AR going mainstream

A few months ago I wrote about how augmented reality (AR) is one of the many technology trends that has been sped up by the pandemic, and I posited that it was fast becoming a new normal when it comes to brand experiences. It makes perfect sense that customers who have been largely stuck at home throughout the pandemic, and who have had increased exposure to digital platforms and experiences out of necessity, would be more open to engagement via new types of digital technologies.

With our technical capabilities on mobile devices greatly improved over just a few years ago, and with more and more people of all ages having had prior experience with AR, and with brands of all kinds striving to find new ways to reach and engage with their customers, it’s an excellent time for marketers and strategists to experiment with AR. And indeed, in recent months we’ve seen a lot of interesting new uses of AR across a number of different sectors.

In addition to the quantity, it’s great to see the variety of its application. Of course, the way a particular brand uses AR comes down to their specific branding and strategic goals, whether it’s bringing something (like artwork) to life, creating an unexpected and memorable moment, offering some pre-purchase utility to shoppers, giving people access to distant performers or venues, or maybe even just for fun. Let’s have a look at some of the areas where we’ve seen new AR experiences.

Themed entertainment 

Many of us are looking forward to returning to theme parks this summer. They’ve long provided us with a sense of escapism and experiences outside of our everyday norms. And their very physicality is something we’ve all sorely missed during lockdowns and restrictions. In such an adventure and character-driven landscape, AR is an ideal technology to make experiences come to life by digitally extending the themed worlds around us.

After years of anticipation, Universal Studios Japan’s Super Nintendo World recently opened to the public. Its flagship attraction is the long-waited Mario Kart ride “Koopa’s Challenge,” which combines traditional animatronic elements with a custom-built AR visor in riders’ helmets designed to help guests truly enter the world of the Super Mario Brothers. Even before riders get to their “kart,” they enter Koopa’s (aka Bowser’s) Castle where rooms get more elaborate as people move through the queue. All of this technology comes together to build anticipation for putting on your helmet to prepare to race for Team Mario.

While Universal has released a detailed video of the ride, many people don’t want it spoiled for them, so we’ll just say that the AR elements help give the ride a sense of speed, and give riders the feeling that they’re truly driving through the unique cartoonized world. Dodging obstacles and defeating enemies becomes even more thrilling when they appear right in front of your eyes. The AR has a creative way of immersing guests into Super Mario’s world while also bringing the game’s characters out into our own.

Koopa’s Challenge was in planning even before the pandemic, of course. Other projects are surely already in progress or will be soon. Disney, in particular has already demonstrated that they’re paying close attention to the technology and even working on advancing it. Pre-pandemic they added AR greetings from Mickey Mouse into their Play app, to delight their hotel guests. More recently they announced the development of a patented system capable of virtually lighting real world objects. Such a system could have really interesting creative uses for rides and other experiences.

Disney has also been doing research into creating an interactive environment using touch-based inputs (in other words, using skin as part of a communication network that can activate objects.) This could be used to allow guests to control AR experiences using just their hands. The research labs are reportedly testing a variety of augmented applications to bring the Disney brand to life. Given the patent filings by Disney Research, it’s clear that the plans are to go big on AR for their in-park experiences.


Concerts and live performances are another form of entertainment that we have all been missing since early last year. Millennials and Gen Z’ers especially so, and they and intend to go back to them in droves this summer, when it’s safe.

AR can be used to enhance live performances, whether in-person or live-streamed. Several artists have experimented with that in recent years, from U2 to Billie Eilish. In the years before the pandemic, NYC band Starset utilized AR to make a digital spaceship land on stage and Eminem used it to simulate a plate of his mom’s spaghetti getting dumped on fans. More recently, Kento Mori has leaned so much into AR enhancement of his online concerts that he calls himself the “World 1st AR Artist.”

And the tech can also be used to allow fans to experience concerts in whole new ways, which has been crucial during a time when normal concerts were impossible. AR is able to bring artists right into your home, for instance. Last month Singer Liam Payne opened the EE BAFTA Film Awards with an AR performance, appearing on stage as an avatar as he performed in a studio with sensors to capture his motion and sound. Those at home could download an app to beam the same avatar directly  onto their own coffee tables.

Similar technology allowed Indonesian music fans to put a virtual stage in their home and move it around for a concert by The Changcuters in late 2020. In Malaysia Pepsi recently collaborated with the online role-playing game Entropia to create an AR “Concert On a Bottle”featuring popular Malaysian singer and actress Siti Nordiana. Fans who scanned the QR code on a Pepsi Black Raspberry bottle gained access to the brand-exclusive content.

Even classical music could take part in this new way of experiencing live music. You could watch the Strings Music Festival from the comfort of your own home with a 3D 360-degree rendering of the Strings Pavilion via smartphone or tablet.

Having explored ways to use AR to make their performances more accessible and inclusive, artists are likely to continue doing so, even as in-person concerts ramp back up. And having exposed so many of their fans to the use of AR, many will surely continue to push the envelope in exploring new ways to have fans become more engaged with their music and stage shows. It’s not hard to imagine most fans assuming that every show will have some AR component.

Fashion and art

Just as with concerts, fashion houses had to forego runway shows and pivot to new ways to show off their designs. In a similar use of AR, KHAITE created a whole new kind of interactive fashion show for their Fall 2021 line, allowing anyone to see the models walking through their living rooms. There was even a built-in shopping function so consumers could splurge while they watched.

You can try it yourself –  KHAITE’s website currently has a QR code that brings up their Spring 2021 shoe collection, which you can explore in AR. Christian Dior opted to lean on the inherent AR capabilities of social media when it brought its B27 footwear to the world last fall. They created a realistic Snapchat Lens that allowed people to try on six pairs of B27 sneakers through AR.

For the fashion collaboration between Simone Rocha and H&M, the brands took a different approach to the use of AR. Working with artist Faye Wei Wei, they entertained style connoisseurs at the intersection of high and low fashion, starting out with an “old-fashioned” book with a QR code attached. Scanning the code brought the book to life: it became a virtual pop-up book, with models sitting in 3D amongst paintings full of flowers and ribbons. It was a unique backdrop, to say the least.

And AR found uses in the display of art for its own sake as well. Augmented-reality exhibitions allow anyone to preview art in their own homes, in their local park, or pretty much anywhere they choose. That capability came in handy over the last year and was utilized from the All Show at the start of the pandemic, to the ‘Unreal City‘ collection to the recent Frieze New York show. Much of the art world’s AR is powered by the Acute Art app. I recently saw Kaws’ current show at the Brooklyn Museum, which included elements in the app.

Cities and tourism

Various municipalities have also been using AR for everything from promoting tourism to encouraging more engagement from its residents.  Vienna, for instance, wanted to showcase its status as the first city-wide 5G network in Europe. So they created an AR experience that allows people to populate the historic Rathaus city hall building with colorful shapes and magical creatures.

Hong Kong worked with a number of the city’s universities to create an interactive AR tourism app called ‘City in Time’. Visitors can locate AR markers by exploring the city on their own or by consulting an online map. Once located, the markers activate site-specific content that overlays historical scenes onto the modern-day reality.

LA’s ‘Monumental Perspectives,’ a collaboration between Snapchat and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, is digitally changing the city’s landscape to reinvigorate old spaces, teach history, and simply encourage people to have fun as they walk around with their phones.

Helpful tools

A number of brands have been exploring ways that AR can improve the customer journey. Being able to experience products in 3D on their phones, and even the ability to “try things on” at home, have the potential to fundamentally change the shopping experience. Sephora and IKEA, for instance, both deployed this kind of AR years ago. The ability to try on a lipstick color, for example, has prevented more than one bad decision. That’s to the company’s benefit, as well as the customers’, since Sephora offers largely unquestioned returns.

IKEA recently improved upon their IKEA Place AR app, which has been the model for use of tech among furniture retailers. Being able to see if that bookcase actually fit into your room, or matched with its existing design was not only helpful but fun. Now, IKEA’s new Studio app allows you to design entire rooms by combining multiple pieces into a saved model. You can even now buy the items straight from the platform instead of opening a separate page to make a purchase.

Given AR’s success in the sales process for its early adopters. it’s no surprise that more and more brands are implementing the technology. Outdoor brand YETI recently unveiled an AR experience that allows you to project a travel bag or cooler into the trunk of your car to see if it fits and to explore its features in 3D. Auto brands have very much taken up AR this year, with brands such as Fiat Chrysler, Acura and Volkswagen introducing ways to experience their vehicles in augmented reality. Volkswagen’s digital launch was so popular that it not only broke the website but led the ID.4 1st Edition to sell out entirely.

Getting a close-up, 360-degree, 3D view of a product is useful, and it’s even being applied to food items. Some people feel trepidation when ordering from a menu that gives little detail or if the food contains exotic ingredients. Using technology to give them a better idea of what’s going to be delivered to the table might allow diners to become more adventurous (and waitstaff less harried). That’s where AR technology like Kabaq comes in, letting people see the plate of food on the table right in front of them. The app also has utility for caterers as well, who can show clients exactly what their presentations will look like for a lower-stress selling process.

Brand engagement 

And of course some companies have used AR just to get their customers more engaged with their brands. Labatt Blue teamed up with four NHL teams to allow hockey fans to open Snapchat and see their 12-pack packages transform into a 3D NHL arena, complete with a virtual Jumbotron.

Pizza Hut used WebAR to turn their boxes into a video game blast from the past. Scanning the QR code on the box’s printed game board will bring up an AR game of Pac-Man that you can play right on the box with your phone. But don’t call it retro – the company prefers the term “newstalgic.” Referencing the Pac-Man’s resemblance to a pizza missing one slice, the brand feels the game is a perfect fit for their product.

AR technology only continues to improve with faster wireless networks, more capable smartphones, and better scanning technology. When it comes to implementation or AR, COVID likely accelerated an already growing trend. Consumers who have now used AR to learn, to purchase, or simply to be amused are bound to want more of it, not less, even as the pandemic recedes. With so many companies in so many sectors adopting this technology, the future looks bright for AR experiences and brands in a competitive marketplace may have a hard time competing without it.

Featured Image: Courtesy of KAWS and Acute Art