Augmented reality (AR) is a an area in mobile tech with a lot of potential applications, but for the most part, that potential has remained theoretical, experimental, and whimsical; we’ve seen very little in the way of practical applications of AR. But a new app from Red Piston, created in partnership with home improvement retail giant Lowe’s and appliance manufacturer LG, paves the way for uses of AR firmly rooted in real-world usability.
The Lowe’s Virtual Experience app, for iPhone, iPad and Android devices, works in tandem with a special barcode printed in Lowe’s flyers, and provides shoppers with a 3D virtual model of LG appliances when the flyer is viewed through a device’s camera. Shoppers can ‘walk around’ the appliances, including fridges and washers, for example, and get a rough idea of how it will look in their actual home surroundings, and identify features and actually interact with the object.
“We always wanted to do something practical [with AR], not just something gimmicky,” Red Piston co-founder Ali Al-Aasm told BetaKit in an interview, describing his company’s approach to AR. “The big selling point for Lowe’s was that people will learn way more about the product than they can with a static flyer.”
Windsor, ON-based startup Red Piston grew out of a partnership by former BBDO co-workers who lost their jobs when the bottom fell out of the North American car industry and Chrysler ended a partnership that had survived since 1944. Ali Al-Aasm, Andy Kale and Jakub Koter created opportunity out of opposition, however, and formed Red Piston, a bootstrapped app development studio officially incorporated in 2010, that has created successful standalone games like Bonzai Blowfish in addition to client work like its new Lowe’s AR app. What would eventually become Lowe’s Virtual Experience originally began as an experimental project by the Red Piston team.
“We’ve been working on augmented reality for a while now, using different variations and prototyping,” Al-Aasm said. “It was convenient because Lowe’s is our first-tier client. We do their website and maintenance in Canada, so we already had that relationship there, so it was relatively easy for us to say ‘Let’s come up with something cool,’ and start pitching stuff.”
Luckily, Red Piston found a willing partner in Lowe’s for its experiment. And Al-Aasm admits that an experiment is exactly what the app is, since he says the market for this kind of AR-based application is largely untested. AR has been used in other capacities, including the kind of heads-up-display overlays that power Layar‘s real-world browser or Google’s Project Glass, or for gaming on Nintendo’s 3DS handheld console. But finding out whether or not this specific application of the tech will catch on with the general public remains uncertain. Startup SayDuck is also partnering with furniture companies to provide a similar “try-before-you-buy” experience in-store.
“This is one of those technologies with a lot of question marks around it,” Al-Aasm told us. “We think it’s cool, and everyone we talk to thinks it’s cool, and we hope it’s easy enough that anyone can download it and appreciate it, but it’s very new and the way we use it is new, too.” Since users have to download a specific app, and then find a code and use them together, Al-Aasm notes that it could represent a lot of steps for users who aren’t necessarily tech-savvy.
Even so, it represents an exciting new way for brands to not only connect with customers and provide another information stream about their products, but also allows them to show off those products in a much more tangible way than can be achieved only through printed pictures or even in-browser virtual tours. Red Piston may not be the first company to experiment with AR, but it’s definitely found a unique and compelling way to leverage AR tech in a market for which it seems like a perfect fit.