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How augmented reality could boost your bottom line

Marketers must leverage the region’s love of Snapchat and alternative realities

augmented reality Apple
Headsets such as the Apple Vision Pro are set to enhance the way we experience augmented reality

Announcements from Snap and Apple promise a new era of consumer engagement through augmented reality – better known as AR.

In turn, marketers are asking themselves whether we will soon see consumers embrace the intimate interaction with brands that the technology has long promised.

Can AR break free of its fun-gimmick stereotype and join the mainstream? If it can, the Middle East is likely to be at the forefront of adoption.

Social media company Snap recently announced it had seen a 33 percent increase in visitors to the second edition of its Snap AR Ramadan Mall this year.

The activation allows users to remain in their own homes while using their phones to interact with products from brands including American Eagle, Ounass and Faces.

Snap’s app Snapchat means that shoppers can try on clothes and otherwise experience brands using AR, which allows digital imagery to be overlaid on live pictures, most often using a mobile phone. 

For several years now, Snap has pinned its hopes on AR and become synonymous with the technology.

While many think of AR in terms of teenagers wearing bunny ears and vomiting rainbows to amuse their friends, Snap and other companies will be hoping the success of projects like the Ramadan Mall indicate a growing demand for AR in more practical – and monetisable – settings.

In the Mena region, e-commerce consultancy FYST predicts mobile commerce will comprise 70 percent of online transaction value by 2025.

AR gives consumers using their phones a stronger connection with brands, as they can interact with digital avatars overlaid on the real world.

This can drive engagement, and as marketers like to emphasise, engagement drives sales and brand loyalty.

If marketers can persuade consumers to go beyond scrolling past their brands on a phone screen, they have a better chance of selling to them.

Experiential offerings such the Ramadan Mall help to pull consumers into the brand experience.

Phone or headset, augmented reality or virtual reality?

Even better than seeing AR on a phone screen is experiencing it through a headset which can superimpose digital data and images onto what you see as you look around you.

In June, Apple announced it would soon launch a mixed reality headset, Apple Vision Pro.

The tech giant has a good track record of setting new standards with its product launches: the iPod introduced us to the idea of listening to music on pocketable hard drives; the iPhone was the first step towards ubiquitous touch-screen phones; the iPad made tablets a thing; and the Apple Watch leads the wearables market.

So there is a good chance that Vision Pro will bring headsets to the mass market.

Other headsets have been released in the past, but none has reached critical mass. In April 2003, Google launched Glass, tech-spectacles with a ‘heads-up’ display to superimpose information.

But the prototype version was discontinued less than two years later, and in March of this year, the Enterprise version – designed for businesses rather than consumers – was abandoned.

Facebook’s parent company Meta owns the Oculus line of headsets, which have proved more successful.

However, they focus more on virtual reality than augmented reality. The difference between the two types of reality represents a major divergence between the philosophies and visions for the future of Snap and Meta.

CEO Mark Zuckerberg changed Facebook’s company name to Meta in October 2021, to proclaim the coming dominance of the metaverse, a more immersive version of the internet.

The metaverse will offer us an escape from reality, akin to the Stephen Spielberg movie Ready Player One.

Digitised versions of ourselves will interact with a digital world. In contrast, augmented reality allows us to “try on” clothes, see subtitles for face-to-face conversations and superimpose blueprints onto mechanical devices we hold or the buildings around us.

Snapchat curated an exhibit at Dubai Expo last year where guests could interact with a sculpture by French artist Cyril Lancelin.

Using their phones and the Snapchat camera application while standing inside a sculpted cube, users could use AR to see quotes from UAE leaders, and watch the flags of Expo participants dissolve and reassemble as the UAE flag.

Snapchat is popular in the GCC, particularly in Saudi Arabia. A young, tech-savvy population has embraced the app, making it more ubiquitous than elsewhere in the world, when compared with rivals such as TikTok and Instagram.

This makes the region the ideal place to build experiences such as the Ramadan Mall, and also means the GCC is likely to be more receptive to further applications of AR.

Snap executives emphasise that bunny ears are a gateway experience; the kids who were barfing rainbows five years ago are entering the workforce now, and expect to be able to shop and work using the same technology they played with in their youth.

AR and VR are both nascent technologies, and it remains to be seen what version of reality people choose to embrace.

Marketers in the region know that they will soon have to adapt their messaging for a generation which increasingly sees less difference between digital channels and the physical world.

Austyn Allison is an editorial consultant and journalist who has covered Middle East advertising since 2007

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