How augmented reality wants to help you shop

Some companies apply 3D imaging techniques to retail products

Want to see how that coffee machine looks on your counter before you buy it? A crop of startups see a business in helping you visualize.

The companies are vying to provide new mapping and image recognition services to give better information to consumers before they click "buy." They are also working with businesses to help them see how products or displays will look in their stores before they place a bulk order from a wholesaler.

The companies, which include outfits like Augment and Cimagine, operate in the hot field known as "augmented reality." The term can be used broadly, to also describe certain products offered by Google, GE or Metaio. Companies' approaches differ, though the area usually involves "augmenting" what people are experiencing in their physical environment with other interactive information or media.

In the case of Augment, the company provides a mobile app for both iOS and Android that lets businesses upload and share previously rendered 3D models of retail items or other product displays. Cimagine does something similar, providing a way for consumers to see how those products would look in different parts of their house.

The technology makes use of the camera in people's smartphones or tablets. Holding your iPad up in front of your kitchen counter, while viewing an item on a retailer's site, might super-impose the item on the counter, locked in place, even if you move your iPad around.

Big retailers like IKEA already provide ways to let consumers see how products might appear in their homes, by letting their catalog function as a marker that the smartphone's camera would recognize.

But more tech companies are trying to artificially bring retailers' products into people's environs, sometimes without needing markers for reference.

One of Augment's biggest customers is the French beauty company L'Oreal. Its sales reps use Augment's technology to help sell beauty products to stores, by showing how renderings of them would appear in the stores. Cimagine, meanwhile, lets consumers see how furniture items might look like in their homes.

One of the biggest problems in e-commerce right now, said Cimagine CEO Yoni Nevo, is that people have a hard time picturing how well the item will look in their home. "They want to know how it fits," he said.

ViewAR is another firm developing a similar technology for businesses and shoppers.

Those companies were just a few of many touting their services Wednesday at Augmented World Expo, a conference in Santa Clara, California, focused on augmented reality applications.

Much of the consumer interest around augmented reality has been focused on wearable devices like Google Glass or Oculus Rift, which take their own approaches to layering different types of media on top of what people see through the goggles.

But companies like Cimagine and Augment show that augmented reality is not just about geeky-looking glasses. If anything, the field may be gaining more traction among businesses now, who see the potential for making better connections with customers.

For some, 2014 even marks a tipping point in the growth of businesses around augmented reality. Total Immersion, an older player that provides 3D graphics and other services for brands, reported Wednesday that for the first time ever it had monthly recurring revenue with repeat customers.

When it comes to using the technology for shopping, it's not perfect. Items might hover in mid-air, or the tablet could get choked up trying to quickly process images from people's kitchens. And companies in the space are still far from providing a mass market service.

Robert Scoble, the technology blogger and guru who delivered Wednesday's keynote at the show, likened the field right now to the introduction of the Apple II computer in 1977. At that time, "It was called the year of the personal computer, even though personal computers didn't really arrive until 15 or 20 years later," he said.

Augmented reality's true heyday, he said, might also come later.

Zach Miners covers social networking, search and general technology news for IDG News Service. Follow Zach on Twitter at @zachminers. Zach's e-mail address is zach_miners@idg.com

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