Augmented Reality (AR) has enabled companies to offer highly personalized, interactive experiences, making it possible to engage with customers on a whole new level. But the new technology also comes with a cost.
From Snapchat filters to virtual fashion try-ons, the last several years have seen augmented reality — or AR — shift from a niche technology into the mainstream. Customers can try on Gucci shoes from the comfort of their couch, see themselves in a new hairstyle with Amazon Salon (before actually getting the cut), support their favorite sports team, or even try out entirely digital outfits with AR overlays.
More than 100 million consumers used AR shopping tools in 2021, more than 200 million people use Snapchat’s AR filters every day, and the pandemic has only further accelerated these trends.
This growth has been a boon for brands. AR empowers companies to engage with customers on a whole new level, explore new advertising possibilities, boost online sales, reduce costly returns, and ultimately offer a more personalized, integrated user experience. But as with any new technology, AR also carries risk.
AR overlays are often used to alter a consumer’s appearance
This may seem harmless enough, but physical appearance is a key component of identity and as such it can have a substantial impact on psychological well-being. Studies have shown that virtually modifying appearance can provoke anxiety, body dysmorphia, and sometimes even motivate people to seek cosmetic surgery.
So how can companies responsibly make use of this new technology?
Addressing the risks associated with AR starts with understanding them. Our research explores how the use of AR tools can actually shift people’s core beliefs about themselves, leading to a phenomenon we call the “augmented self” — that is, a self-image that has been influenced by AR.
For some, we found that this augmented self threatens the existing sense of self, negatively impacting their psychological wellbeing. For others, it can offer hope that self-enhancement is possible (which isn’t necessarily better, as it can lead people to focus excessively on changing their appearances through makeup, new outfits, or more extreme solutions such as cosmetic surgery).
To better understand these effects, we ran a series of studies in which we compared people’s self-perception before and after using an AR makeup app. Prior research suggests that when there is a larger gap between people’s perceptions of their actual and ideal self-images, they feel more anxious, dissatisfied, and generally worse about themselves. So, how did AR impact this gap?
We found that the impact of using AR varied substantially depending on users’ baseline levels of self-esteem. Although intuition and prior evidence suggest that if you’re secure in yourself, you’re less likely to be affected by appearance-related stimuli, we found that in this context, the opposite was true:
Participants who reported higher initial levels of self-esteem experienced 44% larger ideal-actual gaps after using the AR app than after viewing their unmodified reflections, while participants with lower self-esteem reported 16% smaller ideal-actual gaps after using the AR mirror.
What drove these counterintuitive results? The AR experience showed the lower-self-esteem participants that with the makeup products they virtually tested, it would be possible to change their appearances, and therefore that the ideals they assumed to be unattainable might in fact be within reach. The app enabled these participants to visualize convincing alternatives to their current features, leading flaws that they might have previously perceived as innate and unsolvable to now seem like minor issues.
On the other hand, for the participants who were already happy with their appearances, seeing their faces with realistic modifications made them feel less certain about their natural looks, shaking their typical self-confidence. In a follow-up survey, we found that when the AR filter increased the gap between how participants wanted to look and how they felt they actually looked, it reduced their self-compassion and tolerance for their own physical flaws.
Clearly, AR experiences have the power to substantially impact how people feel about themselves — for better or worse. As such, technologists, business leaders, and policymakers all share a responsibility to understand and address the psychological effects of AR on consumers. Specifically, we have developed five actionable strategies to help firms maximize the benefits of these new technologies while minimizing their downsides: