In the right hands, augmented-reality technology could probably change the world. So far, the ability to computer-generate images into our real world has at least revolutionized the task of trying on makeup. Beauty apps have embraced distinctly modern technology that allows users to layer everything from blush to hair color atop a live selfie. Picture a Snapchat where every filter is a different type of makeup… and then you can buy the makeup. It’s a great way to kill time at Penn Station. But is it making anyone any money? Makeup and beauty.
Leading beauty companies like Sephora, L’Oréal, and Smashbox all turn to tech company ModiFace for the facial-recognition technology that knows exactly where to place your virtual eyeshadow. That puts ModiFace CEO Parham Aarabi in a unique position to understand just how well beauty apps are working. “Many years ago, the concerns would be ‘Would this drive sales?,’ "Would people use it?,’ ‘Would people share?’” says Aarabi. “But now, these questions have clear answers, and the only concern is ‘How quickly can we get this on our site or in our app?’” According to TechCrunch, brands pay from $200,000 to $500,000 a year for virtual makeover technology courtesy of ModiFace.
“We see consistently increased sales and time spent/engagement figures,” says Aarabi. Without giving away specifics about any one app, he does cite a compelling overall success rate. “Overall, the average figure we see across apps is an 80 percent increase in conversions (a.k.a. product purchases) and 120 percent increase in time spent browsing the app,” he tells me.
If you’ve noticed that many beauty apps work the same way, blame Aarabi. While he developed the technology as a program to read lips from a distance, he founded ModiFace with only the beauty industry in mind. He tells me the company has “nearly 90” beauty brand partners — up from 55 partners from when TechCrunch profiled the brand in 2015.
But according to Linda Smith, CEO of try-on technology company FaceCake, “Augmented reality for augmented reality’s sake is not sustainable. It needs to have a real purpose.” Unlike the branded apps that claim their true purpose is consumer education or product awareness, Smith has no qualms about saying her apps are designed for straight-up shopping.
Makeup collection and beauty room
I hesitate to introduce you to GlamScout, an app that breaks down the products behind popular celebrity beauty looks and then uses augmented reality to let users swipe on Chrissy Teigen’s highlighter. Not only does it undercut a beauty writer’s bread and butter by telling users who wore what shade of lipstick where, but it also lets you choose between prestige or mass-market products to get the celebrity’s look, and then spend hours applying it to your face while watching reruns of The Great British Baking Show. The only thing it can’t do is let you feel the difference between Shiseido and CoverGirl foundation.
The shopping ethos behind the Scout family of apps (GlamScout, ShadeScout, and ShadeScout Nails ) also means Smith is armed with data about which celebrities and brands most motivate an actual beauty purchase. The most popular celebrities on GlamScout are diverse across career, age, race, and style. Top performers Kendall Jenner and Gigi Hadid are perhaps to be expected, but users’ favorites also include Kristen Stewart, Zendaya, Jennifer Lopez, Demi Lovato, Rihanna, and Brie Larson. The diversity makes a certain sense: If technology is allowing us to try on anyone’s style from the couch, why not see if you look better as J. Lo or Brie Larson?
After the Oscars, the GlamScout team knew exactly who wore it best. “We knew Chrissy Teigen was probably going to trend, but Emma Roberts’s lipstick has been the most popular,” says Smith. (Roberts’s choice of a cool blue-red lip meant three popular product buys: Bite Beauty’s Lush Lip Tint in Cherry, Rouge Dior Lipstick in 999, and Pixi Beauty’s Mattelustre Lipstick in Classic Red.) Overall engagement is over four minutes per session and an average click-through to purchase per user of 7 percent — numbers the beauty app experts at ModiFace tell me are fairly standard. Users average 20 actions per session, which I can attest to after a rapid-fire toggling of Oscars beauty choices.
Even better, it’s not just the prized millennial demographic that has embraced virtual makeup. “We see some users who are reticent at the makeup counter,” says Smith. “I think the over-35 group might be a little less likely to go to a retail store and actually experiment with the latest trends in front of someone, but we’ve found they certainly still like to do it.”
But even millennial shoppers are still more likely to buy makeup in stores, according to a report commissioned by the app Perfect365. (The technology behind Perfect365 was originally conceived as an in-camera filter for Samsung. In-app cameras can sometimes leave me looking like Steve Bannon, but my selfies on Perfect365’s camera were works of art.) The report claims that millennials have an “inherent skepticism and need for instant satisfaction,” which means we’re most suited to the Sephora-esque in-store testing model. Sixty-five percent of millennial women have purchased makeup via smartphone, and augmented reality’s try-before-you-buy technology is on the frontier of that platform.
If the goal of “education” is to be trusted, branded apps may not be too bothered about whether you’re actually buying online. In a recent review of Sephora Virtual Assistant, Lifehacker’ s Claire Lower pronounced the app pretty much fine. “I didn’t love it so much that I felt compelled to purchase anything,” she wrote. “It was fun though, in that Snapchat sort of way.”
That may be exactly how Sephora wants her to feel. “Virtual Artist is meant to complement the in-store shopping experience,” Bridget Dolan, VP of innovation at Sephora, tells me. “Clients use Virtual Artist to pre-shop for products before they visit the store, as well as select products to purchase online, with confidence that the shades are right for them.” Whether or not a customer buys something via the app, it’s certainly a win for Sephora if you spend 10 minutes getting excited about new lipstick shades. Next time you pass a Sephora, maybe you’ll want to go inside and try it in person. And who among us leaves Sephora empty-handed?
Some branded apps, like Clairol MyShade and Benefit’s desktop Brow Genie application, really do seem practical and, dare I say, educational. The at-home hair-color market is rife with customers who’ve misread the box and ended up ash brown instead of chestnut. “The biggest barrier to trying at-home color is getting the shade wrong,” says Heather Carruthers, Clairol’s VP of global and US marketing. MyShade is able to take into account your starting color and show more realistic results and personalized recommendations. In the five months since its launch, the app has been downloaded over 250,000 times, with users trying on 12 million shades.
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Even if you don’t have specific beauty dilemmas to address, I highly recommend you spend five minutes with Benefit Brow Genie. The company has cleverly removed barriers to entry like downloading an app (have to be in a good mood) or a creating an email account (pass). Simply upload a photo of yourself and then learn, for example, that your eyebrows are a quarter-inch away from “ideal” and, oddly, too low on your face. The site then offers a few innocuous recommendations, like a $24 brow-shaping gel. Whether or not you buy it, at least you’ve learned 1) something to take to your next threading appointment and 2) what you’d look like with higher brows.
Virtual makeover technology may take some getting used to. But between its convenience and the sheer willpower of the beauty industry, we’ll all be app-testing hair colors before long. “Women who shop aren’t looking for augmented reality, they’re looking for a specific color of eyeshadow,” says Linda Smith. Thanks to the ever-innovating beauty industry, the combination of both might just cost you the price of a new palette.