Last week fashion group Benetton launched its global catalogue with ‘augmented reality’ technology to increase customer interaction. So what does that mean and who’s doing it?

What is augmented reality?

The term refers to the ability to superimpose 3D objects onto video or pictures using computer-aided design technology. In retail, for example, augmented reality applications are being created to allow customers to see what they look like wearing products, or to give the feeling that they are taking part in events happening elsewhere.

How is Benetton using it?

Benetton has added a special barcode to the back page of its catalogue, which customers can scan with a webcam on their computer. This will take them to an animated version of the catalogue, where text turns into moving images, and which Benetton said allows it to “narrate” the catalogue.

Is this unique?

No. And the next 12 months is likely to see many more of these types of applications launch. For instance, Oasis is running a competition for customers with Nokia mobile phones in London that allows them to go on a treasure hunt and receive a prize from a store. It is using augmented reality within Nokia’s Point & Find technology as part of the competition - allowing customers to take and send a picture of the Oxford Street tube station sign to prove where they are.

What are other brands doing?

Glasses Direct has a video mirror on its site. Customers download a piece of software to their computer and then use a webcam to see how they look in different pairs of glasses. If they don’t have a webcam they can choose from two models to get an idea of what the products look like in real life.

A similar application is about to launch at the BaselWorld jewellery show on March 18. Customers will be able to video themselves either in a store or at home, and the application will augment reality so they see themselves on screen wearing the item they want to try on, in this case expensive watches and jewellery.

Is this just another internet fad?

Internet enthusiasts have forecast that this could be the future of internet shopping for some time. The opportunity to create applications that raise conversion rates for online sales by giving people access to a view of products they would normally want to try on if bought in a store is clear.

Tesco has even talked in the past of developing a 3D virtual version of one of its supermarkets to completely change the experience of internet food shopping. But such radical changes are a long way off. In the meantime there will need to be much experimentation to see what will stick with shoppers.