To the uninformed the words ‘augmented reality’ may conjure up images of science fiction movies or unnatural manipulations of the mind, but they actually represent the latest technology being explored by retailers.
It has a multitude of possible applications but marketers and advertisers are particularly intrigued about how it can virtually showcase goods and services to consumers.
In short it is a way of superimposing 3D images onto real-life surroundings, in real-time.
So potentially, by looking through a specific viewer (smartphone, webcam, 3D glasses), you can see life-like projections interacting with your surroundings.
James Cameron used the technology when directing his film Avatar, so that while the actors stood in front of a blue screen he could see them, through his camera, in the midst of an alien planet with virtual characters moving around them.
Early adopters of the technology in the retail industry have been few and far between, primarily because of costs, but supporters claim its long-term potential is massive.
US firms seem most keen to invest in the technology, with Bloomingdale’s launching a service in December which allows customers to see - by standing in front of a camera and wearing a paper template - themselves wearing a piece of jewellery without even touching it.
A similar scheme was trialled last year by Swiss watchmaker Tissot in a shop window display at Selfridges in London which resulted in an 85 per cent increase in sales of the brand’s products at the store.
The costs involved in running a campaign like this are huge however and it is unlikely that much profit was made from the venture once the costs of building, application, retail space and marketing were taken into account.
So what’s the point? Well those who saw these demonstrations would have been impressed and most probably told their friends because this technology has the wow factor.
In terms of brand development a well-run campaign should have reasonable return on investment through brand exposure even if it is not directly through sales.
Like in the early days of cinema when people initially went to see the technology rather than the films, retailers can draw people in-store using the technology and hope their reputations are improved in the eyes of impressed consumers.
Another cheeky use of the technology launched this month saw US Esquire magazine cover girl Brooklyn Decker appearing in Barnes & Noble stores across the US.
She wasn’t actually present at the stores but by downloading an app Esquire readers could see her - through their camera phones - and even get a picture taken with her.
GoldRun, the augmented reality development company which created the Esquire campaign, also designed a virtual treasure hunt for footwear label Sorrel.
These may seem quite gimmicky but they certainly create interest for a brand - and novelty may be the technology’s strongest selling point right now.
Long-term, street labelling could be the most successful application of the technology with consumers.
Once it becomes widespread, shoppers will be able to walk down a busy high street and, by looking through their smartphones, see latest deals literally pop-out in front of them as they pass by participating stores.
This seems some time off however, with the most prominent early trialist in the UK being Marks & Spencer, and that was just for a greeting cards campaign.
So it may be a few years before the merging of real and virtual world imagery becomes the norm for the British consumer, if it happens at all.
Will this be the marketing media of the future? Is interest strong enough to sustain the costs? It seems only time will tell.