Augmented reality (AR) may still seem like a futuristic technology, and unrealistic for a small business today. But a growing number of small companies are using it to do everything from providing a more personalized customer experience to creating life-like, interactive prototypes.


“The barriers to entry and the cost have come way down, while the technology just keeps getting better,” says Ian Renz, founder and director of experiences for ShowMeVirtual, a St. Louis immersive media firm that creates custom AR solutions for clients.


Businesses can hire a developer to create an augmented reality filter or “lens” through platforms like Facebook, Snapchat or Instagram, starting around $1,000 to $2,000, Renz says, while developing a custom, standalone application typically costs at least $25,000. Some tools are also available through third-party vendors. For example, Shopify, the ecommerce platform for online stores, has an AR service available to its merchants that allows them to offer interactive 3D models of their products to shoppers.


Unlike virtual reality—where the entire experience is digital—augmented reality overlays digital content on real-world environments. Because of this, it has many more potential business uses, Renz adds.


So, how are small businesses using it to engage customers and increase sales? Here are five augmented reality uses for business:


1. Product visualization

Augmented reality is probably best known for allowing customers to “try on” products or services without really needing to try them on. For example, salons can use “smart mirrors” or a mobile app to let customers see what a certain hairstyle will look like before the stylist starts working on it. A furniture store can show customers how that large sofa will look in their living room without them having to lug it home.


“A customer can be sitting in their living room, scanning the room with their phone’s camera, and digitally place an image of a sofa, so they can see how it would look,” Renz says.

2. Interactive experiences

Beyond visualizing products, augmented reality can help companies with their general marketing and engagement efforts, Renz says. For example, his company helped an industrial company create an AR tour of its products and facilities for trade show attendees. Some wine companies now embed AR into their wine labels, so shoppers can use their phone camera to bring the labels to life and see stories behind the brand.

3. Prototyping and design

Augmented reality has many potential benefits for utility, construction and engineering firms, which use it to create life-like, interactive 3D prototypes. They can modify their designs on-site and use them to visualize the location of things like pipes behind walls and outlets. Large product manufacturers can use AR tools to determine whether a product they’re building for a client will fit into a particular space or whether it will need to be retrofitted, Renz says.


4. Employee training

Need to teach employees how to do something complex or highly technical? Augmented reality can make employee training and education more interactive through simulation. An auto repair shop, for example, can teach its mechanics how to take apart and fix engines by looking through an AR headset and getting step-by-step instructions as they learn the process. Similar types of AR training can be done for other technical professions, whether plumbers or doctors.


5. Games and entertainment

More companies are rolling out augmented reality apps and games to make their customer experience more fun and engaging, Renz says. For example, a small retailer can create an AR scavenger hunt (think along the lines of Pokemon) where customers hunt for something using their smartphones in the store to unlock a discount or prize.


Overall, augmented reality gives small businesses a way to create deeper, more personalized and interactive engagements with employees—and set themselves apart from other businesses that aren’t doing so, Renz says.


“The deeper you can bring someone into a brand experience, the longer they’re going to stick with your brand and the more brand awareness you’re going to generate,” he says.


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