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Augmented reality emerges in customer experience tech

For customer experience, augmented reality is more common than virtual reality. Marketing and field service are the early adopters of AR, with sales and e-commerce trailing.

Most consumers connect the concept of augmented reality and virtual reality to the gaming world, but Microsoft, Zoom, Facebook and other big tech providers are pushing the technology into business, social collaboration and retail worlds.

Augmented reality (AR) is already being applied to customer experience to enrich the customer's view of the existing physical world. Marketing teams use it to enable customers to imagine the potential for what they sell. Experts said sales and e-commerce uses will soon be more widespread.

One familiar marketing application is the home-decor Sherwin-Williams' ColorSnap app that allows users to visualize how a room or exterior would look when repainted in a particular color. Similarly, IKEA Place shows prospective shoppers what pieces of furniture would look like in their homes. Those apps have been around for several years. Even further back, in 2011, Heinz published an AR cookbook to promote ketchup as an ingredient in recipes, and claimed 650,000 app uses in two years.

On the customer service side, AR and VR allow field technicians to make notes and access content resources overlaid on 3D models, live camera feeds, or a combination of both. They also can connect agents and technicians to perform remote service calls directly with customers.

Sales applications for AR and VR are still in early days, said Daniel Newman, founding partner of Futurum Research. Forward-thinking consumer clothing companies use AR to show 360-degree renderings of what custom-fitted shirts will look like on a customer. Customers plug in photos and measurements or shoe sizes and from there design, order and pay for clothing or sneakers in a single session.

"We all like talking about the metaverse, but I'm not seeing that [immersive virtual reality CX] a lot of people have talked about -- yet," Newman said. "But I'm seeing companies really successfully addressing personalization through web apps. These little personalization applications are great uses of AR. It's something that we can do successfully right now."

Capgemini Andy3D
Capgemini's Andy3D brings augmented reality customer experience in the form of remote assistance for field service and contact center agents. In this image, notes and chat can be added to live photos at a manufacturing facility.

AR shines in field service

Recent IDC research said that field service will lead AR and VR tech investment, which will top $4 billion by 2024. AR and VR in field service starts with training and onboarding of customer service agents and field technicians and continues through to setup and maintenance work in manufacturing.

Field service is the typical application for Andy3D Remote, an immersive remote-assistance platform that Capgemini customizes for engineering prototyping, launch, inspection, maintenance and customer service, said Marie-Julie Pecoult, Andy3D Remote product manager. Users also deploy Andy3D Remote for design review and collaborations to visualize machines and factory floor layouts in the planning stages.

Another application of AR and VR in customer service -- which technically overlaps with sales, in some cases -- is remote acceptance: A user's service technician and a moderator can remotely demonstrate to a buying team that a large machine or other asset has been installed and is fully operational, collecting notes and answering questions live in the app. This process can also be applied to repairs, maintenance and upgrades as well.

Product Talks: VR/AR

Salesforce also has invested in AR and computer vision for users to set up remote technical service, either for contact center agents to assist customers or for field techs to receive remote support from veteran experts. The technology comes through an integration with AR software developer TechSee.

Field service and remote assistance remain the strongest applications for TechSee AR in customer service, said Paul Whitelam, senior vice president and general manager of Salesforce Field Service Management. But some Salesforce users have begun to deploy it for customer self-service as well.

The pandemic definitely was a factor that drove Salesforce users to experiment with this idea, Whitelam said, as their customers wanted to limit in-person interactions. Technologies such as TechSee enabled them to get remote help and in some cases resolve their problems from afar.

"Rather than, 'Oh, let's roll the truck and have a look at the problem,' it's 'Please click on this link, we'd like to have a look into your issues through this visual interface,'" Whitelam said. "We can do remote diagnostics, and we can find out what's happening. Maybe there's a simpler solution that actually doesn't involve truck roll."

Headsets key to AR adoption

For many companies, the big obstacles to AR and VR are the hardware, development costs and identifying business drivers that justify the investments. Another obstacle to widespread adoption of augmented reality in customer experience is the cost of the headsets, especially professional models used by technicians. Enterprise-grade headsets can run into the thousands of dollars, while the cheapest consumer models cost $15-$75.

Facebook parent company Meta offers Oculus Rift headsets for $299. The company envisions its headsets being used in metaverse virtual office spaces, where employees represented by avatars collaborate on projects in 3D. For Capgemini's Pecoult -- based in France and catering to European as well as U.S. users wary of Facebook because of privacy issues -- the fact that Meta requires a Facebook account to operate Oculus Rift headsets limits the appeal of these more cost-effective headsets. Their use is restricted mostly to training and educational content among Andy3D users.

We are very close to the next step with mixed reality.
Marie-Julie PecoultAndy3D Remote product manager, Capgemini

Google Glass Android-powered glasses might have been an interesting technology when they came out in 2013, but it was ahead of its time, Pecoult said. People were not ready to process the always-on flow of information. But AR glasses for specific uses, like assisting workers with hands-free content and information to help them complete work tasks, could take hold, she predicted.

Younger workers, already familiar with gaming headsets, will find utility with AR and VR in their jobs, and it will expand to permeate more aspects of customer experience. Glasses -- less obtrusive than AR headsets -- could make a comeback and enable more widespread adoption.

"We are very close to the next step with mixed reality," Pecoult said.

In e-commerce, AR and VR offer potential not only to demonstrate products, but also to sell them. Karmesh Vaswani, Infosys executive vice president and global head of consumer, retail and logistics, manages Equinox, a headless commerce microservices bundle. He sees potential for in-game commerce, and said Infosys plans to continue to develop connectors between e-commerce engines and gaming environments.

"Augmented reality and virtual reality headsets are becoming more and more affordable, and more and more accessible," Vaswani said. "Millennials [as well as Gens X and Z] are so engrossed in their gaming applications. They want to do e-commerce sitting in their application. So how do you build an interface into that?"

Don Fluckinger covers enterprise content management, CRM, marketing automation, e-commerce, customer service and enabling technologies for TechTarget.

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