AR is a “Covid-advantaged” sector in that its benefits align with distanced and sheltered-in life. For example, its ability to add real-life interactivity to eCommerce has gained traction in 2020. And because it piggybacks on ubiquitous hardware, its delivery is in bits rather than atoms.

That advantage is generally felt throughout the software world, especially for anything that supports digital communications (Zoom) or entertainment/escapism (gaming). Of course the same can’t be said for many segments of the economy that conversely require delivering atoms.

One of those challenged sectors is brick & mortar small businesses (SMBs) that serve local communities. Restaurants of course are particularly hard-hit, depending on where they are. They continue to scramble to implement digital tools to counterbalance the impact of lockdowns.

The question is if any of the “Covid-advantaged” sectors (like software) can bring their inherent benefits to “Covid-disadvantaged” sectors (like restaurants). One example is how order-ahead and curbside pickup systems are helping to keep restaurants & retailers humming along.

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Dash Of Interactivity 

Beyond these well-known areas of SMB digital transformation, there are less obvious evolutions. Ten months into various stages of lockdown, we continue to see new and creative ways to empower local retailers and restaurant owners to engage sheltered and distanced customers.

The latest comes from Uptown Network, which launched a digital gift-giving format for restaurants. Working with Rock Paper Reality, it offers restaurants a way to offer gift cards to their customers that feature AR-enabled opening experiences to infuse a dash of interactivity.

Specifically, restaurant customers scan a code from restaurant signage or marketing materials. That lets them browse menus and choose dishes or items to gift, then send a personalized message. The recipient opens the gift through a mobile AR experience (see below).

This has a few advantages. For one, it can be delivered digitally so the recipient gets it right away, rather than a physical card by mail. More importantly, the experience takes away the impersonal elements of digital gift cards today — such as an Amazon gift card that lands in your inbox.

Future Meals

One point of value in Uptown’s new program is that gift cards can be a way for restaurants to alleviate cash flow shortages as both virus upticks and cold weather limit their service options. Selling future meals is one way to do that. And the AR gift-opening experience differentiates it.

To make back-end integration easier, AR gifting can be integrated with a business’s POS system. This engenders some optionality for restaurants, as the choices they offer to gift-givers can align with existing channels. That could be food delivery, gift cards, or whatever they already offer.

Uptown Network is launching the program under its “Bring Your Own Menu” (BYOM) platform. This equips restaurants with QR-code activated digital menus, meaning Uptown has a distribution network in place for AR gifting. Two million people have used BYOM since its May launch.

Beyond restaurants, the AR-gifting format could have applicability in several verticals and product categories. Just as gifted future-dining makes sense for satisfying consumers’ pent-up demand to get back to nightlife, the concept could resonate in similar spending categories like travel.

Battle Tested 

Circling back to the concept of using emerging technologies to help local businesses, AR continues to find its ways on that list. As we’ve examined, Niantic offers local businesses a way to boost foot traffic by establishing themselves as in-game waypoints in Pokémon Go.

AR product visualization also continues to counteract the distanced effects of retail lockdowns, bringing more real-life interactivity to eCommerce, as noted. This could sustain as consumers pick up new habits and as “touchless” retail is infused with AR and other digital interactivity.

Meanwhile, local businesses continue to scramble to survive, which includes picking up new digital tools. Without marginalizing the pain endured by many of these businesses that don’t make it, one silver lining will be battle-tested digital savvy for those that do, priming them for the next era.

Just as necessity is the mother of invention, we’ll continue to see creative applications of emerging tech to help SMBs through rough times. Once they develop a taste and competency for new digital tools, they’ll gain skills that give them a competitive edge in the post-Covid world.

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