Augmented reality has been one of the futuristic
technologies that sits somewhere between science fiction and reality. Early
attempts at implementing the technology involve the use of tablets and
smartphones to overlay information on an image taken from the device’s camera.
Point your tablet down a Parisian street, and an augmented reality mapping
application might superimpose an arrow on the view to show you where a
recommended restaurant is located. On the business front, early applications
for Google Glass promise to combine augmented reality and the traditional
instruction manual, showing a frustrated office worker how to load toner into
the printer or a maintenance worker how to perform a complex repair on a piece
of equipment.

This level of augmented reality technology seems out of
grasp for most companies. There are complexities with everything from
geolocation to pattern recognition, yet used creatively, augmented
reality can be inexpensive and compelling. As an example, I recently received a
promotional mailing from Nordstrom, a higher-end department store in the United States.
The promotion was for custom suits, and the pamphlet provided a dozen swatches
of sample fabric and mentioned their in-store iPad application to allow you to design
a customized suit.

The mailing intrigued me for several reasons. Like many
people, I can’t help feeling the fabric of clothing as I shop. I know next to
nothing about fabric, but the tactile experience of clothing is a key part of
the experience. The mailing provided a preview, the clothing swatches complete
with the zigzag pattern of a tailor’s scissor, which subtly highlighted the
possibilities for customization.

The other interesting aspect of the promotion was that — rather than suggesting I download an app, cook up a suit, and key in my credit
card — it noted the app was only available in stores, where a
salesperson would presumably guide the customer through the customization process.
Having purchased made-to-measure suits in the past, a major struggle was my
lack of knowledge of suit-related terminology. The tailor would run to the
racks to explain what a ticket pocket looked like or to explain the nuances of
different lapels. With their app in hand, Nordstrom’s salesperson could
visually show the different options and present a model of the suit in
real-time, while maintaining the personalization (and opportunities to
up-sell) of a physical salesperson.

Suiting up

An application to show line art drawings of suits and a
mailing with some clothing swatches are neither revolutionary nor technically
complex, but the combination of an interesting mailing, personalized sales
experience, and an application that makes an intimidating process easier is a
great way to use a tablet device to augment the rather mundane reality of
selling suits.

Opportunities to leverage tablets to augment physical
processes are limited only by imagination. Photographers are using the devices
to show samples of their work, explaining the creative vision behind the photo
for a process that can’t be duplicated by a book or online experience. Field
service technicians are using the devices to capture bar code data from
defective parts, and also capturing images to show how it was installed,
adverse environmental conditions, or merely how it was originally
configured. Even small retailers have gotten in on the act, with tablets
providing anything from digital signage, to access to “frequent shopper” clubs,
to a discrete inventory and ordering system that eliminates the sale-killing
“let me check in back for that.”

As you consider tablet applications and deployments, don’t
forget that they can serve to complement a human-driven process. Too often,
organizations look at technologies like tablets merely as a means to replace the
“old way,” when the better alternative may be to augment and enhance the