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Retail Sales Plummet Amid Lockdown; Augmented Reality is the Solution




Empty shopping mall in Naples, Italy:

This article was first published on TechCrunch on May 6th, 2020.

As countries around the world face prolonged lockdown to prevent the further spread of COVID-19, retailers are among the hardest hit. Many have closed all of their brick and mortar stores, resulting in furloughing of many employees.

The U.S. Census Bureau reported retail sales during March 2020 were down 8.7%, the biggest monthly drop ever recorded since the Great Recession. Of the hardest hit categories, clothing store sales were down 50.5% from February, furniture store sales were down 26.8%, and luxury goods are expected to fall 31%.

Before COVID-19, the brick and mortar retail sector was already decimated by online retail behemoths like Amazon and now the sector’s fate seems sealed by the ever increasing threat of the pandemic.

The so-called retail apocalypse may seem inevitable, but in these challenging times, it is more important than ever to look at how technology can turn the tide.

Image Courtesy of M-XR

Imagine a future where consumers can virtually try on clothes that would fit them perfectly and they can purchase the clothes confidently in the comfort of their own homes. Consumers will no longer need to choose different sizes because computer vision and scanning technologies would have already determined the perfect fit for them. These virtual clothes will also look so real that consumers will not be able to distinguish them from reality. Spoiler alert- this future is already here.

Virtual-try-on is one of the most compelling use cases of augmented reality technology (AR). With AR, consumers are armed with the information they need to confidently make purchasing decisions that will not likely result in returns for retailers. Retailers can also gain new insights into consumers’ buying patterns by tracking gazes, view history, and time spent looking at a particular product. Retailers can even make the AR shopping experience more personalized by providing real-time feedback.

With over 2 billion AR-enabled devices today and 100 million consumers expected to shop with AR this year, the technology is prime for adoption. Here are some examples of how the world’s leading retail brands are using AR to increase conversion, increase sales, and decrease returns.

Computer vision, AI and AR technologies are essential for virtual try-on applications to work seamlessly. When combined, our devices will see and understand the world as we do.

In Warby Parker’s case they used the iPhone’s face mapping technology to let consumers virtually try on glasses and browse through frames easily. Each virtual glasses automatically fit the user’s face even when they move or tilt their head.

Gucci, on the other hand, partnered up with Wanna Kicks, an AR application that uses computer vision and AI technology to let shoppers virtually try on its line of Ace sneakers. All shoppers needed to do is point their smartphone cameras at their feet and the virtual sneakers will magically snap on to their feet. Because the app recognizes the feet and tracks their movement, shoppers can look at the virtual sneakers from any angle. In this case, augmented reality takes the guesswork out of style matching and saves consumers the trip to the physical stores.

In the cosmetic world, L’Oreal has acquired Modiface to help consumers visualize makeup and hairstyles on themselves in real-time. Modiface uses advanced computer vision, face mapping, and AI technology to perform scientifically validated skin assessment and simulation, photo-realistic makeup simulation with dynamic lighting adaption, and photo-realistic hair color and style simulation. All of these features increase online shoppers’ buying confidence, increase product satisfaction and reduce return rates.

Image courtesy of M-XR

In the luxury sector, AR needs to showcase the craftsmanship of the product as accurately as possible. Mulberry expected nothing less of the best possible AR experience so they commissioned M-XR to create photorealistic and AR-optimized 3D models of their latest luxury handbag- The Iris.

M-XR is an innovative startup that is developing proprietary technology that captures exact 3D replicas of objects and environments at scale. Their scanning system can accurately measure real world materials and produce photorealistic rendering of real world objects.

Getting the material right is key to photorealism because material uses an array of textures to describe how the object reacts to light. This type of photorealism makes AR experiences so much more believable. As a result, Mulberry is able to showcase its new product virtually and impress its customers at their special product launch events in Tokyo, New York and London.

“High quality AR experiences pose a perfect solution to keep customers engaged during these difficult times. Augmented reality bridges the gap between the real-world and the digital world, and gives brands the opportunity to explore conversational commerce through compelling storytelling. If brands aren’t exploring augmented reality activations now, then they might miss a huge opportunity.” — Ryan Howell, Co-founder & CEO of M-XR

Realism is all about lighting in 3D. Accenture demonstrated this with MyDaylight, an XR experience which allows customers to explore the potential of VELUX roof windows when redesigning their homes. Users can model their rooms using MyDaylight’s 360° light simulations to establish optimal window placement and orientation. Through this application the user can view their reimagined room according to season, time of day, location and orientation on their mobile device, and can even use a VR headset to experience how it would feel to stand inside their new room.

“In today’s world, customer expectations are rapidly evolving. They increasingly want to be able to be immersed in a shopping environment, configure and try-on products, and collaborate with others while doing it, without having to go to a physical store. This is where tools like AR come in, providing new ways to engage consumers on their terms. I expect virtual try-on and virtual configuration solutions like this to become a natural part of the new consumer digital journey, for any industry — be it apparel, automotive, hoteling or furniture.” — Rafaella Camera, Head of Global Innovation & Strategy at Accenture

Similarly, the Ikea Place app allows consumers to virtually place 1:1 scale furniture in their homes so they know how the furniture will look. Ikea has also recently acquired Geomagical Lab to launch Studio Mode, a feature that allows consumers to quickly scan a room, render that into a panoramic 3D picture, and remove all the furniture in it. Consumers can then drag and drop high fidelity 3D furniture into the scene to design their rooms.

“Augmented reality experiences thus far have been limited by the environment within which they’re taking place. Studio Mode with the new iPad Pro presents the potential that AR and AI have to deliver more meaningful, personal and playful experiences,” — Kaave Pour, Director at Space10, Ikea’s research and design lab.

Houzz also reported that within a few months of launching their View in My Room 3D tool , two million people have used AR when buying products in the Houzz app and people who have engaged with the tool were 11 times more likely to purchase.

Image Courtesy of M-XR

With the release of Apple’s ARKit and Google’s ARCore in 2017, the augmented reality revolution has already been set in motion. AR became a technology that is embedded in 2 billion devices, all through a software update. It is no longer a question of whether AR will be ubiquitous, it is already here with many practical applications in retail.

As many retailers are struggling to survive this pandemic, it is more urgent than ever to invest in 3D technology that will drive more revenue, engagement and value. Social distancing measures may be imposed until 2022 and many experts believe we are heading towards the worst recession since the Great Depression. Therefore, retailers must consider the following digital transformation:

  1. Narrow down a compelling and measurable use case

Before putting all of your eggs in one basket, understand the categories of products that will perform much better in 3D than 2D. Do consumers absolutely need to visualize this product spatially? Will the virtual assets need to interact with the environment or the consumer? Are there technological limitations that would dampen the experience?

2. Digitize your catalogue for that use case and create the 3D assets

3D assets are the cornerstones of any AR experience. Though it may seem like a big upfront investment, these assets will pay in dividends later on. Real world products can be turned into digital 3D models through photogrammetry, 3D scanning or 3D modeling. Each method has its pros and cons and retailers must balance between quality, scalability and cost.

3. Leverage existing AR platforms to maximize reach

Apple’s ARKit or Google’s ARCore makes it easy to deploy camera-based AR technology. There are already 2 billion devices that are capable of running AR applications. Using Unity’s AR Foundation, developers can create a cross-platform AR experience that leverages both ARKit and ARCore APIs. Facebook’s Spark AR Studio, Snap’s Lens Studio and 8th Wall are also robust AR platforms that allow marketers to develop fun and engaging AR experiences without advanced coding knowledge.

Image Courtesy of M-XR

At Shape Immersive, we believe augmented reality would be the next fundamental platform shift, supplanting the multi-touch interfaces of today. This idea of blending virtual worlds with physical ones opens up an entirely new frontier in which shopping and commerce will be redefined. Having worked with some of the world’s top brands and enterprises since 2015, we have built deep industry knowledge of creating customized AR solutions. We can help you create 3D replicas of your products and integrate AR technology into your workflows. Drop us a line at and let us know how we can help!



Boris Johnson pledges £1.5bn lifeline to keep UK’s arts sector afloat




Boris Johnson pledges £1.5bn lifeline to keep UK’s arts sector afloat

Industry welcomes ‘surprisingly ambitious’ sum for museums, galleries, theatres and music venues

The Royal Court theatre auditorium

Britain’s beleaguered arts and heritage sectors have been promised £1.57bn of help in a long-awaited rescue package described by the government as the biggest one-off investment in UK culture.

After weeks of desperate warnings that the UK was facing an irreversible cultural catastrophe without targeted support, ministers announced a package that it said would protect the future of the country’s museums, galleries, theatres and music venues.

The playwright James Graham, who has spoken passionately about the urgent need for investment, said the money appeared to be more than most people in the arts had dared dream of.

“Let’s drill down into the detail but my first reaction is absolute relief and gratitude,” he said. “I think it is a surprisingly ambitious package, especially when you compare it to some of our European neighbours.

“If this package is as ambitious as it looks, then conversations within our sector will now need to turn to what our recovery might look like in terms of protecting any gains made in recent years over inclusion, representation and diversity, and how this support can reach who need it most, particularly outside of London.”

Boris Johnson said arts and culture were the soul of the nation. “They make our country great and are the lynchpin of our world-beating and fast-growing creative industries,” the prime minister said.

“I understand the grave challenges the arts face and we must protect and preserve all we can for future generations, ensuring arts groups and venues across the UK can stay afloat and support their staff whilst their doors remain closed and curtains remain down.”

The package includes:

  • A £1.15bn support pot for cultural organisations in England, consisting of £270m in loans and £880m in grants.

  • £100m of targeted support for England’s national cultural institutions and English Heritage.

  • £120m of capital investment to restart construction on cultural infrastructure and for heritage construction projects in England paused because of the pandemic.

  • Extra money for devolved administrations, with £97m for Scotland, £59m for Wales and £33m for Northern Ireland.

The package surprised most people in the arts, especially since the mood music from the Treasury had appeared to signal reluctance to intervene too heavily.

Vicky Featherstone, the artistic director of the Royal Court theatre in London, praised the rescue package. “It is an extraordinary amount of money and it means that they have really listened to all the incredible people who have been putting forward the arguments about what is needed and why it is needed,” she said.

“Now we must ensure that the brilliant freelancers that make our theatres are properly supported and that we all get back to making productions for our wonderful audiences as soon as possible.”

Andrew Lloyd Webber, the theatre impresario, said: “It is absolutely critical that Britain’s cultural sector is restored to health as soon as possible, and I look forward to seeing the details of the rescue package and working further with Oliver [Dowden, the culture secretary] and the government to get all of Britain’s theatres – both large and small – open as soon as possible.”

Tamara Rojo, the artistic director of English National Ballet, said: “The arts contribute so much to the social and economic fabric of our society. There was an urgent need for action and I am delighted and relieved that the government has listened and responded. This package gives our sector a fighting chance of survival.”

While hugely welcomed, it comes too late for the highest-profile arts casualty, with administrators for Nuffield Southampton Theatres last week announcing permanent closure, bringing the curtain down on six decades of theatrical history.

Nuffield Southampton Theatres

Industry experts said it was too soon to say whether the package would stave off the threat of redundancies already announced by theatres in both the commercial and subsidised sector. They include the West End producer Nimax consulting on making a third of its workforce – 130 people – redundant; Manchester Royal Exchange contemplating the loss of 65% of its staff; and Theatre Royal Plymouth warning that a third of its 340-strong workforce could go.

Decisions on awards will be made by the government working alongside bodies such as the British Film Institute, Historic England, the National Lottery Heritage Fund and Arts Council England (ACE).

ACE’s chair, Sir Nicholas Serota, said: “We greatly welcome this very significant investment by the government in the future of arts and culture in this country and look forward to working with them on next steps.

“I know our amazing artists and creative organisations will repay the faith that the government has shown by demonstrating the range of their creativity, by serving their communities and by helping the nation recover as we emerge from the pandemic.”

Those sentiments were echoed by Alex Beard, the chief executive of the Royal Opera House. “This is a vital next step on the road to recovery for the industry and will help to support and sustain the UK’s vibrant arts ecology through the crisis,” he said. “There is much to achieve over the coming months and this package will be a catalyst for unlocking the extraordinary creativity embedded in the UK’s world-renowned creative industries.”

The announcement follows what has felt like a white-knuckle ride of tension and fear over the future for the country’s arts and heritage sectors. The pandemic has brought theatre and music venues to a cliff edge at a time when they are most needed. Tom Morris, the artistic director of Bristol Old Vic, had warned of the danger of British theatre being destroyed by accident.

National Gallery

Industry leaders had cast jealous eyes at nations such as Germany, which promised, early in the pandemic, €1bn to a fund supporting theatres, museums and other organisations to “open their doors again as soon as possible after the forced break”.

Cultural institutions including London’s Old Vic, Shakespeare’s Globe and the Royal Albert Hall had all said they were on the brink of closure without an investment package.

Julian Bird, the chief executive of the Society of London Theatre and UK Theatre, has led industry lobbying for investment to save theatre from ruin. He said the package was “hugely welcome”.

He added: “Venues, producers and the huge workforce in the theatre sector look forward to clarity of how these funds will be allocated and invested so that artists and organisations can get back to work as soon as possible.

“Our industry’s united ambition is to be able to play its vital role in the nation’s economic and social recovery and this investment will allow us to do so.”

Performing arts venues have seen their income fall to zero and warned that they do not have the money to reopen with physically distanced audiences. The investment package will allow venues to stay afloat while the doors remain closed.

How soon they can reopen remains to be seen. Boris Johnson said on Friday that a timetable would be published in the coming week.