The future is "always-on, go-everywhere mixed reality", according to Michael Abrash, chief scientist at Facebook’s Oculus.
This requires a different focus from where we are now, which is stuck in the middle of a digital obsession. We need to fuse the experience of the online and offline worlds together.
There is currently a disconnection between what consumers want and what brands think they want when creating experiences.
"One of the biggest problems that consumers face is how difficult it is for them to live in a world where existing technology, brands and companies are forcing their offline and online worlds apart"
IBM recently asked consumers what mattered most to them when they engage with brands. It should take "less time" and be "more convenient", they replied. In the same study, brands were asked the same question on behalf of their customers. They said their customers were "digitally savvy" and wanted "more control" – a rather different response that assumes technology is more important than utility.
Too often, digital transformation "hero stories" focus on examples where brands are shifting offline sales into online by enabling ecommerce, investing more of their advertising budget in digital channels or having a social media customer service strategy. This is digital maturity, not digital transformation.
In fact, transformation shouldn’t even be focused on digital. True transformation is about co-ordinating around the customer because they live both online and offline.
The IBM study highlights a critical point. Consumers just want their lives to be easier and they want their problems solved. But one of the biggest problems that consumers face is how difficult it is for them to live in a world where existing technology, brands and companies are forcing their offline and online worlds apart.
Truly transformational brands help to combine these worlds and use technology such as augmented reality as a means to true customer centricity.
Combining online and offline
There is a lot of talk that my generation – the under-30s – only want to exist digitally. But the fact is we still need and want to live in the offline world. We just don’t want the same experiences as the generations before us. We have grown up with information and convenience at our fingertips and, as such, like our experiences to be more convenient and richer in information.
A study by Accenture showed that the majority of Generation Z still prefer to visit physical stores to make our purchases. The difference is that we are turning these visits into multimedia, multichannel events thanks to the ever-present smartphone.
Currently, in the quest for a richer and more enhanced experience, the user is having an awkward time – caught in a painful collision between online and offline. The customer journey requires a multitude of apps – Google for price comparison, WhatsApp for a friend’s opinion, a banking app to check you’ve been paid – and then you put your phone away to join a physical queue to transact.
Now, let’s revisit this retail experience in the context of Abrash’s "always-on, go-everywhere mixed reality", enabled by AR.
I walk into the store. Through my AR glasses or existing devices, I can generate and view reviews for products I might want to buy. I can see what I might look like in that product in a virtual changing room and then I can send that image to my friend for her opinion. Up pops a real-time update of my bank balance, and I transact. Naturally, my receipt is stored away safely for me on the cloud. And all this happens in a flash.
Transforming the customer experience
All this goes to show that transforming the customer experience can be boiled down to two guiding principles:
1 Solve a customer problem by giving them more information than what is physically available in front of them.
2 Enhance and add value to an existing consumer experience rather than force new behaviours.
AR meets both criteria. The technology acts as an information overlay to a real-life situation. It doesn’t try to force consumers into new behaviours and it adds value and convenience to existing ones.
Compare this with virtual reality, which seeks to "wall off" the consumer from the real world. Asking people to walk around in public with a whacking, great VR headset on is a good example of trying to create an impractical new consumer behaviour.
AR that is enhancing or resolving the offline/online gap has already sneaked into consumers’ lives – without them even thinking about it. Snapchat has transformed the selfie with its AR lenses that have helped attract 150 million daily users. Lots of its rivals are looking to emulate that location-based experience and functionality. Meanwhile, Pokémon Go has enriched the mobile-gaming experience by adding entertainment to people’s everyday lives and became the most downloaded app of 2016 in the Apple App Store.
AR is only in its infancy so, in terms of solving customers’ problems, it has only just begun. When we start talking about non-entertainment examples, such as the Ikea AR catalogue that helps customers visualise furniture in existing spaces or the Augmented Car Finder that can direct you to your car’s location, that’s when it gets exciting.
The fact that AR is hiding in plain sight demonstrates that when we truly enhance experiences or solve people’s problems, digital and technology can actually just drop into the background, leaving us to focus on organising ourselves around the consumer. We shouldn’t even need to get to the stage where we have to radically transform our businesses.
Transformation is expensive, risky and painful. Understanding your consumer is not. It’s time we get ready for the era of mixed reality.
Abi Morrish is the head of digital engagement at MEC Wavemaker. She was named Agency Rising Star at the 2016 Media Week Awards and featured in Media Week’s 30 Under 30 in 2016