Customer experience is an ever-transforming arena in which organisations have to compete. This transformation has taken us from brick and mortar to today’s digital world, in an undeniably exciting journey for businesses and customers alike. But moving into the future, the revolution in customer experience promises to get more interesting than ever, and two technologies seem to be leading the way. One began as something that provided wiring instructions to Boeing factory workers; the other was the stuff of science-fiction. Now, they promise to create the next significant shift. No longer seen as mere gimmicks, companies are now looking at Augmented Reality (AR) and Virtual Reality (VR) as ways to differentiate the experience they offer customers in order to stay ahead of the competition. Whilst AR enables an augmented view of the physical world through computer-generated sensory input, VR allows users to interact with a computer-generated simulation in a seemingly real way. And the desire of companies to stay at the forefront of digital means that both are becoming new realities for customer experience. They are moving from “wow factor” offerings to “must have” ones.

And their potential is becoming increasingly clear:

In 2014, more than 864 million smartphones will have AR technology enabled on them, with around 30% using AR at least once a week. By 2017, it is expected that more than 2.5 billion mobile AR apps will be downloaded. Trends like this mean the total revenue generated by AR alone is forecasted to exceed $600 billion by 2016 (Momenta Group).

And VR is believed to have similar promise, something particularly emphasised by Facebook’s acquisition of Virtual Reality headset maker Oculus VR for $2billion earlier this year. Far from just science fiction, Mark Zuckerberg reminds us that, “the Internet was also once a dream, and so were computers and smartphones.”

So how exactly will AR and VR be utilised to create the next generation customer experience?

Supermarket giant Tesco is an example of a company aiming to harness the power of both “realities” in order to improve the experience of their customers. In the Augmented Reality arena, Tesco have developed an app which allows employees to compare the shelf in front of them with an ideal arrangement, so that they can better manage stock levels and consequently deliver an improved experience for shoppers. However, where Tesco are really dreaming big is in the world of virtual reality. The retail giant is seemingly looking to allow customers to recreate a virtual store, enabling them to experience the joys of a grocery shop from their sofa. All they’ll have to do is sit back and throw on their Oculus Rift virtual reality headset; something currently used to provide gamers with an immersive 3D experience. Headset on, customers will then enter a true to life Tesco store (without the people), free to browse and shop as they want: no hassle, no effort and no kids hitting you with their trolley.

And Tesco are not the only retail giant trying to catapult themselves into the next generation of customer experience. US outlets Wal-Mart and Target are also working to offer their customers the chance to experience new realities. Whether it be through AR apps, which provide in-store navigation and eliminate the shopper’s need to scour endless aisles to find what they want, or through virtual dressing rooms that allow customers to avoid the queues, these retailers are striving to stay ahead of the game in customer experience.

And mega-retailers are not the only businesses embracing the new technologies. Lego now offer customers the opportunity to hold up one of their boxes in-store and view a 3D preview of the finished product on a screen, allowing them to truly try before they buy. Volkswagen created a mobile app that made billboard adverts for their new Beetle come to life, driving users to additional web content, as well as product videos and coupons. And Hugo Boss implemented AR-enabled shop windows to entertain potential customers.

What these examples prove is that businesses are starting to take these technologies seriously, testing them and exploring the business benefits. And the potential benefits are plentiful; businesses can vastly improve engagement and interaction, ensure customer-centricity and convey innovation, as well as gaining detailed customer analytics and ultimately boosting sales. These technologies promise to provide businesses with a way to really capitalise on the increasingly mobile and tech-savvy customer. It seems it is only a matter of time before these benefits start to be recognised on a larger scale, at which point these “early adopters” will have an advantage in terms of organisational readiness and lessons learnt. AR and VR are clearly not just about fun anymore.

However, as with many new technologies, there are challenges involved. For example, some consider Augmented Reality too advanced for the current mobile technology available to customers, citing issues with GPS, connectivity and device software and design. Virtual Reality also has its sceptics, with some suggesting that the desire to have a virtual experience only pertains to the world of gaming. So these issues, combined with the obvious cost barrier, have meant some reluctance amongst senior management to incorporate AR and VR into their customer experience strategies.

But what is clear is that, for the innovators, Augmented and Virtual Reality technologies are no longer considered ideas dreamt up in science-fiction, and they are no longer just a marketing gimmick. They can provide tangible benefits to businesses. To many, they are the platforms of tomorrow; they are the next generation of customer experience.