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It’s an exciting time for augmented reality. With new AR platforms launching from the biggest names in tech over the last few months, including Apple’s ARKit and Google’s ARCore, retailers like Ikea, Wayfair, and Anthropologie have already released ARKit-powered apps, opening the door to consumer acceptance of AR as viable retail technology.

But across the board, early AR shopping apps still leave much to be desired. Sure, it’s useful to use AR to virtually place a new chair, side table, work of art or sectional into a room. But unless you’re starting with an empty room, physical objects can get in the way of a true sense of presence and satisfying experience.

Enter diminished reality — a different “reality” — that promises to change that. With DR, users will be able to digitally remove unwanted, inanimate objects from their physical surroundings, to get an even more realistic view of how potential purchases will fit within the context of their lives.

So, what exactly is DR, and what does it mean for the future of retail and beyond?


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Diminished reality 101

While not new, DR is still relatively unknown. Simply put, diminished reality is the conceptual opposite of augmented reality. AR allows you to augment, or add virtual content to how you perceive physical world. On the other hand, DR enables you to erase physical content from a real-world scene captured through a tablet or phone camera.

More likely than not, you’ve already been exposed to DR. It is, for example, a well-established tactic used in film editing, to remove things like wires and harnesses that actors wear when filming stunts or action scenes. It contributes to suspension of disbelief by removing visual noise and erasing traces of reality.

Why retailers need diminished reality to get the most out of AR

Here’s where it gets interesting. Pairing DR with AR will open the door for an entirely new level of real-world manipulation, blurring the lines between where physical reality ends and (augmented) reality begins.

It is certain that early adopters of ARKit for retail such as Wayfair, Ikea, and Anthropologie, are seeing promising results without DR, but when the novelty wears off and the desire for true presence kicks in, consumers won’t compromise. They’ll want to see home furnishings as they’ll actually look in a room, without the noise of everything that is already in the room.

For instance, if I want to see what a new sectional might look like in an existing room with any of the recently launched ARKit apps, I have to either physically remove the existing furniture from the room, or layer 3D products on top of them. With DR, starting the redesign process in an “empty” room becomes as easy as holding up your smartphone or tablet, tracing unwanted objects as they appear on-screen, and clicking to remove it.

Check out this video to get an idea of what my company is making the DR experience like, specifically in the context of shopping for home furnishings.

But it isn’t about just removing objects. As you can see in the video, rather than leaving a gaping black hole or blank spot in the place where a physical item once was, DR technology is improving to the point where it can recognize the characteristics of the floor or walls around the object, and fill in the “empty” space accordingly. While the technology isn’t completely foolproof yet, some DR platforms can go so far as to replicate a complex pattern on a rug, or fill in bricks on a brick wall, once objects in the surrounding space have been removed.

DR isn’t far off. Within the next 12-18 months, we can expect to see DR at play in AR shopping scenarios, as existing AR apps are updated to incorporate this technology, and more retailers follow suit.

When it comes to AR, presence matters

The in-context visualization capabilities enabled by ARKit apps are powerful and persuasive, but AR alone doesn’t create the flawless sense of presence that will power the future of the retail customer experience. DR is just one of a few complementary technologies that will establish a better sense of presence and usefulness when shopping in AR.

Sure, it will be awhile until you’re able to remove your in-laws, former spouse or a puppy from a scene, unless it is perhaps a very lazy puppy. Kinetic and living objects can’t be easily removed. However, when it comes to AR for static objects — furniture, home furnishings and home decor — without DR, the experience is like a taco without a shell or chips without queso. Who wants that? Nobody.

Beck Besecker is the co-founder and CEO of Marxent, the leader in virtual reality and augmented reality solutions for homebuilders, retailers and manufacturers.

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