AR’s Next Launch Pad: Apple Stores

Augmented Reality continues to be a technology with lots of promise and potential, but relatively disappointing traction. It could take time for consumers to get on board, as it goes for any new technologies that require behavioral change (e.g., holding up your phone or strapping on glasses).

Meanwhile, areas where consumer adoption could be accelerated (besides outliers like Pokémon Go) are those that offer tangible utilities. That includes visual search like Google Lens, which lets you identify and contextualize real-world items by pointing your phone at them. It has natural shopping tie-ins.

Speaking of shopping, another AR endpoint is physical retail. As experimented by Walmart and others, the idea is that you can get in-aisle product information through AR overlays. It can create more informed and empowered shoppers, or enliven retail aisles with animated product demos or spokespeople.

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Stress Test

That last use case is what Apple is rumored to be working on. Of course, when it comes to Apple and AR rumors, most airtime is devoted to its prospective AR glasses which could launch at WWDC 2023 (more on that in a bit). But here we’re talking about mobile AR activations that fuel in-store shopping.

Bloomberg reporter and Apple AR rumor-hound Mark Gurman surfaced this possibility. He reports in his newsletter this week that Apple has been working on the feature since 2020 (delayed for obvious reasons), which will let shoppers see informational overlays on products throughout the store.

Gurman reports that Apple has begun testing it in stores over the past few months to stress test the functionality and to gauge consumer interest. That last part is obviously important, not just to make sure it lands with shoppers, but to acclimate them to a technology that represents a big bet for Apple.

In that sense, Apple is incentivized to push AR in all forms. As noted, its AR glasses are coming. And to seed demand and consumer comfort before they arrive, it wants to pave the way with simpler forms of mobile AR. That stands behind these retail AR rumors and the very existence of its ARkit app SDK.

“If the service debuts in the near future, it would be one of Apple’s most significant AR-related launches to date — and a taste of what’s to come with the headset,” wrote Gurman. And if it goes where Apple hopes it will, it may release an API so that third-party retailers can develop the same functionality.

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Planting Seeds

Zeroing in on Apple’s AR glasses plans, why is it doing this to begin with? In short, it’s about future-proofing. It’s all too aware that the iPhone – its biggest cash cow – is reaching maturation and global saturation. As that happens, Apple’s wearables line has counterbalanced declines in iPhone growth.

And wearables is precisely where AR glasses will live. They will follow Appl’s multi-device ecosystem playbook, incentivizing uses to own several devices (just like iThings). Visuals from your glasses will play off spatial audio from your AirPods and biometrics from your Apple Watch. It’s classic Apple.

But to be clear, an all-day wearable pair of AR glasses are a few years from reality, given underlying tech and cultural readiness. The rumored 2023 headset referenced above will be more of a VR-like entertainment device (with passthrough AR). That will pave the way for proper AR glasses later.

But before we get to either outcome, today’s reality is mobile AR. As we discussed on a recent episode of Localogy’s This Week in Local podcast, mobile AR doesn’t do the technology justice… but it scales today in piggybacking on 3.2 billion global smartphones. And that’s where Apple is planting AR seeds.

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