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Augmented Reality: Hype or Business Opportunity?

By enabling images of the real world to be overlaid with digital information, augmented reality (AR) may be about to redefine the travel experience. The technology is rapidly gaining ground and could allow travel companies to offer customers attractive new services – for example, by simplifying chores like measuring bags or by delivering instant insight into unfamiliar environments. But does AR promise real business benefits for travel players?

Reality + Digital Content = Augmented Reality

These days, almost everyone has heard of virtual reality (VR). Deployed in a wide variety of scenarios, from computer gaming to flight simulation, VR immerses users in completely computer-generated worlds. Less familiar, perhaps, is VR’s comparatively new cousin, augmented reality (AR).

Unlike VR, AR doesn’t generate a purely artificial environment. Instead, it supplements users’ real-world surroundings with digital elements – for instance, by adding text or graphics to a smartphone camera image. One widely publicized example of AR in action is the Pokémon Go game, where cartoon images are superimposed on images captured by players’ mobile devices.

Fewer Obstacles to Uptake Promise Meteoric Global Growth

The applications of AR, like those of VR, extend far beyond gaming. But until recently, widespread uptake was hampered by a number of obstacles. This is now changing as heavy hitters, like Microsoft and Samsung, become more active in the segment, bringing down equipment prices. Advances are also being made in the vital area of systems integration thanks to organizations such as the AR for Enterprise Alliance and the Immersive Technology Alliance.

The vast potential of the tech is reflected by cross-sectoral growth projections for the coming years. Back in 2015, the global AR market was worth some USD 3.3 billion. In the coming years, it is expected to have a CAGR of just over 85.2%, reaching around USD 133.78 billion in 2021.

Pioneering AR Solutions in The Travel Sector: Melding Real and Virtual Worlds

But can AR enhance customers’ experience in ways that deliver business benefits for travel providers? A number of big-name players clearly believe so and are already tapping the potential of AR at every stage of the journey – from travelers’ homes right through to their final destinations. The following are just a few examples of AR in action.

Making Life Easier for Fliers – at Home and at The Airport

Users of KLM Airlines’ AR baggage check app no longer have to worry about arriving at the airport only to find that their hand luggage won’t fit the overhead locker. Leveraging Apple’s AR technology, the solution superimposes a virtual suitcase on the smartphone camera image of the passenger’s baggage, showing at a glance whether it is within the limit.

When passengers reach the airport, American Airlines AR solution helps them find their way around with ease. The smartphone app overlays real-world images of users’ surroundings with a wealth of useful information – for example, showing the location of check-in desks, and cafes or restaurants. This enables travelers to confidently navigate the complex and confusing environment of an unfamiliar airport.

In-Depth Virtual Insight into Travel Destinations

A pilot project by TUI Destination Experiences is putting AR through its paces in the field of excursions and vacation activities. Travelers wear special AR glasses that enrich their surroundings with useful information – for example, details of artists’ lives to paintings in galleries.

When travelers are out and about at their destination, they can use Google Maps’ AR Street View mode. This combines live images from the user’s smartphone with data from Google Street View and Maps – ranging from factual information to user reviews and ratings of shops and restaurants – helping people quickly get their bearings in unfamiliar surroundings.

Tailor Your Hotel Room to Your Taste

A smartphone app launched by LIFEWTR and Marriott Hotels lets hotel guests browse virtual artwork and use it to transform the walls of their room. And another AR app from Marriot Hotels gives users the opportunity to explore potential vacation destinations on their phones from the comfort of their homes.

Keeping It Real: Business Imperative or Gimmick?

The growth forecasts for AR suggest it will play an increasingly important role in our lives going forward. And there can be little doubt that the technology has its attractions – for example, many tourist authorities successfully used the Pokémon Go game mentioned earlier to promote their destinations.

While the baggage measurement app and location-based information services presented above clearly add value, some other use cases could be seen as merely “nice to have”. What’s more, travelers’ willingness to buy into the tech will probably vary considerably depending on a number of factors, including tech savviness and age – with younger digital natives more likely to use (or even demand) an AR-enhanced experience than older demographics.

Finding the Balance that’s Right for You – and Your Customers

You should bear these are factors in mind when weighing up the pros and cons of AR for your business. Ultimately, it will be up to travel players to gauge how their customers can be expected to react to AR – and adopt an approach that taps the tech’s potential without alienating certain customer segments.

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