Several retailers, including Build.com, Houzz, Wayfair and Overstock.com, announced new augmented reality apps for Apple mobile devices running the iOS 11 operating system, which became available for download on Tuesday.
All of the iOS 11 apps announced this week were built using Apple’s ARKit augmented reality application development platform, which was announced in June. Swedish furniture chain Ikea also said it will have an ARKit-built AR app ready by the end of this month.
Dave Nickens, director of mobile at Build.com, told Retail Dive in a phone interview that the pure-play e-tailer had not considered launching an AR app until ARKit was announced, and he believes that as much as 70% of its app audience uses Apple devices eligible to run iOS 11. "For an e-commerce company like us, this bridges the touch-and-feel gap," he said.
This week may be looked back upon as a breakthrough moment for AR apps in retail. Retailers and brands have been working with the technology for a while, but they have been doing so with the knowledge that these apps would not be able to run on very many mobile devices or be seen and used by very many people.
The launch of iOS 11 changes the AR game, as the software is eligible for download by millions of iPhones and iPads already in use, and many more new devices to come, including the iPhone 8 and iPhone X, announced last week, which the company said are optimized for better AR app experiences.
The iOS 11 update is also the first Apple software update to support apps created with the company's ARKit development platform, which claims to have superior rendering, 3D mapping, movement tracking capabilities, as well as being more immersive compared to other AR app creation environments. It has been described as a step up from Google Tango, which in most cases was used to create the first generation of AR mobile apps for retailers such as Wayfair, Lowe's, Gap and Williams-Sonoma, among others.
"We knew AR could be an advantage to us, but we felt the audience was very limited, and the look of it could be somewhat 'cartoony," Nickens said. "The big question for us was 'how real can this experience be?"
Dan Healy, COO of Prolific Interactive, the mobile product design agency that helped Build.com build its In-Home Preview AR app, said the availability of ARKit combined with the launch of iOS 11 could lead to many more AR-enabled apps across the retail landscape, though he also cautioned, "You don't want to force a feature like this into an app unless you can come up with a quality use case for it."
The product line-ups of home decor and home improvement retailers are a natural fit for AR apps, as customers and professional contractors who frequent such stores and e-commerce sites could benefit from better understanding how a piece of furniture or a particular fixture is going to look in a room. But with ARKit now available to experiment with, and Google looking to soon issue its Tango follow-up, ARCore, we are likely to start seeing more companies in retail wanting to test the potential and limits of what AR can bring to their mobile apps.