How Augmented Reality is poised to transform the future of retail, enhance accessibility for disabled consumers, and release the potential of the purple pound - By Lottie Jackson
Problems faced by disabled consumers and their economic power
Fashion Roundtable is committed to highlighting the lack of disability representation throughout the fashion industry. You might assume this only applies to fashion campaigns which almost exclusively feature able-bodied models, and as a result disregard the aesthetic potential of the disabled body. But in reality, fashion’s poor track record for representing disabilities runs far deeper that the images we see promoted across fashion media.
There are still many logistical barriers facing less-abled individuals, like myself, who want to access fashion but simply cannot due to inadequate provision in retail spaces- this encompasses anything from insufficient staff training, to physical obstacles (such as stairs, no seating, queues and inaccessible clothing rails). A study by the Extra Costs Commission revealed that 75% of disabled customers have left a shop because of poor service or access, and that UK companies risk losing £420 million a week in sales. You may like to refer to a feature I wrote for The Guardian last year, which explored these issues surrounding disability access to high fashion stores.
Retailers have been slow to acknowledge the needs of disabled shoppers and the economic potential of the purple pound. In the UK, an estimated seven million people of working age have a disability, which amounts to a huge amount of spending power. Online shopping has undoubtedly provided a lifeline and given independence to individuals who want to browse or purchase the latest trends. However, as anyone can attest to e-commerce is far from perfect. Two dimensional images cannot capture how a garment will fit, feel or move on the body. People with disabilities, such as wheelchair users, may even have additional requirements and functional needs that further complicate their buying choices- are there concealed zips which will cause discomfort when seated? Has the fabric got enough stretch to aid movement?
Fashion is an early adopter of Augmented Reality technologies
Over the next few years, our shopping experience will be powered by Augmented Reality (AR) as fashion brands prepare for a radical digital makeover. Virtual reality mirrors have already been introduced to some high-street stores. For instance, Zara has been using AR displays in 120 stores worldwide since April 2018. The AR feature allows customers to hold their mobile phones in front of a sensor on the displayed models within the stores or designated shop windows. One example already on the market is produced by a company called FXMirror: a 3D virtual fitting room solution for shops that allows customers to change in and out of clothes with a tap of their fingers.
Fashion designers will also be able to increase consumer engagement through immersive VR experiences. The Fashion Innovation Agency at London College of Fashion recently paired an AR start-up, HoloMe, with British womenswear label, RIXO London. In collaboration, they created a holographic version of the catwalk show for users to watch at home using their smartphones. “Augmented reality is going to change the way that the fashion industry creates, showcases and retails its products”. We “will see an explosion in opportunities for this immersive technology to totally redefine what we understand as fashion today,” said Matt Drinkwater, head of the Fashion Innovation Agency.
The beauty industry is also ready to further capitalise on this technology. L’Oreal’s Makeup Genius app was one of the first illustrations of how AR could be used to let users virtually try-on beauty products on their phones. More brands including Sephora, Charlotte Tilbury and Rimmel have now followed suit.
How can AR help disabled consumers?
Firstly, it’s important to note that while this technology may bypass the issues faced by disabled shoppers in physical stores, it should not be seen as a reason for businesses to ignore poor accessibility in their retail spaces. Being able to access the same opportunities as able-bodied individuals is fundamental for equality and increasing the social footprint of those with disabilities. This is especially important if we consider how brands are now optimising the entertainment and community aspects of their stores, as a place to enjoy unique and exciting offline experiences.
The most exciting development for disabled consumers is the news that Amazon has patented a blended-reality mirror- it will allow people to virtually try on clothing and assess how outfits look or fit from the comfort of their own homes. Every household is set to have at least one “magic mirror” hanging on their wall, transforming our homes into digital shopping centres. Imagine perusing through an online store at home, then being able to see how a product looks in the mirror before placing your order? This sounds like something out of a sci-fi film, but according to Apple CEO Tim Cook, this technology is set to become the norm. In an interview with Vogue last year, Cook acknowledged the significance of augmented reality (AR), which he believes will transform everything from runway shows to shopping. “I don’t think there is any sector or industry that will be untouched by AR,” he said.
However, one problem for VR and disabled shoppers is that, while it can use visual and auditory features, other haptic senses like touch are not as advanced. The developers behind the Sense Glove are trying to address that with a device that allows wearers to feel with virtual objects. Consumers would then be able to feel the weight and texture of a garment, and search out any potential issues with hems or zips prior to purchase.
The Sense Glove resembles a large, skeletal hand which is wrapped over the user’s hand through fastening attachments to their fingers. “Basically, Sense Glove enables touch in virtual reality,” company CEO Gijs den Butter explained, “It does it with force feedback, so you actually are restricted when you’re trying to grasp an object, and… you get a little tactile sensation when for example you’re touching hard or slippery objects.”
Although in its infancy, Sense Glove technology combined with VR mirrors is set to revolutionise the way disabled customers access and buy into fashions from their own home. Once shoppers with disabilities are able to easily purchase the latest fashions, brands will soon acknowledge the economic power of the purple pound and recognise their profound influence as the largest untapped consumer group.
Allison Gardner, Co-Founder of Women Leading in AI and Teaching Fellow at Keele University, explains to Fashion Roundtable that “diverse teams must be involved at all stages of product development, from inception to implementation. This ensures that tools are developed specifically to aid disabled shoppers and not just assume the AR naturally supports them.”
Whereas Ivana Bartoletti, Head of Privacy and Data Protection at Gemserv, remarks that “the nature of AR technology is to be fully immersive, therefore the question is how AR systems can protect the security, privacy, or safety of users. If this technology is to be used properly, a privacy, security and ethics by design approach is necessary from the onset. The more we digitalise our physical interactions the more we create a digital record of our movements and whereabouts, and that brings huge legal and ethical challenges as we are already seeing.”