Why more firms are using 'augmented reality' apps

By Asako Takaguchi, Kyodo

Posted at Nov 17 2013 08:27 AM | Updated as of Nov 18 2013 09:16 PM

TOKYO - Smartphone applications featuring so-called "augmented reality" are being used by an increasing number of companies to promote their products.

Ikea Japan K.K., the Japanese arm of the Swedish furnishing giant, launched a service in August that gives customers a virtual preview of how a piece of furniture will look in their home, with the help of a printed catalog, a smartphone or tablet and a mobile app.

Customers first open the printed catalog at the selected product page and point the smartphone or tablet camera at a cross at the bottom of the page. This gives them access to augmented reality mode. Next, they close the catalog and place it on the spot they intend to place the new piece of furniture.

A virtual image of the selected sofa, bed or other furniture item will then be shown on the device's screen with the room in the background. Customers can reposition the virtual furniture simply by touching the screen.

About 90 kinds of furniture products can be viewed via augmented reality, which helps customers avoid buying the wrong size, shape or color by enabling them to picture the product in place first.

"We want customers to know that purchasing furniture is easy and enjoyable too," Yuki Murata, an Ikea Japan spokesperson said.

A 30-year-old company employee who was visiting the Ikea outlet in Funabashi, Chiba Prefecture, along with his wife, said in an interview, "It is always a challenge to go and buy furniture, but by using this app we can see how it looks at home before actually coming to the store."

This winter, Sanrio Co. is selling two kinds of greeting cards, at 483 yen each, using augmented reality technology. It is the first time for the Tokyo-based character goods maker to sell the cards.

One of the cards features four Santa Clauses that pop up when the card is opened. When the recipient holds a smartphone or tablet over the card, 11 Santa Clauses appear on screen, playing musical instruments.

In the other card, Sanrio's popular character Hello Kitty dances on the device screen and the recipient can even be in a photograph with Kitty.

"We want customers to enjoy talking about the cards with their family and others -- even after sending them. We believe the cards combine the warmth of handwritten letters and the latest information technology," said Shingo Yasutomo, a Sanrio official who developed them.

Publishing firms also seem interested in products using the technology.

Tokyo Shoseki Co. in August published a picture book for 1,995 yen about 33 kinds of animals at Asahiyama Zoo, a popular zoo located in Asahikawa, Hokkaido.

By overlaying a smartphone on the book, a reader can view a virtual image of a white bear swimming on the screen or a magnified image of the little-seen cheek teeth of the Yezo deer.

An official at Tokyo Shoseki said sales of the book are on the increase and that the company has received favorable comments from readers, one of whom said: "It's like being at the zoo."

Augmented reality technology is also used by many tourist spots and museums across Japan to offer visitors digital guidance, as well as in product advertisements on vending machines.