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Retailers try out augmented reality, a new dimension for online shopping

The e-commerce site Wayfair uses augmented reality in its mobile app to allow shoppers to see how furniture would look in their homes.
The e-commerce site Wayfair uses augmented reality in its mobile app to allow shoppers to see how furniture would look in their homes.

The COVID-19 pandemic has provided a potent tailwind to anyone selling stuff online. According to the Department of Commerce, e-commerce activity in the third quarter of 2020 jumped 37 percent over the same quarter last year.

Despite that shift, one thing hasn’t changed in the 25 years since Jeff Bezos started an online bookstore: Much of the merchandise you encounter online is marketed using a two-dimensional photo — perhaps three or four photos, if you’re lucky.

Several companies based in Boston, or with outposts here, aim to change that. They’re creating three-dimensional stores you can explore, or ways to take a digitally crafted item like a rowing machine or countertop appliance and see how it might fit into your home, using your smartphone or a tablet.

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“For anyone shopping today, you’re not doing as much window shopping in a mall or browsing through the aisles of a store,” says Cosmo Kramer, the chief executive of Cambridge-based Bitreel. (Yes, that’s the name he was born with, not a “Seinfeld” tribute.) His startup sells software that can create 3-D digital stores and products that can be seen — and explored — on a desktop computer or mobile device.

The startup Bitreel builds virtual showrooms in which customers can move things around.
The startup Bitreel builds virtual showrooms in which customers can move things around.

“This technology presents you with a way to really browse again,” he says.

If you’re purchasing a toothbrush or paper towels, Kramer adds, “you may not need an immersive experience to do that, but we think it’s applicable to anything else you feel like you want to do some research on — any products with a visual component to them, like home goods or fashion.”

Boston-based Wayfair has been an early advocate of what is sometimes called “augmented reality” in retail — a way to blend virtual items you don’t yet own with the physical environment that you live in. Spokeswoman Susan Frechette says “tens of thousands of items” can be viewed that way on Wayfair’s mobile app, out of the site’s more than 18 million items.

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Another startup run by two veterans of Wayfair, 3XR in Wakefield, is working to help manufacturers create 3-D models of products that can be viewed in a customer’s home. Among 3XR’s early customers are manufacturers of exercise equipment and hot tubs.

A June report from Forrester Research declared that augmented reality was finally “ready for prime time” and noted that Apple has found that consumers are 11 times more likely to buy furniture if they’ve had the chance to see it in their home environments first.

Kramer, the CEO of Bitreel, thinks the pandemic has the potential to create a higher expectation for what online commerce ought to be like. “Just like with video chats, COVID has knocked people on the head and said, ‘This is a new way to deliver these experiences,’ ” he says.


Scott Kirsner can be reached at kirsner@pobox.com. Follow him on Twitter @ScottKirsner.