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“This icon is now the most powerful icon in online retail,” Shopify CEO Tobi Lütke declared on Twitter Monday.
But the head of the Canadian e-commerce giant wasn’t talking about his own company’s trademark green bag logo.
Rather, the strange little transparent cube icon that appeared in Lütke’s tweet is actually the “AR glyph” designed by Apple to indicate when iPhone users can launch an augmented reality (AR) experience on their phone.
AR technology has been around for a while, but mostly in gimmick form. (Think of those Snapchat filters that make your face look like a dog’s.)
But Shopify has been betting that as the technology improves, augmented reality is going to be a key tool for online shopping, and this week that vision took a big step toward becoming a reality.
The big idea is that product photos for online shopping are OK, but for lots of merchandise, it’s tough to get a feel for them just by looking at a flat picture. But by using augmented reality, your smartphone can create a digital simulation of what a product will look like, right in your home.
If you’re buying, say, a wingback chair for your living room, even with product photos and measurements, it’s hard to visualize whether the chair will fit into a certain space, and how it’ll complement the rug and the sofa you already have.
But using the smartphone camera, Apple’s AR technology can now project a 3D digital image of the chair into your living room, allowing you to move around and view it from all angles.
This week Apple pushed out iOS 12, the most up-to-date operating system for most iPhones. The new operating system includes a relatively obscure set of programmer tools that allow developers to more easily create AR experiences.
Shopify was already excited about this technology in May, when the Ottawa-based e-commerce company held its annual Unite partner conference in Toronto.
Starting this year, merchants who use Shopify to handle their e-commerce systems can now upload 3D models of their products and embed them in webpages, and Shopify is helping connect merchants to tech vendors who can build those 3D models based on photos and measurements.
Shopify’s head of augmented and virtual reality, Daniel Beauchamp, did a demonstration of the technology onstage during the keynote presentation, and later the same day Beauchamp and Lütke held a media photo-op where they demonstrated the technology to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.
“And if I were to buy a pair of socks, could I see them on me?” Trudeau asked Beauchamp.
In fact, augmented reality cannot do socks right now.
Clothes are a particularly difficult challenge because they’re flexible.
It’s one thing to project a 3D model of a hard object onto a flat surface like a floor or a table, but accurately displaying clothing on a human body is tough, and correctly modelling how a sweater or jacket will stretch and tug as you move your arms is even more difficult.
“We’ll probably get there within the next few years,” Beauchamp told the Financial Post.
Another big problem with augmented reality until now is that people could really only use it in apps specifically coded with that function, which is why it was good for Snapchat, but not good for shopping.
But in iOS 12 you can launch an augmented reality feature right through the default Safari web browser any time you see that transparent cube glyph.
One of the early adopters for this was Pure Cycles, a California bicycle company that uses Shopify for their online shopping services. Log onto their website with an iPhone and in just a couple of taps, you can view a digital model of their “Urban Commuter” bike sitting in front of you.
Co-founder Jordan Schau said that since launching the AR feature this week, he’s seen tweets from all over the world.
“People from all over the world are playing with our bike in their living room, which is pretty cool,” he said.
“I do think it’s a game-changer for shopping. I think it’s going to be the big next thing, and I’m excited to see it.”
One of the bigger surprises at today’s big Amazon event was something the company didn’t announce. After a couple of years of speculation that the company was working on its own version of the HomePod and Google Max, we still don’t have a truly premium Echo.
That’s due, in part, to the fact that Amazon is already leaning fairly heavily on hardware partnerships with companies like Sony to offer people a premium Alexa-enabled smart speaker. But today, we got a better glimpse at how it plans to take on such products. And frankly, it’s a bit of fresh air.
Amazon’s already laid the groundwork here. The first step in the plan is seeding the Echo and Alexa into as many rooms in as many homes as possible. Check and double-check, thanks in no small part to the super-low-cost Echo Dot. Today, the company demonstrated how those pieces can be turned into something more.
After the event, we were ushered into a handful of fake rooms at Amazon HQ, designed to show the new products in their native habitat. As I stood in front of a couch flanked by two of the new Echo Dots, the company blared some Ed Sheeran song (again, not my choice), with the devices splitting up the left and right stereo track.
The sound was loud and decent, but couldn’t compete with the likes of the HomePod. No problem, though. Toss in the new Sub and pick up the Link Amp. Boom, you’ve got your very own modular home stereo system. It’s a compelling à la carte approach to the system that puts Amazon in competition with the likes of Sonos, but more importantly, makes existing Echos the centerpiece of a multi-room home speaker system.
An Amazon clock? A microwave? None of these bizarre additions mattered much to my colleague, Matt Burns. The Link, on the other hand, as he put it, “I almost bought a $600 device a few weeks ago just to get optical out.” For $199 or $299, he can get his hands on the Link or Link Amp, respectively.
Instead of shelling out $349 or $400 for the HomePod or Home Max, you can create your own version piece by piece. Granted, all of the parts could easily end up costing you more than either option, but there’s a lot to be said for the ability to mix and match and customize on a per-room basis.
This approach marks the single most compelling revelation in a day jam-packed with Amazon news. It will be fascinating to see how Apple and Google respond.
Check out our full coverage from the event here.
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WASHINGTON — Canada and the United States showed scant sign of being close to striking a deal on revamping the trilateral NAFTA that underpins $1.2 trillion in annual trade, as Canadian sources played down talk of a U.S. quota on autos.
Canada says it does not feel bound by a U.S.-imposed deadline for the end of September to conclude a deal.
While multiple deadlines have been and gone during the more than year-long negotiations to renew NAFTA, pressure on Canada to agree to a deal is growing, partly to push it through Congress before Mexico’s new government takes office on Dec. 1.
Trump, who struck a side-deal with third NAFTA member Mexico last month, has threatened to exclude Canada if necessary. He also warned of tariffs on Canadian autos exports.
Canadian Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland has held talks with U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer in each of the last four weeks and on Thursday opened another round.
A senior Canadian labor leader briefed on the negotiations told Reuters that an immediate breakthrough was unlikely.
“We’ve made progress according to the briefing I got but of course there is no agreement and there are some predictable issues that need to be resolved,” said Hassan Yussuff, president of the Canadian Labour Congress.
Yussuff said a standoff over how to settle disputes was “a critical issue.” The two sides are also at odds over U.S. demands for more access to Canada’s dairy market.
The uncompromising tone by Trump, who came to power last year threatening to tear up NAFTA unless major changes were made to a pact he blames for the loss of manufacturing jobs, has stoked market fears about the potential damage to three nations’ highly integrated economies.
The Globe and Mail newspaper on Thursday reported that U.S. negotiators want Ottawa to agree to capping its auto exports to the United States at 1.7 million vehicles a year, something that Canadian industry sources dismissed as unacceptable.
“Canada absolutely … would not agree to a self-imposed quota,” said a source familiar with the talks.
Separately, a Canadian source directly familiar with the negotiations said “we have not discussed a cap.”
As part of the bilateral deal between Mexico and the U.S., the Mexican side agreed to limit its exports of autos and SUVs.
Freeland plans to return to Canada on Thursday ahead of a two-day meeting of female foreign ministers she is co-hosting in Montreal on Friday and Saturday. Next week she will be in New York for a United Nations session.