gestures and motions, much like the Microsoft Kinect. Amazon has also filed a patent for “smart glasses” that will allow users to project objects around their environment.
“The projected content may include electronic books, videos, images, interactive menus, or any other sort of visual content. For instance, a user within the environment may request that the technology project a particular electronic book that the user wishes to read. In response, the technology may project the book onto a projection surface within the environment,” according to the patent.
The reason for augmented reality in retail is very clear: e-commerce companies spend millions of dollars every year on returns because of customers who don’t like the physical look, size, or fit of an item they purchased. It’s a huge negative cost to online retailers but many online stores view augmented reality as a potential solution.
Amazon is not the first or only brand to make the concerted move into augmented reality to solve the costs of returns and the inability of customers to try things on at home or physically see items before they buy them.
Sephora, a cosmetics retailer, uses ModiFace augmented reality technology to let customers upload a selfie and then use it to see how certain cosmetics would look on their own face in real time. Eyewear seller Warby Parker uses a similar technology to let their online shoppers try on glasses before they make a purchase.
In fact, Amazon is not even the first company with its eyes on creating a shopping experience where you can try on anything, at any time, anywhere. UK-based online retailer Metail gives customers the ability to render a 3D model of themselves that they can then use to try on different kinds of apparel. After launching the technology, Metail did research to discover how successful it was and found an 8.4 percent increase in orders placed, a 22 percent increase in basket size, and a 5.1 percent reduction in product returns. And in a survey done by Walker Sands of over 1,400 consumers, 35 percent said they would shop online more if they could interact with products through virtual or augmented means.
In June, Apple and Ikea joined forces to release an augmented reality app this fall that will allow users to browse and place furniture around their home so they can then decide how it meshes with their home’s style and space rather than using guesswork. The Ikea app will be built using Apple’s ARKit, a developer tool that helps companies create iOS apps that utilize augmented reality.
The biggest upcoming splash in the sphere of augmented reality is likely to be the iPhone 8 release, which is rumored to built around and fully integrated with AR. The camera on the iPhone 8 will reportedly be equipped with technology that will be able to perform a 3D scan of a room and seamlessly understand the depth, measurements, and objects. Along with this, Apple performed a demo at WWDC with the iPad that showed them place a projected image of a coffee cup on a table. The demo combined with the rumors and the impending launch of ARKit shows that Apple is dedicated to augmented reality and giving developers — many e-commerce — the ability to easily implement and capitalize off augmented reality.
The first company to make real waves in regards to AR was Magic Leap. The company, mostly unknown at the time, released a video in 2015 that demonstrated what the future of augmented reality technology could look like. The video was called “Just another day in the office at Magic Leap” went viral and showed both gaming applications and productivity applications of the technology. Despite not having released a product, Magic Leap is the most successful AR company in terms of fundraising. The firm has raised over $1.4 billion from businesses including Google and Alibaba.
As of today, the likes of Apple, Google, Amazon, Intel, Disney, and other giants are investing huge sums of money into augmented reality while at the same time gobbling up smaller augmented and virtual reality companies to join forces with. Facebook alone has spent a whopping $2.16 billion on 11 acquisitions of augmented and virtual reality companies.
And it’s not only the giants of business who are committed to a future of thriving augmented reality. According to a survey of consumers by ISACA, 69 percent thought that augmented reality could help them learn, 62 percent said it could help them shop, 63 percent said it could be used for product demonstrations, and 64 percent said it could help their workplace function smoother.
With both consumers and massive businesses showing interest and investment in AR and it no longer being seen as just a gaming utility, the future is bright and the science fiction future it will remind of us is not too far off.
While it’s true that the Amazon patents aren’t definitive proof of the power and potential of augmented reality — when something is patented, it doesn’t necessarily mean it will make it to the product stage. But investments by Amazon and other smaller online retail sites into augmented reality are a glaring sign of its potential and viability when it comes to e-commerce.