Beauty shoppers scrolling their phones looking for a new lipstick shade on Sephora’s mobile app know the drill. First, you select the brand and shade you’re interested in trying, then you position the phone in front of your face. Through facial recognition and augmented reality technology, a phantom lipstick will pop onto your lips. With a tap, you can send the shade to your mobile cart or swear off shades of coral forever.
Sephora is just one in many beauty companies investing in augmented reality to allow customers to try on makeup at home. Brands like L’Oréal, Maybelline, CoverGirl, Rimmel London, Cargo, Smashbox and Estée Lauder have all launched apps with virtual try-on. From lipstick shades, the technology has since been extended to account for other products including foundations, bronzers and eye makeup, demonstrating what methods of contouring or cat eye would look like on users.
It’s a fragmented experience across brand apps, outside of Sephora, which offers virtual try-ons of over 8,000 products from different brands, excluding the drugstore names. But there’s a common denominator unifying the separate AR beauty apps: the technology provider, ModiFace.
“Beauty brands have seemingly had a realization: This is critical, and we have to have it,” said Parham Aarabi, ModiFace’s CEO. “There was an explosion in adoption and expectations in the past two years, and so we’ve been working to standardize this technology across the industry. It’s moving very quickly.”
Today, ModiFace powers the AR experiences of 84 beauty brands, which can run in mobile apps, on e-commerce sites, in stores or all three. Its internal stats claim its technology can increase time spent on mobile apps six times over and double conversions.
Virtual tutorials have become a common digital tactic in a beauty brand’s online arsenal, and stakes are high. On top of driving conversions through shoppable AR, these apps can collect valuable consumer data, improving personalized shopping experiences and informing brands on product performance. That value proposition, along with the complex technology powering it, is how ModiFace plans to position itself as the universal platform for virtual beauty.
Building a go-to partner
Since launching in 2006, ModiFace’s technology has advanced to be able to display not just color cosmetics, but also foundations, eyeliners and mascaras, as well as different skin-care products and hair color applications. In addition to a standard try-on experience, ModiFace has built live streaming integrations, a Facebook Messenger tool and a live tutorial display that breaks a complex makeup routine into individual steps.
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“This isn’t technology that you can run without it being perfect,” said Ophelia Ceradini, vp of the digital technology and innovation group at The Estée Lauder Companies, which uses ModiFace across all of its brands. “We had looked for an AR partner for about 10 years before finding one that was suitable.”
Today, brands pay ModiFace around $200,000 to $500,000 per year to use its technology, with the cost depending on the number of platforms (mobile, online or in-store) within which they want to use it. Whenever there’s an integration of a new category — like a hair dye or mascara, or a tool, like live streaming — it’s applied to all brand partners; there’s no pay-to-play in terms of technology advancements.
Competitors in the virtual beauty and retail spaces, including YouCam, MemoMi and Holition, are offering similar propositions to brands, but they tend to gravitate toward one platform, such as in-store or mobile.
“For this type of technology, a common platform helps with usage, trial and error, and a seamless experience, so customers can understand it,” said Kelly Jo Sands, evp of marketing technology at the data-driven marketing agency Ansira. “A standard starting point makes it easier for brands to turn it into their own.”
Points of differentiation
Brands that use ModiFace’s technology are working directly with platform representatives, similar to those at companies like Facebook, to perfect their experiences and make them different from the next brand’s. Product developers are actually on the front lines of AR development, working with ModiFace to concoct virtual versions of their makeup formulas, so that a red lipstick on a Smashbox app isn’t different from a red on a Mac app.
At Estée Lauder, AR experiences are live across all of its brands and in all of its regions. To make sure there’s a differentiated experience for customers, the Estée Lauder team is involved with every new product and tool integration. There’s a focus put on different products at each of its brands, depending on how customers shop. For the Estée Lauder brand, the team perfected the texture of its different foundations in AR. At Mac, the emphasis was on lipsticks. At Smashbox, a brand used mainly by professional makeup artists, entire makeup looks were built to show a final effect.
“Users expect to have this AR experience. It’s not a behavior that’s going away,” said Ceradini. “What differentiates us is the quality of the technology, the accuracy of facial shape, the accuracy of how we match the product color and then how we continuously adapt this experience.”
Depending on the level of investment, a brand partner can put into ModiFace’s technology, the more they can do. While a single, standalone brand may just integrate whatever new tools ModiFace develops, a company like Sephora is guiding that development to shape its experience. In March, the retailer launched its full Virtual Artist experience in its app, which let users build looks, save the steps and buy the products.
“Companies like ours need a champion who has the vision, who sees the long term. That’s Bridget [Dolan, head of Sephora’s Innovation Lab] and her team,” said Aarabi. “They’re really invested in getting the augmented reality right. When we launched the Virtual Artist, it had been in development for two years. That shows the progress we’ve made.”
While that work by Sephora pushes ModiFace’s technology in a way that benefits all brands, Sephora remains the leader in adoption.
Reaching the personalized platform
With augmented reality integration happening on the phone, online and at store level, there’s potential for this experience to become as commonplace for beauty brands as an Instagram strategy is for fashion brands.
“Standardized technology will make AR seamless, increasing adoption,” said Sands. “The beauty category is wide-reaching in terms of potential customers, and if brands can expedite the interaction — getting people to try products — that goes beyond kitschiness. This has a longer shelf life than most flashy tech.”
For Aarabi, the next milestone for ModiFace is connecting the dots between the technology and the data that it can collect. If a user builds a makeup look in AR, the app can learn what types of products and color shades work for them, what brands they like and what categories they’re most interested in, opening the door for personalized online storefronts and messages. From a product development standpoint, if there’s a single product that’s being tried on then not purchased, the team can make changes.
“This is going to be great data for us to have: what colors are people trying on, how things are performing, even makeup trends by location,” said Ceradini. “This is all on the table for us to take advantage of.”