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Why Shopify thinks augmented reality is the future of online retail

Apple smartphones with iOS 12 can create a digital simulation of what a product will look like, right in your home. No more too-big items to return.

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“This icon is now the most powerful icon in online retail,” Shopify CEO Tobi Lütke declared on Twitter Monday.

But the head of the Canadian e-commerce giant wasn’t talking about his own company’s trademark green bag logo.

Rather, the strange little transparent cube icon that appeared in Lütke’s tweet is actually the “AR glyph” designed by Apple to indicate when iPhone users can launch an augmented reality (AR) experience on their phone.

AR technology has been around for a while, but mostly in gimmick form. (Think of those Snapchat filters that make your face look like a dog’s.)

But Shopify has been betting that as the technology improves, augmented reality is going to be a key tool for online shopping, and this week that vision took a big step toward becoming a reality.

The big idea is that product photos for online shopping are OK, but for lots of merchandise, it’s tough to get a feel for them just by looking at a flat picture. But by using augmented reality, your smartphone can create a digital simulation of what a product will look like, right in your home.

If you’re buying, say, a wingback chair for your living room, even with product photos and measurements, it’s hard to visualize whether the chair will fit into a certain space, and how it’ll complement the rug and the sofa you already have.

But using the smartphone camera, Apple’s AR technology can now project a 3D digital image of the chair into your living room, allowing you to move around and view it from all angles.

This week Apple pushed out iOS 12, the most up-to-date operating system for most iPhones. The new operating system includes a relatively obscure set of programmer tools that allow developers to more easily create AR experiences.

Shopify was already excited about this technology in May, when the Ottawa-based e-commerce company held its annual Unite partner conference in Toronto.

Starting this year, merchants who use Shopify to handle their e-commerce systems can now upload 3D models of their products and embed them in webpages, and Shopify is helping connect merchants to tech vendors who can build those 3D models based on photos and measurements.

Shopify’s head of augmented and virtual reality, Daniel Beauchamp, did a demonstration of the technology onstage during the keynote presentation, and later the same day Beauchamp and Lütke held a media photo-op where they demonstrated the technology to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

“And if I were to buy a pair of socks, could I see them on me?” Trudeau asked Beauchamp.

In fact, augmented reality cannot do socks right now.

Clothes are a particularly difficult challenge because they’re flexible.

It’s one thing to project a 3D model of a hard object onto a flat surface like a floor or a table, but accurately displaying clothing on a human body is tough, and correctly modelling how a sweater or jacket will stretch and tug as you move your arms is even more difficult.

“We’ll probably get there within the next few years,” Beauchamp told the Financial Post.

Apple’s AR technology can now project a 3D digital image of the chair into your living room, allowing you to move around and view it from all angles

Another big problem with augmented reality until now is that people could really only use it in apps specifically coded with that function, which is why it was good for Snapchat, but not good for shopping.

But in iOS 12 you can launch an augmented reality feature right through the default Safari web browser any time you see that transparent cube glyph.

One of the early adopters for this was Pure Cycles, a California bicycle company that uses Shopify for their online shopping services. Log onto their website with an iPhone and in just a couple of taps, you can view a digital model of their “Urban Commuter” bike sitting in front of you.

Co-founder Jordan Schau said that since launching the AR feature this week, he’s seen tweets from all over the world.

“People from all over the world are playing with our bike in their living room, which is pretty cool,” he said.

“I do think it’s a game-changer for shopping. I think it’s going to be the big next thing, and I’m excited to see it.”

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