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Oracle Retail Blog helps retailers stay current on customer successes, hot retail trends and industry best practices.

Immersive Commerce Brings Online Shopping to Life

Gaurav Gupta
Senior Director Commerce Consulting
This is a syndicated post, view the original post here

Immersive commerce is the latest buzzword circulating in the digital commerce landscape. It is often difficult for retailers to distinguish whether a buzzword is just hype or is it something that they can put in practical use to increase conversion, or to enhance their customer experience. In this article I have tried to provide an overview of the immersive technology trends, along with some practical use cases where this technology can be leveraged by retailers to enhance their customer’s experience and engagement.

What is immersive commerce/experience?

Immersive commerce (iCommerce) is the next evolution of ecommerce, that enhances the customer experience by infusing technologies like 360-degree images, 3D imaging, augmented reality (AR), virtual reality (VR), mixed reality (MR), etc. in an online customer journey, thereby bringing the customers closer to the in-store shopping experience. Instead of scrolling through multiple 2D images, and product descriptions, it is easier for shoppers to interact, examine and control an embedded 3D model on the product page. 3D models allow shoppers to zoom, rotate, scale and view the products from different angles and perspectives.

Augmented reality takes this one step further by allowing shoppers to place the products from the website in their physical world to examine it and to assess its compatibility with other objects in the surrounding or even on their body.

Market research data suggests that mobile devices have already outpaced desktops for ecommerce activities. Mobile device’s geospatial and camera capabilities make them a perfect form factor for exploiting the AR capabilities in ecommerce. We no longer need special or expensive devices like Google Glass to harness the capabilities of AR in our daily lives. Let’s explore some use cases where this technology has been put to practical use by retailers.

360-degree Images/Videos

The fastest and simplest way to incorporate three dimensional content on your website is to provide 360 Degrees Images/videos on the product pages. This allows the shopper to view the products from different perspectives, instead of browsing through multiple flat 2D images. 360-degree images display the product using pictures taken from all sides allowing shoppers a view that a 2D image cannot provide. There are a number of tools and online services available to convert your 2D images into a 360-degree format. For e.g. you can easily try this out by using a service like Sirv.

Here are some examples of retailers using the 360 degrees view on their website technology.

Amazon already allows 360-degree images across a wide variety of categories:

Under Armour provides a 360-degree video for shoes. 

3D Product Configurators

Product configurators have been offered by many retailers in home furnishing and automotive industries for quite some time. Typically, a 2D product configurator allows a user to select from a predefined list of options and with the selection of each option the product image changes to display the updated configuration. While this goes a long way to improve a customer’s engagement with the product, it falls short because this doesn’t allow the customers to view their configurations from different angles or perspective, thereby limiting the experience to a small array of configuration possibilities.

3D Configurators on the other hand can revolutionise the experience for customers who are looking to customize and personalise a product to their specific requirements. Configurators built using 3D Web viewers take advantage of WebGL’s real-time rendering capability. Consumers can make choices on different options, colors and materials, and these choices are reflected live in the 3D Web viewer. The difference between this and a 2D configurator, is that there aren’t loads of images to create and manage. That’s because the 3D Web viewer updates the model in real-time using a JavaScript API.

Look at how Lexus offers a 3D configurators to enable personalisation of numerous aspects of their cars. 

Xenith, the industry leader in American football helmet technology, takes 3D product configurators to another level by offering a fantastic and engaging configurator that allows you to zoom, rotate, configure and even see the “exploded” view of the helmet virtually.

 

Augmented Reality (AR)

Augmented reality can help in “gamifying” the shopping experience by allowing the customers to simulate how the product will fit in and appear in the context of their physical environment or their physique. By displaying products in/with augmented reality, your customers can accurately measure, experience and assess the suitability and compatibility of the product in their homes or can match it with their wardrobe or physical features.

IKEA Place App has been providing augmented reality features for many years now, this app enables a customer to point their phone in their living space and then to select objects from their virtual catalog that would fit in those spaces. Here is my attempt to place a lamp on my table to see how it would appear.

Challenges

So why aren’t more and more retailers creating and presenting their content in 3D?

Despite being around for a long time, the 3D content technology adoption has not gained popularity because until recently it has been quite difficult and expensive to both produce and consume 3D assets. 3D content is difficult to find on search engines, and was not shareable/editable between apps. Most organisations outside the video gaming, animation and movies industries are not setup/equipped to use 3D assets efficiently, as it required niche skillset and expensive software.

Retailers also have to figure out how their existing content creation process can be enhanced to generate 3D content at scale, what new skillsets have to be acquired or outsourced, which content formats to support, etc.  

Another challenge has been the siloed development of technology in absence of any industry standards for creation and consumption of 3D content, thereby requiring proprietary and expensive hardware to consume the 3D/AR content. Recent developments in industry standards for producing and consuming 3D content is now simplifying and streamlining the end to end lifecycle of 3D content creation and consumption. Here are some quickly emerging standards that you should be aware of:

  • GL Transmission Format (glTF): described as the “JPEG of 3D” is rapidly becoming the common publishing format for 3D content assets, tools and services. glTF can be used to save and share digital assets between different 3D modeling tools and are optimized for download speed and load time at runtime, which makes them easier to use in mobile and web-based 3D modeling programs. With glTF/glb formats, users can experience 3D/AR seamlessly in their web browser removing the need for any custom app or device.
  • USDZ: with iOS 12 Apple announced a new file format USDZ, that they co-developed with Pixar, and is based on Pixar’s USD (Universal Scene Description) format for creating and sharing AR content across different applications. Pixar has been developing and using USD for many years to create 3D animation, and have collaborated with Apple to create USDZ that is optimises for mobile devices. USDZ allows iOS users to share 3D content, and to view this content without the need for installing any new app. At this point, only iOS devices can consume 3D content with USDZ and other mobile operating systems, browsers haven’t adopted this format. On other platforms, gLTF and gLB seem to be the main candidate to become the USDZ equivalent.
  • AR platforms: WebAR allows AR experiences to run in web browser using Javascript libraries making AR applications accessible on billions of devices irrespective of the operating system or the platform they run on. Recent launch of the ARKit and ARCore by Apple and Google respectively have enabled billions of smartphone and web browser users to interact and engage with AR content online and in their existing environment using their smartphone and web browsers capabilities. Earlier this year, Google announced bringing AR to YouTube and interactive 3D assets to display ads through its ARCore platform. Facebook already supports 3D posts, and is working on bringing this capability to Instagram as well.

Summary

The world we live in, interact with and experience is three dimensional, and therefore, content delivered in 3D or Augmented Reality (AR) has the potential to become a key differentiator for retailers. This differentiator will grow in importance as consumer focus on ecommerce shifts from simple transactions to an immersive and personalised experience. Many companies have already started to experiment with virtual representation of products in 3D/AR on their websites and Apps, and this technology and industry standards are evolving rapidly.

From 3D images on the product page, to virtual showrooms, and the ability to view and imagine the products in your environment the possibilities for 3D technology in retail is endless. Retailers in home furnishing and footwear have been the early adopters for 3D, and are already offering a more engaging and immersive shopping experience to their customers. Apart from B2C, potential of 3D models replacing CAD drawings for B2B businesses is also huge, as they could offer their customers to zoom into a CAD drawing in 3D, to identify the exact spares that they wish to order.

Along with the improving the customer engagement and experience using 3d technology for product visualisations can help in reducing the overall return rates for retailers. With the added ability to scrutinise products in 3D/AR, their customers will make more informed and confident buying decisions, that are based on their ability to interact with the products in the context of their physical appearance and living spaces. 

As part of this article I’ve only tried to cover retail specific applications for immersive technology, however, there are a lot of other verticals (transport, heavy engineering, geo-spacial, medicine etc) where immersive technology has already become mainstream, and is already raising the bar for enhanced user experience. Many of the major technology players including Apple, Google, Facebook, Uber etc are working on making AR adoptable for everyone and everywhere. It is just a matter of time before consumers will start expecting the immersive shopping experience as a norm rather than a “wow effect”. 

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