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Augmented Reality Finds a Place to Fit: Shopping!

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For years, we’ve been hearing about the potential for augmented reality (AR), a technology that combines the physical world with virtual overlays. More than two and half years ago, research firm Gartner dubbed AR as one of its top 10 disruptive technologies for 2008 to 2012, for example. We’re over the hump of that hype cycle, but AR hasn’t yet gone mainstream and likely won’t for 5 to 10 years because it’s still a solution in search of problem.

Two recent AR implementations show promise, however, by adding value and actually demonstrating how useful the technology can be. One is Converse’s (s nke) Sampler application for Apple iOS (s aapl) devices. From practically any location, you can shop for Converse sneakers using this free software. “OK,” you say, “I’ve been able to do that for years, and not just for sneakers.” You’d be correct, but this app leverages AR beyond simple browsing for shoes: you can actually see how a virtual sneaker looks on your foot. How? The software superimposes Converse sneakers over the live image of your feet, captured from an iPhone’s camera sensor.

ImmediaC, a web and augmented reality software designer, has taken a less mobile approach, but it’s certainly just as useful. The company developed a web application called TryOnBathingSuit that superimposes bathing suits on a user’s image to show how they might look, right from the privacy of their own home. The entire experience is gesture-driven and reminds me of the navigation with Microsoft’s Xbox Kinect (s msft) I showed on video last month. In fact, I could easily see advertisers leverage Kinect’s infrared scanner and camera for personalized shopping experiences like this. Until that happens, it will be up to developers to enable this, much as RichRelevance did last year when it offered a virtual dressing room application for online clothier

Applications such as these actually give me more hope for augmented reality than I had earlier this year. Aside from some excellent location-based AR apps such as Layar and Lookator, most implementations to date have shown off AR’s capabilities more than the value brought by such technology. I wish this technology was available when I bought a pair of glasses in 2007; since I can’t see without glasses, it’s not possible to see how new frames look. As a result, I had to take pictures of myself in various frames and then view them while wearing my old glasses. Talk about old-school tech!

For now, it’s not technology holding back adoption, because smartphones and other mobile devices are more than capable of enhancing the real world with virtual add-ons. The problem appears to be one of finding appealing uses to spur adoption of augmented reality solutions. Previewing virtual clothes and sneakers on our real bodies, however, just might be the application to help AR hit its stride.

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