“Other retail industries are thinking about technological innovation in completely different ways,” says Jonathan Chippindale, CEO and co-founder of Holition, an augmented reality solutions and software provider, with concern, “and I worry that the jewellery industry isn’t waking up to this.”
A recent survey of 1,000 shoppers, conducted by e-commerce agency PushOn, found that 45% of people would be more inclined to spend larger amounts online if technology was available that could help them envisage products before they purchase. The survey revealed that consumers want to use augmented reality (AR) technology – for example via an app that would allow them to place virtual images of products over a real-word view – to test products before they buy them.
The technology dates back as far as the 1960s, however, the term ‘augmented reality’ was first coined by researcher Tom Caudell in the 1990s. The AR market is predicted to be worth up to £122bn by 2024. So how can a heady Silicon Valley preoccupation translate to something usable for a high street jeweller? Simon Wharton, business strategy director at eCommerce agency PushON, says that being able to view jewellery products before purchasing them is a practical application of AR technology. It can provide more confidence in buying online products or trying on new designs. “It can give brands a competitive advantage, offering customers the opportunity to see the products before they try them on or buy them,” he says.
However, Chippindale says not enough is being done by the jewellery industry to capitalise on this increased interest. “I can see very little change in the way the jewellery industry has been adopting new technology and innovation, in comparison to fashion and beauty for example.”
His company has been creating augmented reality devices and other technological innovations for the jewellery and retail industries for numerous luxury brands, including De Beers, Tiffany & Co and Cartier. The company was founded in 2007 and currently has 35 members of staff. Chippindale is no jewellery-world novice – with previous roles include head of marketing at De Beers UK, by which he was headhunted thanks to his retail and marketing experience, and brought over from his previous senior marketing roles at Asprey and Garrard.
His main job was to help envision what a De Beers retail store might look like, as the world’s largest diamond company had no physical stores at that time. “That’s initially why I was brought over,” says Chippindale, “But I then became a more prosaic marketing director. I ran the marketing for the Gulf for around nine years, which is what I was best known for. But I was also head of marketing for Turkey, a host of European brands and I also worked within the digital space, running De Beers’ e-business for a while.”
When Chippindale left De Beers he was interested in starting something new and different. “I, as an individual, am very interested in trying to identify the big, powerful human trends that brands have not spotted yet. How will brands relate to customers is not the question we should be asking. The question is how will humans and technology inhabit the same space? Once we understand that what does that mean for brands today? What sort of things do they have to be doing in order arm themselves to talk with the consumers of tomorrow? For me that is innovation.”
It’s no surprise, with a CV of this calibre that he thinks the pace of innovation has been too slow. “It is an industry where innovation is about how many diamonds can you get onto a shank. It’s innovation based on design.” When he first started Holition 11 years ago many luxury brands were not only anti-digital but were “positively antagonistic towards it”, and felt that it was “commoditising luxury”. Undeterred, Chippindale started the company because when he first saw augmented reality in action, he “thought that the technology was incredible”. He says: “What if we were able to that in the retail sense, and use that to let people wear things that don’t exist?”
WHICH INDUSTRIES ARE GETTING IT RIGHT?
According to Chippindale the demand for augmented reality in the retail space has been exemplified by the beauty industry. Holition designed the first ever augmented reality makeup app for L’oreal, which allows customers to ‘try on’ makeup digitally before they purchase it. “There is only so much makeup you can put on your face, and using AR you can very quickly flit between lots of different colours,” says Chippindale.
Recently, the beauty brand bought one of the bigger AR providers, Modiface. Chippindale says the whole beauty industry is “now in an uproar” looking for new AR suppliers. But he says it took time for L’oreal to get to that point. “When we first created the AR app it took a bit of time to build momentum because consumers have to become aware and invested in it.”
Holition found that by using AR women were able to explore different sides of their personalities, letting them experiment and see what they look like with styles that they would never normally wear. They can also take ‘selfies’ with the augmented reality makeup on and share that on social media to get feedback from their friends.
“It’s not just just about implementing AR into your brand”, Chippindale says, “it’s about how you get people into the AR experience overall, thats the thinking thats going at the moment for a lot of companies”. He says that there isn’t a strong enough draw at the moment for AR on its own, but if it joins with other types of technology, such as social media, it becomes a superior proposition for customers to invest further in the product.
Another AR success story – and one outside the fashion and beauty space – is Ikea. In September 2017 the furniture flatpack giant launched ‘Ikea Place’, an AR application that lets customers see how items will look within a real-world space such as a home, office, school or studio. The app automatically scales products – based on room dimensions – with 98% accuracy, so the ‘reality’ part of AR is about as close as you would ever need.
Much like L’oreal’s app, customers are able to save image or videos and share it to get a second opinion. Customers can then purchase the products directly through the app. Michael Valdsgaard, leader of digital transformation at Inter IKEA systems says the Ikea Place app makes it “easier than ever before to make buying decisions in your own space, to get inspiration and try out many different products, styles and colours in real-life settings – all with a swipe of a finger”. He describes both augmented reality and virtual reality (AR’s fully immersive cousin, requiring big headsets) is “a total game changer” for retail, comparing it with the birth of the Internet for its possible long term repercussions.
While the technology used to display AR is becoming more advanced with each passing year, Chippindale says there are three areas the jewellery industry needs to be aware of when creating AR campaigns. One is to do with the ability of a phone or computer to efficiently track hands, ears, earlobes or necks for example. “If a device can track these specific body parts then it can place an object on top of it”, he says.
The second is around making products look realistic in real time. Chippindale says the technology is not quite there yet – there is latency and judderiness as a result of inadequate processors i smartphones, but it’s getting better, and will eventually be resolved.
The third is about creating a proper 3D model that actually looks like the user is wearing a piece of jewellery. The crux of the problem is that digital 3D models have to built by a programmer, a time-consuming and expensive process. “It’s what we call pipeline,” he says, “which is the ability to get hundreds of products into an application. This is quite tough at the moment. Topshop recently talked to us about whether they could use AR to drive their fashion profile, but they are changing products every six weeks – they have around 7,500 new products every three months. If each of those have to be done by hand then a £5 t-shirt could cost several thousands of pounds to put into an AR engine.”
WHAT DO THE NEXT 10 YEARS LOOK LIKE?
Chippindale says a lot of the internal conversations at his firm agree the future of AR is to master personalisation. “It is do with having a retail app understand the customer as an individual and change the product and services that they see when using it. It’s a bit like how Amazon recommends items that you might like. When you go onto your homepage on Amazon it starts to show you things that you want. But the future is about having that app start to have an understanding of your behaviour and begin curating a selection of products that you can then try on straight away using augmented reality.”
Holition’s company ethos is to build a strong relationship between a brand and the customer. Chippindale says: “A lot of what we are trying to do is build a strong connection and AR can be a really great way of doing that. I have seen customers trying on watches for Tissot, using its watch AR app, just standing there with their eyes wide open and being really impressed.”
Sam Rutley, managing director of PushON, says technology has been one of the main driving forces behind the transformation of retail over the past few years. “Technology is the future and retailers can’t afford to ignore the changes that are happening within the sector, particularly when consumers themselves have clocked on to the benefits of investing in it.”