I spend a lot of time thinking about the right gift for those close to me. Some folks do their holiday shopping in the last week of December, I usually start in July. I like it when the things I give to people have purpose, meaning, and most of all surprise. That last one can be a little complicated for me. One time I broke into my sister's house while she was away to measure her living room for a new entertainment center because I didn't want her to know about it until it was there. I say broke in, I had a key. I just couldn't find it. But my lack of organization is the subject of another article for another time.

This year I haven't had to do a ton of sneaking around, because I've had Augmented Reality shopping apps. I point my phone at something in my Grandparent's house, and I can tell in seconds whether the thing I had in mind for them really works in that space. No measuring tape, no questions asked, I just casually pull my phone out for a second and it's done.

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And I've got to tell you, I really wish I could buy everything this way.

The future is Augmented

AR shopping apps are nothing new. In fact, retailers like Overstock were among the first to implement this feature in their apps as a shopping assistant. And it makes perfect sense to do so when you have high-quality 3D renders of something and you know the exact physical measurements of it, being able to drop that thing into your real world to see what it would look like is an obvious winner. But like most things, AR took a little while to get good enough that this was reliable. Your phone has to be able to accurately measure the world around you, or else that real couch isn't going to fit where the AR couch did.

As long as you have a high-quality 3D image and the correct dimensions, this doesn't require a ton of extra work to set up.

A lot about Augmented Reality, particularly on iPhones, has changed in the last year. ARKit has grown more accurate and is now embedded in a great deal more of the iPhone experience. You don't even have to install an app now, AR View is baked into Safari so web developers can turn any website into an interactive AR experience. One amazing example of this is Gantri, a small company in California which specialized in custom 3D Printing lights. Every light in the Gantri store is accessible via AR View, which means you can place it on a surface and know exactly what it will look like before clicking the buy button. And because Gantri's entire product starts with highly detailed 3D images, what you see in AR View is quite literally what you get when you place an order.

In a brief conversation with Gantri CEO Ian Yang, he explained this process really wasn't particularly difficult to implement. Apple's tools for ARKit in Safari make it so Ian can upload a 3D asset alongside the rest of the information for the listing, and then the user sees an AR View button in the bottom corner of the image. As long as you have a high-quality 3D image and the correct dimensions, this doesn't require a ton of extra work. Granted, this experience is currently limited to Safari on iOS, but it's a great place to start.

Shop with me

I've found myself doing more and more shopping this way. Warby Parker has made it easy to see what glasses will look like on my face thanks to AR View and the TrueDepth camera on the front of your iPhone. Amazon has implemented AR View across a ton of its products, but it's using its own system through the Amazon app directly. Small businesses and artists have started taking advantage of ARView baked into Shopify as well, making it so everything from hand-crafted products to industrial machinery can be seen in your space before purchase.

And that, at least for me, is the greatest success of Augmented Reality so far. As much fun as it is to play games and drop through nightmare portals with friends, ARView has genuinely changed the way I shop for a lot of things. I can see what something looks like on my actual desk, send the file to a friend so they can see it on their iPhone in their space, and I don't have to break into anyone's home to make sure I'm setting up the right surprise. Everyone wins.

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