Last month, Overstock.com, an online retailer of decorative items, furniture, and other home goods, has teamed up with augmented reality (AR) e-commerce software developer, Seek, to ramp up its customer shopping experience on mobile devices by implementing AR and 3D technology.

For consumers, buying furniture online can be extremely difficult, as it’s hard to imagine how a chair, couch, or lamp may look in a room.

So, what’s changed?

Overstock.com now allows online shoppers to view furnishings in a 360-degree detail within their smartphones. Users can simulate their experience by placing 3D models of furnishings within real-world spaces. In the legal world, it’s “buyer beware,” but within the world of AR, users can see before they buy. The company spoke in-depth with MSNBC about these changes last week.

This technology has become mainstream thanks to the breakout of mobile games such as Pokémon Go, Jurassic World, and as of this week, Harry Potter: Wizards Unite, making its nationwide debut last Friday. However, to fans surprise, the company rolled it out a day early for both iOS and Android users.

The Next Level of Online Shopping

Grit Daily News spoke with Sumit Goyal, the Chief Digital Officer at Overstock.com and Jon Cheney, the CEO at Seek, about how important an integration like this is for the future of e-commerce.

At Overstock.com, we take pride in calling ourselves a technology company in the retail space,” Goyal told us. “Our vision is dream homes for all. We enable people to buy home goods, furniture, and home décor stuff online.”

For Overstock.com, its presence in the AR industry dates to early 2017. Two years later, the company is still fully immersed in the space, but isn’t shy about recognizing the challenges the e-commerce space currently faces.

When we asked Goyal how they would characterize the company’s role in today’s digital age alongside some of the challenges, he referred to the world of “online purchasing” and “home goods.”

Many people are still not used to buying [items] online,” […] and of course, “home goods.”

Grit Daily News: How has Pokémon Go shaped the ways in which AR is implemented into the consumer market?

Jon Cheney: From my perspective, Pokémon Go was the first-time augmented reality was in the spotlight. People have been doing things in augmented reality since the ‘90s. I could show you pictures that go way back with cumbersome devices. But augmented reality took a fad, pop culture. Pokémon is in the theatre right now, so there is some more spotlight on it. But it took something that a lot of people had nostalgia for. It was a perfect storm in that regard. It was the first-time people were being exposed to, “Holy cow, there is a Pokémon in the real world.” That was the newsworthy, and it went viral and nuts.

While it was a silly thing, that was really one of my first exposures to augmented reality. It was the reason Seek was founded. We saw that inflection happen, and I said, “Hey, we need to do something in there.” I don’t want to do a game necessarily. I want a business that can keep going. I saw that happen. Seek was founded a couple months before Pokémon GO, but it drove our vision and pointed us in the direction where we’ve come today. We are grateful for the push it gave to the AR industry as a whole.”

In our conversation with Goyal and Cheney, the topic surrounding millennials came up—specifically with respect to digital natives versus digital immigrants.

Think about the evolution on the shopping side,” Umesh Mangamuru, vice-president of product management at Overstock said. “Back in the day when website didn’t exist, brick and mortar was everyone’s shopping experience. People were using all of their senses to figure out the product they wanted to buy–looking, touching, and feeling the product. We have now evolved to a ‘click’ or ‘click and brick’ model where those experiences are met via virtual platforms.  As a consumer, you are playing with your six senses while still making those good choices and shopping experiences.”

GD: Why do you believe the market of “home goods” presents a challenge for the future of e-commerce?

SG: If I were to buy a Sharpie, I know how big a Sharpie is, what color it is. It’s all standard. Any fast-moving consumer goods are easy to buy online. But when it comes to home goods, like if you were to buy a couch, the dimensions are written on the website, but you don’t know how big it is compared to the rest of the items you have in your room. Our goal is to use technology and innovation to help make the customers make the right choices and make it with confidence.

GD: Recognizing these challenges, why, in your opinion, has it taken this long for this technology to be used in this fashion?

SG: That’s a very fair question. Technology has only, especially on mobile phones, begun to get sophisticated very recently. That is the reason why you don’t see many websites doing the same thing, having the same kind of engagement and experiences on mobile. I think we were the industry leaders when we launched it on mobile apps. You see the same experience on mobile apps, but not on websites. With Seek’s partnership, I take pride in saying we are among the first large dealer to have this experience on a mobile browser.

Jon Cheney: I can add to that. Why not ‘til now? What has changed? It was just addressed very elegantly. That is the answer. The technology wasn’t there until recently to make it widely available. AR Kit and AR Core and those technologies were just introduced a couple years ago, after Pokémon Go came out, that you mentioned earlier. It’s been cost-prohibitive to launch these things until now. Overstock knows how much they have invested in their iOS app and their Android app and having to do things differently and having to manage thousands of 3D models. There are tons of pieces that had to get glued together. That is what we worked on: trying to make that process easy.

GD: How can AR become more mainstream within the e-commerce space?

JC: The ability to install the AR-component directly on a website. It makes it easy for the brand because [companies] don’t have to invest in additional apps and keep those updated. They just install it on the website. They don’t have to change the customer journey, which makes it easy for the consumer as well. They don’t have to learn something new. It’s just there. The technology has just barely gotten to the point where it has hit that inflection point that allows it to go mainstream. Overstock’s implementation is evidence of that inflection point taking place.

The Partnership

For a company that has been on a quest of finding the right partner and technology to enable customers to become more “interactive” with products on the website, Overstock.com finally found its holy grail—Seek.

“Overstock may not know this, but they have had the best AR implementation in their applications of anybody in the industry,” Cheney told us. “Nobody has done it better than them, from the beginning. We have followed them, as we have been immersed in the AR space over the last few years. When someone asks us about e-commerce and AR, we direct people to download Overstock’s application and try it.”

GD: What about Overstock’s technology strikes Seek with respect to implementing AR?

JC: For me, it’s the UX. That’s what it came down to. A lot of other people are just trying to use weird symbols or are hiding the button. They want to offer it, but they are afraid to offer it. Overstock said no. If we have a 3D model, we are going to put this huge button that says, “view in your room,” “view in your home,” “view in your space,” something that makes sense, not “view in AR,” or “view in augmented reality.”

GD: It sounds like users really don’t know what “augmented reality” means from a B2C level. Is that accurate?

JC: Absolutely. Most individuals don’t know what that means. Overstock thought about the user experience and made it easy and apparent what the value was. They put the button smack dab in the middle so that you couldn’t miss it. With that button, usage rates are high with Overstock, because they designed the experience well and made sure it was a focal point. Of course, because it had such a huge impact, they are going to continue to do that. I’ve seen other customers that we have that are big, smart customers don’t do it as well. We go so far as saying, ‘Look at Overstock. See what you like from that experience and apply it to what you’re doing.’ Some brands are nervous to launch AR. They are afraid because AR is a new technology. Overstock is unabashedly putting it right there and saying, ‘Do this. This is the future. And they are seeing massive impact.’

With us, the future is now. We want you to do this because you will get more value. You will be happier with the product when you receive it because you will get what you were expecting.

GD: With this partnership, how will the customer experience change?

JC: You will be able to shop for every single product on Overstock eventually in AR.  On that note, I believe that every product on every website will eventually have AR as a standard. That’s what people are going to expect.

For those who don’t expect it, maybe some of those digital immigrants or later adopters, this application of augmented reality is so easy to see the value. It’s so fast. I know what that looks like in my house now. A lot of those digital immigrants maybe didn’t get Pokémon Go or the face filters or any other applications of AR that are currently out there. But e-commerce makes sense to anybody. The second you show it to them, the second they try it, it’s like, “Wow. That was a good experience. I need that more often. Where can I find more like that?” I believe that this younger audience though is going to say, “Hey, if you don’t have it, I might not shop there.”

We’re talking about furniture here, but there are other applications of AR that are going to be even more exciting in my opinion that come out in the next few years. They’re not quite ready yet. Being able to try on pants, a shirt. Clothing is a huge frontier that is going to come. People are going to be able to try things on and be as confident in purchasing that clothing as they would be in the store. That will change e-commerce and obviously continue to hurt your traditional physical retail in the process.

GD: What else have you seen thus far as a result from experimenting with AR?

SG:  Another benefit we have seen from AR, is fewer returns, literally. Our data we have collected has shown us those individuals who have experienced and used the AR technology are returning a smaller number of items on average.

Goyal also emphasized another interesting fact—for those individuals using AR, they are also purchasing more items, regularly.

Their conversion rate and participation rate is significantly higher compared to a regular customer,” Goyal added.

GD: How does your partnership with Seek come into play here?

SG: With Seek’s partnership, we are able to launch the same AR experience on the mobile website, which is the majority of the world’s traffic. We can provide that functionality and innovation to all of those customers, making their purchases easier and less hectic.

And for Goyal, that is exactly why the company decided to enter the world of AR.

Lastly, privacy is on everyone’s radar with respect to divulging personal information to third party providers.

GD: How does Overstock’s vision for a more well-rounded shopping experience play into the realm of privacy?

JC: We’ve had this question quite a bit. We thought about it and talked about it. I think it becomes even more relevant as those wearables start to come out, AR glasses that are constantly scanning and taking pictures of the world, and therefore people and things and drivers’ licenses and credit cards and anything that’s out could be at risk. I think that’s more from a camera perspective. But a camera is a crucial component and element of augmented reality. It definitely matters.

From Overstock’s and Seek’s standpoint, when somebody is using the augmented reality features, there is no capture that takes place, except on the person’s device. That doesn’t get streamed back. We don’t see any imagery. We know nothing about that customer except what type of device they’re on. We’re looking at if they’re on iOS, Android, or a desktop. What versions do you have? What browsers do you have installed? But we’re not collecting any of that GDPR sensitive data, nor do we want to. What we’re doing here is purely enabling that technology, so it works on the best way in that device. Those images that are used live by the consumer are either just a live view on your camera. They can take a picture of their view so they can see what that looks like. But it’s saved to their camera roll just like any other picture they have taken on their phone.