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Truly Immersive Retail Experiences: How Brands Like Nike Are Using Augmented Reality in 2021

Virtual and augmented reality tools have enabled gaming and entertainment to innovate at new rates, but now it’s the retail industry who is exploring how best to use these digital tools. As Nike unveils its latest interactive experience, which incorporates AR and QR-code scanning, the potential applications of virtual tech in retail are becoming more clear.

From now until Feb. 11, visitors to Nike’s NYC House of Innovation will be able to explore a virtual recreation of Smith Rock State Park in Oregon, created in partnership with brand experience company Hovercraft. Geofencing technology limits the experience to within Nike’s walls and establishes a microsite “basecamp” for shoppers; this site, accessed through mobile, provides the necessary springboards to a digital map and an activity checklist. These activities involve interactive AR experiences, in order to be completed.

AR is more accessible than its VR counterpart, due to its interaction with the existing environment. Consumers can use their own smartphones, rather than additional hardware, to launch an AR experience and immediately engage in a layered visual experience. Virtual items or scenes can be rendered on top of the natural scenery, providing novelty and an opportunity for discovery.

“As of late it seems that many brands that play – or want to play – in the innovation space chase virtual experiences as the thing to do,” said Matt FaJohn, partner at Hovercraft. “A misconception seems to be that these ambitious projects are reserved for those brands, but it certainly doesn’t need to be. It’s another tool to deliver a message, tell a story, whatever it might be. We like to say virtual experiences are today’s microsite of advertising, just a bit more complex.”

Some previous uses of AR have been dismissed as gimmicky, providing minimal added value to the consumer once the initial shock value has worn off. But when deployed intelligently, AR can help users to engage with a product and brand in new ways. Limited edition product can be virtually accessed by larger numbers of shoppers; previews of unreleased styles can be shown and digitally tried on; and communal experiences can be held at specific locations.

The Nike virtual experience at NYC House of Innovation, in partnership with Hovercraft Studio.
CREDIT: Courtesy of Hovercraft Studio

“For us it always starts with the consumer journey,” said FaJohn. “We treat AR as a storytelling extension and rarely rely on it as a standalone solution. If there’s a clear benefit to introducing it as an experience tactic, we’ll pursue it. Given it’s a device-dependent, personal experience, it’s very timely as a tool that works with social distancing.”

While these kinds of large scale digital experiences are associated with some of the bigger brands, Hovercraft believes that there are ways for smaller or less tech-savvy brands to engage with the technology. Particularly if partnering with a third party that is more experienced with these virtual set-ups, retailers and brands from all backgrounds could benefit from AR – if they use it intelligently.

With Nike, the appeal in collaboration is due in part to both companies willingness to go “all in” on unproven ideas, reports Hovercraft. Fast timelines and big aspirations encourage creative thinking; the push for constant innovation has resulted in a number of experiences that utilize newer technologies like AR. However, these should only ever be used in service of the ultimate message.

“Tech for tech’s sake is a big no-no within our walls, we see too much of it in our industry, which is how we’re attempting to differentiate,” said FaJohn. “AR is a great tool to tell product innovation stories and allow users to scale and control models, but interactivity within AR is still pretty ambitious for most users.”

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