April 1, 2012, 12:00 AM

Reality Check

(Page 2 of 3)

"One of the key reasons why the app is special is that barrier when you buy online, especially at a certain price point, and you have a curiosity as to is this for me, if you could just touch and feel it," says Jonathan Kowit, president and chief marketing officer at Ice. "So the ability to be able to augment reality for the moment and try this ring or bracelet on, you can get a sense of is it your style, does it fit your skin tone, does the size of it make sense for your finger or wrist. A certain percentage of people say if they're going to spend X dollars, they want to see it first. Here they can."

Ice says on an average day more than 2,000 shoppers use the app for on average 10 to 20 minutes per session. The augmented reality tool has led to longer sessions and greater engagement with the brand, Ice says. 30% of app users return to use it again, the company adds.

Ice has yet to drop a penny into marketing the app. It includes references to it on its e-commerce site home page and in marketing e-mails, and, in what has turned out to be the most important move, it has talked about it heavily on its Facebook page.

"We have an active Facebook community of 600,000 fans, and Facebook was the largest push," Kowit says. "They are very engaged with the brand and they love to talk about the jewelry in the store. A lot of them have iPhones, of course. And the biggest comment we got was we need an Android app, which is coming."

How it works

Augmented reality is a tricky technology, and overstockArt.com turned to a Russian app developer for help. But Ice built its own app with internal staff.

Creating the augmented reality app did not involve learning any special or new programming languages. It did, however, require Ice's development team to use languages and coding in novel ways.

"We're making some of this stuff up as we go along; we're taking existing technologies and bending them to our will," says Jason Ordway, chief operating officer and chief information officer at Ice. "With today's software development kits there are not any specific tools for augmented reality. We haven't used anything special that Apple or Google has provided. We've had to customize our own stuff using Java."

It took Ice eight months to create the mobile app. The e-retailer's development team had to take between 10 and 40 pictures—depending on the complexity of the design of a ring or bracelet—of every one of its thousands of rings and bracelets. The pictures are merged together so that a product can be viewed from any angle as a shopper manipulates the ring when trying it on.

"A basic gold ring is straightforward," Ordway says. "If you're looking at an engagement ring, the side has intricate details. With the plain band you won't need as many shots. The more details, the more shots."

Working together

At overstockArt.com, the big task was to help envision how the app would work and look, and executives from various departments were recruited to help out.

"First we focused on the design with design staff to make it look very inviting," Sasson says. "Then we designed a special product data feed for the app so the app is constantly updated and we could put the best items up front, which meant bringing in the merchandising department." Once visualized, the e-retailer turned the app development work over to a company in Russia called Rosberry. Development took about three months.

At Ice, it was a three-man team that invented the app: President Jonathan Kowit, chief information officer Jason Ordway and CEO Shmuel Gniwisch.

"Everybody else was busy with day-to-day work," Gniwisch says. "We have a small team, we don't have 100 people sitting around a table. I wanted people to focus on the day-to-day business. Jonathan and I hashed the augmented reality app out every day, looked at the top things we wanted in different versions. Jason spearheaded the whole technical side of the development."

For Ice, the challenge was to enable a consumer to visualize a ring on her finger in a way that seemed real. That's where Ordway had to manipulate programming languages in unusual ways. "Our augmented reality is as close as we can get it to match the human eye, so you can increase and decrease the size and there isn't any difference between angles," he explains. "It seems simple but that's the hardest part."

At overstockArt.com, meanwhile, a primary goal was to make the app easy for a consumer to use.

"The biggest challenge with augmented reality is usability, making things useful for your customers," Sasson says. "There's a tendency to add a lot of different features and give a lot of different options. The focus is the most important thing. Give them something simple, very easy to use, with the path of least resistance."

OverstockArt.com focused on the camera of the smartphone and a single digital image overlay with the most basic of instructions—no bells and whistles—to keep things simple for customers, Sasson adds, and the "friction-free" ride is paying off in that greatly improved mobile conversion.

More to come

As augmented reality technology continues to evolve, so, too, do the programs at overstockArt.com and Ice.

"Version 3 is coming pretty soon with some new features," says Sasson at the art e-retailer. One new feature will let a consumer upload the image she creates to a wall at Pinterest, the rapidly growing social discovery network that lets consumers click on images from a web site or app and "pin" them to an area of Pinterest.com where others can view them. "We will create the ability for a customer to upload images from her own gallery and feed that onto her wall and then get that as a custom order," Sasson says. "These are halfway through the pipeline and hopefully we can continue with this mobile revolution."

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