Big Tech has big dreams for AR, but can the tech reach beyond our living rooms?

A recent test of an Alexa-enabled smart contact lens shows promise, but experts are hesitant to predict widespread adoption.
article cover

Mojo Vision

· 5 min read

Augmented reality retail experiences are easily accessible today by any consumer with a smartphone, from furniture placement to testing lipstick shades. By many indications, AR is more than a Big Tech buzzword: some estimates suggest the global market will be worth over $97 billion by 2028. And it’s not just Meta and Apple who are betting on an AR-enabled future.

In 2020, Amazon’s Alexa Fund invested in smart lens-maker Mojo Vision, and last week, the pair announced a test integration with the Alexa Shopping List in which lens-wearers can access and interact with their list hands-free while in the grocery store.

Even with the new use case, some experts are hesitant to predict a future in which computer-clad shoppers stroll grocery aisles while using eye movement to scroll through coupons.

“On the consumer side, we’re not expecting retail,” Shahd ElAshri, a research analyst specializing in consumer devices at International Data Corporation Canada, told Retail Brew. “We don’t think people are going to jump at the idea of wearing glasses while they’re shopping.”

An uncertain landscape

Consumer analyst Carolina Milanesi said that while AR hardware has use cases in a retail setting, she’s skeptical that consumers will find value outside of the home.

Technology that enables users to test out potential items of clothing together, or to visualize sizing and get more information about a product while shopping from home, is extremely valuable, she explained. But from an in-store perspective, she doesn’t see as much value for consumers. “I feel you’re starting to think more about a solution searching for a problem,” she said.

  • For her part, ElAshri predicts that, partly because of consumer hesitancy, AR applications in retail will continue to be experiences—like testing out makeup via smartphone—not hardware, such as glasses or contact lenses.

The content problem: AR has a problem that neither well-trained consumers nor smart glasses can fix: there isn’t enough content for hardware users to engage with, even if the hardware was on the market.

“Let’s say the Mojo Lens was available today…where in your world, when in your world would you be using it?” asked Tuong Nguyen, senior principal analyst at Gartner. “Almost nowhere, because there’s not enough content. It’s like having an internet with three websites.”

For AR hardware to truly add value for users, the technology can’t exist in a silo, Nguyen said. That means a breadth and depth of content, created by many organizations around the world, so that one piece of hardware is useful for interaction with more than one brand, or more than one store in a mall, he said.

  • “[Augmented reality is] actually a collection of technologies that, when you assemble them in a certain way, gives you an experience…known as AR,” Nguyen explained. “The endpoint computing device, in a sense, doesn’t matter.”
Retail news that keeps industry pros in the know

Retail Brew delivers the latest retail industry news and insights surrounding marketing, DTC, and e-commerce to keep leaders and decision-makers up to date.

The very high price of creating AR hardware creates a conflict as companies struggle with whether use cases or consumer excitement should come first, ElAshri said. “It’s a vicious circle. It’s like the chicken or the egg,” she added.

That’s not to say that Mojo Vision and Amazon’s recent test case is too much, too soon. “This is helpful to drive the next era of innovation” Nguyen added. “Let all the creators, the creative developers out there know that, ‘Hey, look, here’s something on the horizon that you can work towards.’”

Big Tech’s big bet: Saratoga, California-based Mojo Vision has been developing a smart contact lens since 2015. Steve Sinclair, its VP of product and marketing, said we’re much closer than most people realize to using AR hardware in our everyday lives.

“We have more years behind us than we have ahead of us. We have the prototype,” Sinclair told Retail Brew. “It’s not a decade away, but it’s not next year.”

  • Mojo Vision CEO Drew Perkins tested out the lens in-eye in June 2022. In prior iterations, testers simply held the lens up to their eye.

For its part, Amazon has long been invested in what it calls “ambient intelligence”—technology that fades into the background, allowing users to look away from their screens.

“Customers appreciate the ability to interact with Alexa in a variety of environments hands-free, and we see the potential for this to translate in a retail and shopping context,” Ramya Reguramalingam, director and GM of Alexa Shopping List at Amazon, told Retail Brew via email.

A promising progression: According to Milanesi, who herself got to see “a very early prototype” of the Mojo Lens, Amazon’s investment in and collaboration with Mojo Vision’s hardware is a logical progression for the tech giant, given its other enterprise projects.

  • She pointed to the Alexa Glasses—prescription glasses with the voice AI built in—as an early iteration. “[With the Mojo Lens integration,] I think you’re starting to think about what those glasses could become,” she said.—MA
Retail news that keeps industry pros in the know

Retail Brew delivers the latest retail industry news and insights surrounding marketing, DTC, and e-commerce to keep leaders and decision-makers up to date.