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The term “augmented reality application” may sound like it belongs in a video game, but the application from IBM just might help bricks-and-mortar retailers more effectively compete against their Internet counterparts.

While executives in many industries are trying to figure out how to engage consumers through digital, mobile and social technology, this goal is of particular concern to most retailers, says Paul Papas, global leader in smarter commerce with IBM global business services. Indeed, when Cisco surveyed 1,000 U.S. shoppers earlier this year, it found that 40 percent use or are interested in using mobile phones to access digital content within retail stores, while 35 percent are interested in using or already using tablets for this task.

IBM’s augmented reality application, still in prototype stage, may help retailers meet this demand. With the application, consumers can use their smartphones to call up information on the products they see on store shelves and racks in a way that’s easier and more intuitive than, say, doing individual Google searches or reading each product label. “Our intent is to make it seamless to the physical store experience and the same as your eyes work,” Papas says. “You don’t have to scan a barcode or QR code.”

The application provides information that’s similar to what’s provided within online shopping sites. For example, a shopper looking for cereal that is both low in sugar and organic can use her smartphone camera to scan a selection, and the application draws from information contained in its database to provide information on the cereals in the store and highlight those that meet her criteria.

Advancing the prototype
Many other similar applications are location-based, meaning they don’t actually recognize an image, but deduce what it is based on its surroundings. IBM’s application, however, actually recognizes the individual products, Papas says. That means it is effective within stores, even if a retailer moves products.

In addition, the application may recommend products that it doesn’t see on the shelf, but that would fit the shopper’s criteria — for example, other organic/low-sugar cereals that aren’t in the store.

IBM’s research team in Haifa, Israel, continues to refine the application, while Papas and his team are working with several retailers to advance the prototype. The next stage will be taking the application to a production phase.

Details of how the final application will be rolled out are still under discussion. Among them is the level of customization that might be incorporated within the application for different retail chains. Papas notes that while the core technology will remain the same across businesses, some retailers may want to tailor their offering — linking it to their loyalty programs, for instance. IBM also is determining how it will structure the licensing or fee agreements with the retailers and other firms that use the technology.

IBM hasn’t set a specific time frame for moving the application into the commercial arena, although Papas notes he’d like to move as quickly as possible. “We want to make sure we empower the consumer,” he says.

Of course, retailers will benefit as well. “Now you’re making information available to consumers while they’re in the store,” Papas says. “They’re getting an in-store experience, plus information that they normally find online. You can delight customers in a way that you couldn’t before.”