Smart phones poised to deliver augmented reality trend in retail

Executives hope augmented reality can help revolutionise the retail industry. And smartphone apps look to be leading the charge, argues Ben Thompson at Next Generation Retail Summit Europe Summit 2011 organiser, GDS International

Imagine a world in which small, cartoon-style tags pop up within your field of vision, overlaying real-world objects and buildings to describe what you’re looking at – much like Arnie in Terminator 2.

It might sound like something straight out of a science fiction, but that is essentially what some of the world’s largest cellphone firms are about to offer their millions of customers, using the cameras and screens of smart phones – along with vast online databases – to supplement your worldview with everything from product reviews to directions to price comparison data.

So-called augmented reality technology is the latest feature to hit smart phones across the world. Just this month, Korean consumer electronics maker LG announced its forthcoming Optimus 3D smart phone would adopt the futuristic Wikitude 3D browser to bring real-time augmented reality experiences to smartphone users in three dimensions. Wikitude’s 3D browser enables users to view and engage with places, landmarks and objects, plus the additional layer of virtual data superimposed on top of them, in real-time and in 3D.

“AR technology has been praised for its potential to replace the ‘abstract’ realities of standard mobile browsers with ‘actual’ reality streamed through the camera of the smart phone,” said Jong-Seok Park, CEO and president of LG Mobile Communications Company. “LG’s cutting-edge hardware and 3D API software technology now pushes this reality a step further.”

Elsewhere, Japan’s NTT DoCoMo launched ‘chokkan nabi’ (or intuitive navigation) in September to help people find their way around megacities such as Tokyo and Osaka and other places in Japan.

“You just need to focus on a street, a building or a particular spot with your camera-equipped cellphone to see if there is a bank, a restaurant, a supermarket or other location,” a DoCoMo official was reported as saying.

“Labels or signs indicate, for example, the distance to a chosen restaurant, schedules, menus, etc. With a simple gesture, you can switch back to a conventional map in two dimensions.”

The service has so far registered some 600,000 points of interest throughout Japan, including restaurants, shops and train stations, which can be searched through user-defined criteria. The technology, developed with mapmaker Zenrin, uses GPS and sophisticated software to place virtual tags on real-world objects and provide directions to places outside the user’s direct view. It also links with micro-blogging site Twitter, which has been wildly successful in Japan, so that its users can spot each other in real time and real space, and tweet comments about where they are.

Internationally, several operators are harnessing similar technology. Finnish cellphone giant Nokia is offering a free application called Point & Find, which involves pointing your camera phone at real-world objects to access information and functions. The service also allows users to scan barcodes to compare prices, read reviews or save a product to a wish list.

Augmented reality has huge potential in the retail space, blurring as it does the line between online and offline shopping. Analysts estimate the retail industry will spend over US$170bn in 2011 on IT, with technology investment priorities focused on multi-channel retailing, customer experience management and developing mobile and social media strategies.

As such, AR is sure to be a key topic of conversation at the upcoming Next Generation Retail Summit Europe Summit 2011, which takes place from 13-15 September at The Oitavos, Cascais in Portugal. This closed-door summit, hosted by GDS International, features some of the leading voices in the retail sector including Theodosios Staikopolous, group supply chain director for Carrefour; Vishal Bansal, head of replenishment development at Tesco; Venn Luscombe-Mahoney, group head of IT at The Dune Group; and Clare Otte, director of visual merchandising at Foot Locker.

The implementation of next generation retail technologies will take centre stage, but the summit will also turn the spotlight on how to build a customer-centric multi-channel business, capitalise on retail demand intelligence, and develop strategies for supply chain excellence.

The Next Generation Retail Summit Europe 2011 is an exclusive C-level event reserved for 100 participants that includes expert workshops, facilitated roundtables, peer-to-peer networks and co-ordinated meetings.

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