AI & AR: Pirate Vernacular? Or the Future of Consumer Engagement?

We’ve all become closely acquainted and grossly familiar with AI and AR in our time spent servicing tech and non-tech clients alike. Industries, whether consumer-facing or not, are exploring how best to leverage these technologies in taking their businesses to the next level. In our obsession with staying ahead, we were interested in the forward trajectory for these technologies, and convened a panel, discussing this million dollar question: Will AI and AR take over the world? Or less dramatically, will it take over communications as we know it?

AI, AR …. What?

First, before we attempt to answer that question we’ll need to first define AI and AR. According to the session’s first panelist, AI, or Artificial Intelligence, is the simulation of human intelligence by machines. It led to growth of self-driving cars, drones, and is primarily used in customer service, source-to-pay services and Human Resources. AR, or Augmented Reality, on the other hand, happens to be the technology that superimposes a computer-generated image on a user’s view of the real world, providing a composite view that overlays information virtually onto the real world in a mindboggling, yet seamless fashion. AR offers enhancements to the real, physical environment, and adds to the way consumers experience things without building an entirely new physical environment. With these definitions, the panel was ready to share their views on whether an AI/AR takeover of communications was imminent.

Tightening the gap between perception and reality

The fact that AI and AR increases the level of personalisation and customisation brands offer to their customers, means that consumers are likely to be more engaged with brand communications, as AI and AR now ensure information transmitted is personal to each individual user. AI can be leveraged through a Chatbot to offer 24/7 assistance to consumers, allowing them to retrieve immediate responses from the brand, thus giving in to today’s consumer’s need for instant gratification. Studies have also shown that 92% of consumers are more satisfied when they get immediate response from a brand, with 2 – 3 of these satisfied customers ending up spending more than they originally planned.

AR on the other hand, is the technology that shortens the “perception gap” that consumers have to deal with today. With the ability to overlay virtually (literally) anything onto the real world, consumers can now see if the latest shade of rouge allure velvet red lipstick suits their look, or if the latest range of chest drawers from Ikea fits the interior design of their home, all through a smart device that takes away any need for imagination. Consumers no longer have to imagine, or attempt to visualise, but instead can now see for themselves through Augmented Reality. Removing the element of uncertainty between the traditional point-of-purchase and the actual application of the product, nasty surprises or unmet expectations may soon be a thing of the past as Augmented Reality continues to evolve. In the words of panelist Natalie Ahl, “It (AI/AR) will keep progressing and evolving. Brands just need to find the right balance to give consumers the experience they yearn for, and match it to the offine store context.” Our next panelist, Manoj, while supportive, has his reservations.

AR we there yet? No, AI don’t think so

While AI and AR does help in shortening the gap between perception and reality and is “always-on” for today’s consumers, the fact remains that these technologies still has its limitations. While AI is great for the points mentioned above, offering 24/7 access and instant gratification for a generation of consumers that so crave it, the fact remains that AI is at its best, still only a mimicry of human cognitive ability. Chatbots today that are powered by AI, still lack the ability to contextualise and process human input to the same ability of a human operator. While these chatbots can handle millions of queries in fractions of a second, the quality of engagement is still largely lacking. Chatbots today are structured with a flow in mind. If consumers deviate away from the flow, the chatbot will not be able to work optimally, and would likely cause the user to be frustrated. Additionally, for chatbots to be truly effective, they will need interconnectivity to other back-end systems to ensure that they are able to offer consumers the full suite of services they expect from a human counterpart (purchasing, returns, shipping, payment, etc.)

As for AR, while the technology does effectively shorten the gap between perception and reality, it is not a full substitute for getting a real sample of the product in question in the lead-up to purchase. The sale of an apartment or a vehicle is ultimately still in the showroom visit and the test drive. To this effect, Panelist Manoj Nair is of the opinion that AR helps to streamline and drive consumers to the point of conversion – which is the point they make the decision to purchase – but does not drive conversion. In Manoj’s view, AR does not replace today’s tactics, but complements them. “AR will complement brand channels and AI will provide speed, scale and a slightly more natural experience in brand interaction, however, they only form a part of the overall brand experience” Manoj concludes.

Que Sera, Sera?

With both sides of this panel sharing very valid points, it was hard for the rest of us to plot a unanimous line of trajectory for these technologies. Can we still be sure of what AI/AR will be in the near to far future? Final panelist, Sharyn, gave us a snapshot of what’s coming up for AI and AR. Amazon for example, is planning to open hi-tech stores that use AR headsets to allow customers to see how furniture and home appliances look in their own homes before purchasing. Similarly, Lowe’s, home improvement store in the US has developed “Holoroom” which helps Lowe’s customers to visualise their home improvement projects through AR and VR (Virtual Reality) technology. So while there are severe limitations to the technology at present, as Manoj has pointed out, the case examples shared by Sharyn show that there are no signs of abating where these technologies are concerned.

If the growth of AI over the years from the 1950s till today is anything to go by, the potential for these technologies are great, and could go on to surprise us in great ways, in the same manner that AI technology has now beaten humans at Chess and Go. With this, it seems like AI and AR will be a case of Que Sera Sera, whatever will be shall be. AI and AR are going to be mainstays in the way brands communicate with customers. As PR practitioners of today and tomorrow, we will need to anticipate the growth of these technologies, with fingers on its pulse, and ensuring that we give our clients rightful counsel around how best to leverage these technologies in their communications strategies. For all we know, augmented press releases created in part by artificial intelligence may just be the future of our industry. If that indeed does happen, remember you heard it here first on the FleishmanHillard blog.

By Lim Tsu-Ern