LET’S FACE IT, Artificial Reality (AR) and Virtual Reality (VR) haven’t quite set the world of customer experience alight to the extent that we might have expected when the technology first came on the scene a number of years ago.
While AR and VR are being used across a wide range of industries, much of their impact thus far has catered to a small number of markets like gaming and entertainment, which leaves us somewhat short-changed when it comes to a meaningful contribution to customer interactions with brands.
Nonetheless, inroads are being made by some companies keen to harness the power of AR and VR to create an effective user engagement tool that connects customers to their products and services.
Augmented versus virtual
Firstly, let’s differentiate the two technologies. For applications focused on virtual reality or VR, the user becomes immersed into a completely new world.
On the other hand, augmented reality or AR incorporates new objects and visuals into the ‘real’ or existing world. The thread that runs through both technologies is how the user experiences a blurring of the edges between what’s real and what’s not.
According to Steven Van Belleghem, a CX expert, author and keynote speaker, we still have a long way to go in augmented reality to see its true capabilities when it comes to customer experience.
“I believe AR hasn’t developed far enough yet,” he said. “Today, the interface isn’t perfect, yet we still need major improvements in hardware and software before we will see AR all around us.”
When it comes to VR, Van Belleghem says the technology has evolved further than AR but it still has a limited usage set for customers.
“In some specific areas it can really add something but, in most cases, it is a ‘gimmick’ rather than a transformational technology. I am a big believer that AR will fundamentally change the customer experience, but probably only ten years from now when everything has advanced to a more mature and high performing technology.”
Using technology to add value
For Van Belleghem, in order for companies to avoid acquiring the ‘gimmick’ label and to use AR and VR in a meaningful way, the technology needs to add value to the customer’s journey.
“I have seen some cool examples in the real estate business where people could walk into a house,” he said. Rooomy is a good example of a company offering immersive 3D real estate tours.
“In AR there are some really cool cases of Microsoft in the operating room, facilitating the medical staff during surgery,” Van Belleghem added.
So, what other companies are embracing AR and VR in a meaningful way for their customers?
US eyewear retailer Warby Parker is known for delivering exceptional customer experience at its bricks and mortar stores but its investment and innovation doesn’t stop there.
Earlier this year, the company launched a new service using Apple’s Face ID and AR tech to allow customers virtually try on glasses in its app before they make a purchase.
Warby Parker first entered the AR space back in 2017, and its latest tech is an extension of its original Face ID-based update for the iPhone X, which used Apple’s 3D face maps to make recommendations.
Other retail businesses – anything from tattoo artists to homeware stores – have been getting in on the AR act too and, according to research from Statista, it is forecasted that AR in retail will equal about $80 billion in 2022.
Back in 2017, Air France became one of the first airlines in the world to introduce virtual reality headsets in-flight for its passengers.
Since then, many other airlines such as Qantas, Iberia and Alaska have followed suit. Meanwhile, British Airways is taking it one step further and using virtual reality to help passengers overcome their fear of flying.
Speaking in February 2019, Nikolas Jaeger, founder and managing director of Inflight VR, which is behind the technology being used by Iberia, said: “We think virtual reality has a great potential and it can change the air passenger experience as a part of the in-flight entertainment programme. The viewer is no longer a mere observer, but can take a stroll in the city he or she will be visiting, or simply relax before arriving at the destination.”
Last year German luxury carmaker Mercedes-Benz launched its 3D augmented reality app Mercedes cAR along with a virtual reality set with data goggles.
The application allows customers and prospective buyers to configure their vehicle of choice on a smartphone or tablet, and view it in every detail in a unique, three-dimensional resolution – both from inside and outside.
In addition, the carmaker’s technology is making print manuals a thing of the past. The Ask Mercedes app enables your phone’s camera to scan the interior of your car, which introduces place numbered AR indicators on specific parts throughout the interior.
Clicking on any of these will allow the user to access information on specific components in the form of video tutorials or a digital version of the owner’s manual.
“We are creating a personalised customer experience that goes well beyond the vehicle,” Britta Seeger, member of the board of management of Daimler AG responsible for Mercedes-Benz Cars Marketing & Sales, said at the time of the launch.
With AR and VR technologies, we are clearly seeing a strong focus on how it can support sales such as with Warby Parker’s use of the applications, but how important will the technology be in terms of solving customer problems?
Van Belleghem says the potential could be huge.
“Imagine all kind of technical problems in your house,” he said. “Today, you sometimes need the support of technical people. These people need to come to your house to solve the issue. Via AR they could facilitate you throughout the process. They could see what you see and help you to fix the problem yourself. This will increase efficiency for both the customer and the company.”
“In the next five years, we will see more and more gimmick-like projects that slowly start to transform to game-changing interfaces.”
A need for the human touch will remain
While AR and VR will in the future be considered game-changing technology in CX, Van Belleghem believes there will remain a need for the human touch when it comes to customer experience.
“Humans can excel in fields where computers are not good,” he said. “Qualities like human judgement and empathy will increase in a digital and automated world. AR could help to scale the human touch. If you could let avatars help you in certain parts of the journey it could be a human personal assistant if a real human is behind the avatar.”
So, five years from now, how deeply ingrained can we expect AR and VR to be in major brands’ offering? Van Belleghem predicts that AR will need more time.
“In the next five years, we will see more and more gimmick-like projects that slowly start to transform to game-changing interfaces,” he said. “The combination of AR with your personal AI assistant could create a completely new kind of life. Although, I believe that will take another five to ten years.”
Virtual reality will move faster. “Although I don’t see VR as a general technology that will be part of every journey, it will stay in the niche applications for most businesses. In media and gaming, it will be a vital part of their offering and experience,” he said.
Joe O’Connor is a content editor at Voxpro – powered by TELUS International. This article originally appeared as part of the ‘Voxpro Future of CX’ series.