Why brands are taking augmented reality more seriously

​​Augmented reality is about “exploring the world around you with an added layer of that computer vision added onto it,” says Heather Moffat, creative strategist at Snap Inc. “We’re not taking you out of the world that you’re currently in, but we’re adding elements to it to augmented it in a specific way.”

On April 17, Moffat joined Alan Smithson, CEO of MetaVRse and Miriam Pettinen, vice-president of projects at ModiFace, to talk about augmented reality (AR) at the Globe Content Studio’s Martech Mornings event. The following is a summary of the panel discussion.

What attracted you to the field of augmented reality?

Alan: I used to make a DJ software and a hardware piece called the Emulator, and was invited to Curiosity Camp by Eric Schmidt (ex-Google chairman). I tried out this big honking virtual-reality headset and was instantly transported to a stage and looking out at a crowd. I had this ‘holy cow’ moment where I realized that this is the future of how we’re gonna communicate. I knew I needed to be a part of it.

Miriam: When I started at ModiFace seven years ago, everything was still photo-based. Then we made this breakthrough where all of a sudden we could simulate things on live video. That was a big game changer for us and very exciting for me because I realized we could do so much more with the technology. 

Augmented reality allows brands “to be a part of people’s everyday moments,” Heather Moffat says. (Photo by Monica Bialobrzeski)

Heather: My first experience was on the advertising side. I come from a creative agency background, and Snap Inc. would pitch us campaign ideas. I started thinking about how their technology could help our clients solve their goals. One of the examples they pitched us at the time was for the Dairy Farmers of Canada. Snap suggested we turn users faces into bricks of cheese. I thought, “okay that’s fine, but that’s also disgusting.” We were trying to sell high-end cheese, so turning someone’s head into a hunk of blue cheese wouldn’t do that. But from there, I became more and more interested in understanding how new tech like what Snap was developing could be used to work towards real business objectives.

Why should brands start thinking more seriously about AR?

Heather: I think it’s a powerful way for brands to be a part of people’s everyday moments. In Snapchat, brands can talk to users in ways they couldn’t before.  

Miriam: L’Oreal is a digitally focused company and the acquisition of Modiface in 2018 aligned well with its business objectives. Because everything is now done internally, L’Oreal can give consumers a new experience much quicker than they would otherwise be able to provide using outside agencies. Working with Modiface allow helps the parent company be agile and maintain that startup mentality.

Heather Moffat, Miriam Pettinen and Alan Smithson joined the Globe Content Studio for its monthly Martech Mornings event on Augmented Reality. (Photo by Monica Bialobrzeski)

Is it fair to assume companies are starting to see the direct benefit of AR to consumers from an engagement, retention and conversion standpoint?

Miriam: Yes. Since we got acquired by L’Oreal last year we’ve been really aggressive at rolling out our virtual try-on technology across all of their brand websites so users can virtually test out colour cosmetics as well as hair color. And since doing that we’ve seen really positive results when it comes to both conversions but also engagement on their website as well.

Alan: The big online retailers like Amazon, Alibaba and Walmart are now allowing the user to be able to spin the product around and zoom in and out, and the reason they’re doing it is that because multiple product views can increase conversion by up to 20 per cent across the board. But you’re going to see these players move beyond this eventually. Think of the potential of being able to ‘try on’ a watch or sunglasses using AR? With the click of a button, you can put the watch on your wrist, or sunglasses on your face. That’s what’s coming.

Speaking of the retail experience, according to a recent study from Gartner, 100 million consumers worldwide will be using AR or VR for shopping in-store by 2020. This number seems high as there are still obstacles to get people to adopt the technology. 

Alan: I would say the only real obstacle we run up against on a regular basis is file size. The experience [needs to be] small enough to work really well on your device and across a wide range of devices. We’re currently working against a four-megabyte file size and that isn’t large. That is our cutoff to make sure that it is a great user experience, which is limiting for creators and developers. It means there can’t be too many objects in the experience, for example. That’s the challenge I deal with on a continual basis.

File size is one thing, but isn’t the lack of awareness with AR also a challenge for marketers? And the fact that people still have to download an app to experience AR technology. Does that add a layer of complexity to the user experience that may discourage people?

Miriam: In terms of creating awareness of AR and integrate the technology across multiple platforms, I think L’Oreal has done well with this. We use the technology in native applications and have integrated it across social platforms like Snapchat, Facebook and Instagram, so users are constantly coming across the AR experiences. We’ve also integrated AR at the point of purchase. The technology itself is pretty straightforward and we’ve introduced it at a moment when it’s crucial for the user to, say, know if the shade of lipstick works for them. It also gives them confidence in making the purchase.

Heather: At Snap, we recently designed a platform that allows people to make augmented reality experiences themselves. When we were thinking about the UX, we wanted to make it accessible for everyone, not just designers, developers, and really technical people. We said, “if my mom can make an AR activation on this platform, then it’s ready.” It came down to the ‘mom test’ for us.

Heather, some critics have called Snap’s AR experiences gimmicky and trivial. But ultimately, your company is very experimental and you’re naturalizing AR in the sense that you’re not forcing people into it. You’ve made it this lovable experience.

Heather: Right. It’s not just about capturing a moment and posting into your story or posting it on a feed. At Snapchat, it’s all about capturing and communicating real-time moments. It’s incredible to see what our illustrators, developers, and creators are doing with Lens Studio and how they’re pushing the technology. The latest iteration is tracking the human body, so you’ll eventually be able to try on jewelry on your wrists and fingers, for example, and even try clothes on in a virtual showroom.

What’s the value of Snap’s platforms to advertisers?

Traditionally Snap was always thought of as an upper funnel experience, where you’re driving awareness of a brand. But now users are able to ‘try on’ a pair of Nike shoes with AR, for example, and shop directly in the experience.

Brands are clearly seeing the value of are integrating a shop button into the AR experience. In fact, according to a recent study, 70 per cent of consumers said they’d be willing to shop more often at a retailer that offered a ‘good AR experience’ and 40 per cent said they’d be willing to pay more for an item if there was a part of that shopping experience. Miriam, is this the case with L’Oreal?

Miriam: Yes, L’Oreal recently did an AR test with Facebook. A user would scroll through their feed on Facebook and would come across an ad promoting a new line of lipstick. What was different, however, was that the user could interact with the ad directly, try out the shade using AR, and add to cart directly on Facebook. This experiment, which we’ll likely continue to test, allowed us to create a more personalized shopping experience for consumers.

In retail, companies large and small are facing razor-thin margins. So, how can a cash-strapped upstart take advantage of augmented reality in a way that makes sense? margins are razor thin? What kind of tests can they run to see if AR makes sense for them?

Alan: What we’re trying to do is convince smaller businesses to look at the tools and techniques that can help them sell directly to users and so capture more of the margin. Traditional brick and mortar are being disrupted every day and that’s not going away. Why shouldn’t the consumer be able to put on a pair of glasses and walk through the store in her living room, or better yet, try on a new pair of basketball shoes at centre court at the Scotiabank Arena? When we meet with clients the conversation usually goes something like this: What do you sell and what problem are we solving? We’re past the point of just randomly experimenting with AR. You have to be able to create something that ‘wows’ people. Not just something that’s utilitarian. It’s got to blow people away.

What advice do you have for students or recent grads who want to get into augmented reality as a career?

Heather: Curiosity is one of the main things we look for. Personally, I’m not creating a new tech or trying to break the platform, but I am trying to help brands use it in a way that’s fresh and helps them achieve their goals. Testing and experimenting and not being afraid to try new things.

Alan: Just go and make something and go step and play with it. The tools are all there are literally no barriers to entry at all anymore. So just get out there and you know if you really want to dive into it learn unity and learn 3D modeling.

Miriam: We partner with local universities and do placement programs with the students there. We’re always looking for problem solvers.

How will the advent of 5G affect augmented reality and its rate adoption?

Alan: One of the interesting things is that it increases bandwidth and the ability to have multiple devices share and experience at the same time. For example, if you’re at Coachella or you got some of these bigger festivals your phone will not work. No matter how many cell phone towers or trucks they bring in, the wi-fi will not work. 5G allows a lot more users at one time in a centralized area and that’s going to be more and more important as we go to AR glasses. The things that artists are going to be able to do with this are just mind-blowing. So, 5G really comes into to it comes into its own when we start to unlock some of the things we’ve never even thought.

Listen to an audio recording of the session for more details: 


Katherine Scarrow is the deputy head of Globe Content Studio, the content-marketing division of The Globe and Mail, Canada’s national media organization. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram.