Rethinking E-Commerce for the “Magic Window”

Looking at the role of XR solutions in digital retail experiences today and in the future.

Shanil Patel
Sep 14, 2020 · 7 min read

E-commerce has become a highly competitive and crucial space for brands to succeed in. Long before the COVID-19 pandemic, brick-and-mortar stores were feeling a growing challenge from online retail, and since the pandemic hit, these pressures have accelerated. The formerly novel channels of online marketing supported by a virtual storefront on desktop and mobile just don’t give companies a competitive edge anymore. They’re considered basic requirements. Nowadays, for a brand to stand out it needs to compete for the customer’s attention at multiple touchpoints — without sacrificing the integrity of the brand.

That’s where a strategic headless e-commerce solution can do wonders. And for many, that requires a full digital transformation to get touchpoints aligned across a digital platform experience solution. But to achieve a digital transformation like that, there are unique challenges and opportunities to be faced that could either see a brand flourish, or find it lost in the noisy crowd that is online retail. Increasingly, to stand out, businesses need to look at emerging technologies such as XR and voice to engage customers and develop their brand in new ways. A digital retail experience that engages the customer at key touchpoints, allows them to experience your brand up close, and brings your products to their physical space instantaneously is the kind of experience that will stand out to consumers.

The world of voice has gained a lot of traction in the past few years with the rise of Amazon Alexa and Google Home (among others), and there’s lots of great reading on the topic. But voice isn’t the only emerging interface experience and it may not be the most effective option for your brand’s needs, either. Augmented, virtual and mixed reality are beginning to find mainstream footing with big-name retailers, which makes now the perfect time to explore this area. For today, we’re going to focus on the world of XR.

XR and the Magic Window

Before we jump into the opportunities XR creates in the e-commerce space, let’s define the frequently misunderstood term and discuss how it can be brought to the mass market. Simply put, XR or Extended Reality is the overarching term for AR (Augmented Reality), VR (Virtual Reality), and MR (Mixed Reality). It’s the space of reality that exists between a completely digital solution and the real world.

How can users interact with XR content you might ask? Currently, there are two main approaches. The first: users can interact with XR through sophisticated, expensive, power-hungry headsets that offer highly immersive experiences, but are not all that accessible to the masses. And the second: mobile devices, which allow users to experience XR content through something known as the magic window. Using the devices’s sensors, cameras, and supporting software like computer vision, a user can experience XR content on their screen. The magic window isn’t as immersive as a headset, but it does the trick and opens up multiple avenues to engage with customers in a more impactful way. (Plus it’s significantly easier and more affordable for users to try out — crucial for early adoption.)

The world of MobileXR

There are two ways a customer can experience XR through a handheld device. The first, MobileXR, is the type of XR most people have used. This type of extended reality focuses on apps with XR capabilities that have been developed by a brand or that feature something like Snapchat’s Lenses, Google’s AR Maps, or Instagram’s face filters being used by a brand.

MobileXR opens many new channels in the e-commerce journey, but can be a little restricting when a company adopts the pre-fab options from major players, or quite costly if a brand chooses to develop an XR application themselves. MobileXR also requires a specific application download, which can be a barrier to customers. Thankfully, there is a newer, more promising technology on the horizon that alleviates these challenges and further lowers the barriers to entry for both a brand and their consumers.

The world of WebXR

The second entry point for consumer XR engagement is WebXR. WebXR is a relatively new technology and it’s set to revolutionize the web, along with 5G technology. WebXR bundles XR capabilities into a code stack that’s compatible with modern-day web browsers and is accessible through headsets and smartphones. That means users can now experience XR content on a smartphone directly on the web, without having to download anything.

Brands can leverage this awesome power and embed experiences directly into their websites. creating a seamless narrative that engages the user and allows new ways of immersing and providing value to consumers. With a combination of Mobile and WebXR bundled within a strategic headless solution, a brand has the ability to cut through the noise of online retail and provide value to its customers through a brand-led experience.

Experience is better than showing and telling

The experience of visiting a brick-and-mortar store is something brands have always tried to mimic online — and till recently, failed to do well. The main reason for that lies in the disconnect between the digital and physical worlds. The 2-dimensional interfaces we interact with most frequently on the web today lack the physical elements we have come to enjoy with a brand, their stores, and products. Mass-marketXR (i.e. mobileXR and webXR) can bring brands closer to an experience-driven methodology by bridging the gap between the real and digital worlds through the magic window.

XR in the awareness phase

A few platforms have taken on this challenge of bridging the physical and digital worlds. Social media platforms are a strategic point in any omnichannel experience and with some of the biggest platforms incorporating AR-capabilities into their apps, a newer more experience-driven touchpoint has been created. Snapchat was one of the first applications to make use of mobileXR technology and is now looking to move into the e-commerce space with social commerce features that make explicit use of XR technology for convenient, in the moment purchasing. And leading brands such as Adidas and Nike have jumped at the opportunity to make new use of the platform, raising awareness for new products and launch events, both virtually and in-store.

Though these experiences seem simple, they’re highly effective in capturing user attention and because of the immersive nature and high-level of convenience, tend to create far more engagement than traditional sources of text, video, and imagery. It’s no surprise that conversion rates increase by 40% with the use of AR. And the opportunities and touchpoints for these experiences don’t stop at social media platforms.

Companies like Google have begun incorporating AR capabilities into apps like maps, so that users can discover products while navigating. XR technology, in this case primarily computer vision, is also being used for image recognition search, so that product discovery is far easier than before. This technology will play a big part in the early stages of the customer journey, but the magic of this technology can also bring products to life in the consideration phase, and this is where the true value of mass-market XR shows.

XR in the consideration phase

We’ve already seen quite a few applications of XR at the consideration stage for consumers. Apple, another leader in the mobileXR space, now offers AR experiences on their website that allows customers to view products at a one-to-one scale to aid them in the decision-making process. And an experience that brings 3D models to a customer’s physical space has been perfected by IKEA through its Place app. The app allows customers to browse through product catalogs and if they find something they like, they can enable the AR viewer and place the product in their own physical space to get a sense of how it looks and feels. When they decide they like it, a purchase is only a few clicks away.

Interactions like this enhance the customer experience and allow the brand to fully showcase their value to consumers. Most of all, the customer can actively interact with the brand, instead of passively reading, watching videos, or searching through Google for information to help them make a purchase. These XR-enhanced experiences can (and will) also be taken one step further, by integrating the XR within an omnichannel experience that leverages other technologies such as chatbots, voice, and wearables to create a more personalized and natural experience. At Myplanet, we’ve been exploring some of these solutions and building out sample use cases for when the technology and industry are ready to adopt them.

Conclusion

Mobile and WebXR are still evolving technologies, and a few years ago it likely wouldn’t have been worth the investment for all but a few of the biggest brands. However, computer vision, 3D technology, and mobile technology has grown at a rapid pace and as a result, we’re starting to see XR enter the mass market. According to a study conducted by Statista, by 2023 there will be an estimated 2.4 billion mobileAR users worldwide. The journey into mass-market XR may seem daunting at the moment, but there is no doubt that it is set to disrupt the e-commerce world. If you are a brand looking to digitally transform, mass-market XR should be a part of your road map. Now is the time to start investing in a headless solution, which will allow you to take advantage of mass-marketXR when you’re ready. And if you’re a brand that already has a headless solution, then now is the time to get out in front of the crowd and gain that competitive edge in tomorrow’s market by thinking about the opportunities and value XR can bring to your business and customers today.

Myplanet Musings

Thoughts, ideas, insights, and more from the Myplanet team.

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