The future just may be here--finally. After several years of buzz, augmented reality is finding its way into the day-to-day world. Recently I saw demos of some augmented reality implementations at a couple of conferences, and Inc.'s own Eric Schurenberg recently announced an implementation of augmented reality within Inc. magazine.

Unlike my opinion on QR codes, which I was never a fan of, I have to admit I am impressed--and I think everyone should be paying attention to the potential business uses.

Sure everyone's talking about it, but what can it do, exactly? Here's what augmented reality is being used for in the real world:

  • To detect the gender and age of the person standing in front of a camera
  • To power virtual toys that move across the floor avoiding real obstacles
  • To show additional information about a product such as nutritional label or adverse interactions
  • Enhanced cereal boxes: Instead of a cartoon character merely appearing on the box of cereal, you see the character hiding and appearing on all sides of the box as it sits on the shelf. And of course:
  • The presentation of a virtual coupon or price comparison to other stores or competitive products.

The is a vast list of possibilities--and the applications are virtually endless. But, if you are considering something as cutting edge as augmented reality for your own company, it's not as simple as a implementing a new ad or product tweak. You need to take several cautionary notes into consideration:

You Need to Truly Understand Your User

The challenge with augmented reality: What exactly does it display, for example, when you point your camera at an item?  Understanding who is using this technology and what they want to see is paramount to this technology's success. Some consumers will be driven by price alone, others will expect additional information and competitive comparisons.

You Have to Build Multiple Versions

Proper implementation of augmented reality will require multiple implementations for different products or experiences to make sure they are appropriate to the audience. Companies must understand which experience will provide them with the furthest reach and quickly work to support additional customers, or the value will be quickly dismissed as a fad.

Camera Implementation Must Remain Simple

One of the biggest hurdles for QR codes is the burden required on the customer to download something to actually read the QR codes. Then the user must scan a code and visit the resulting webpage. That's a lot of steps. For augmented reality to work, it must be as simple as pointing the camera at an item.

Augmented reality presents the greatest opportunity for big box retailers. It's a way to embrace, rather than ignore, the mobile channel and stem the tide of showrooming.  By providing this type of functionality through a custom app and with products in their store, they can support the customer along the buying journey.

But don't dismiss it as being just for the big boys. Do it right and you could end up out in front of your competitors.