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:
1. Don’t promote unrealistic beauty standards
Instead of promoting unattainable beauty standards, firms should empower consumers by highlighting that certain transformations are unrealistic. For example, Dove’s “No Digital Distortion” Mark and “Selfie Talk” initiatives focus on raising awareness around when images have been edited, and on educating young people and parents about the harms of unrealistic imagery.
While these campaigns are focused on static images, AR providers can use them as inspiration to develop similar practices tailored to the more immersive, real-time experience of AR. For example, brands could develop interactive visualizations that depict the step-by-step process of augmentation to make it clearer exactly how AR is modifying the consumer’s appearance. In addition, brands should ensure that they do not use AR to promote unattainable or unhealthy beauty standards, such as infantilized or excessive slimming filters.
2. Enable self-selected customization
Our research illustrates how AR experiences can have very different effects on different people. In light of this, companies should empower users to choose the level and types of augmentation with which they are most comfortable. For example, our research suggests that high-self-esteem consumers might prefer subtler, more nuanced augmentation in which AR features feel temporary and less consequential, so their “real” self is still front and center. On the other hand, consumers with lower levels of self-esteem may prefer a wider range of augmentation, with more substantial changes and room for extensive experimentation.
To achieve this, firms will have to invest in highly skilled UX and development teams to integrate customization capabilities into their AR apps and websites. For example, MaxFactor Virtual Artist analyses users’ facial features via webcam or an uploaded image, provides personalized recommendations, and allows consumers to select the types of makeup looks they’re interested in before displaying AR overlays to show how they would look with those different styles. The ability to specify aspects such as whether they’re looking for a casual look or something more dramatic, or if they want makeup focused on the lips or on the eyes, enables users to self-select the type of experience that works best for them.
Importantly, while our research focused on the impact of self-esteem on consumers’ AR experiences, most firms won’t have access to their customers’ psychological states (nor should they). As such, in most cases, brands should avoid attempting to segment customers themselves, and should instead invest in solutions where consumers can gravitate towards their preferred options.
3. Encourage positive self-affirmations
In situations where the entire value of the product is that it enhances the user’s appearance (e.g. fashion, makeup, etc.), firms can mitigate the negative impact on self-image by explicitly celebrating their customers’ real selves, and by proactively providing positive affirmations for people to tell themselves. Studies have shown that stating positive beliefs about yourself can make you feel better when your sense of self is being threatened, and so firms can boost their customers’ wellbeing by inviting them to practice these self-affirmations. As part of their “Don’t Change You. Change Your Bra!” campaign, for instance, clothing brand Aerie encourages customers to write positive messages of self-affirmation while in the dressing room, making an often-stressful experience a little more comfortable. Similar initiatives could help AR users defend against the harms of the augmented self.
For example, if an app overlays AR features onto users’ faces, it could simultaneously share a message (whether subtly or explicitly) that would remind users of their self-worth or encourage them to create natural looks that do not significantly transform their appearances. MaxFactor Virtual Artist explicitly promotes natural looks as part of its customer experience, and it consistently frames its recommendations in a very positive light, rather than by shaming consumers. Other brands should follow suit in ensuring AR filters are accompanied by positive, affirming language around users’ natural appearances.
4. Acknowledge and address mental health risks
No technology is perfect — and AR is no exception. While companies should do everything they can to reduce the potential for harm, it’s equally critical to proactively acknowledge and address the risks that will inevitably accompany their products. This starts with education. Recognizing what AR is (a convincing visual modification of physical reality) and how it can be harmful should become part of standard media literacy training, and brands should do their part to promote and/or develop educational initiatives designed to mitigate these risks as part of their CSR efforts.
In addition, AR developers should collaborate with experts from other domains such as psychology, human-computer interaction, consumer behavior, and mental health to address potential psychological risks in advance. For instance, every filter offered on Facebook goes through an internal approval to scan for potential issues such as hate speech or nudity. To increase transparency and minimize harm to the end user, these types of processes should be expanded to include checks for unhealthy or unrealistic beauty standards, and they should be adopted by any company that offers AR filters.
Finally, regulation will also be an important component in the effort to address the risks associated with new AR tools. Norway, for example, passed a law requiring influencers to label their social media content if it has been visually edited. Policymakers around the world should work with business leaders and technologists to find ways to develop similar laws covering AR.
5. Co-create a code of ethics
Most importantly, as AR’s unintended consequences — whether positive or negative — continue to come to light, brands must work together with regulators and other industry stakeholders to develop (and implement) a clear code of ethics around how to responsibly deploy immersive technologies.
While much is yet to be determined, there are two components we believe are crucial to the ethical deployment of appearance-altering products: First, visual modifications must be clearly labelled, so that consumers can easily distinguish real features from those that have been augmented. And second, as with risks associated with any sort of product, brands should explicitly specify the potentially harmful effects of their products on users’ psychological wellbeing (though substantial further research will be required to determine the specific practices that might be best suited to do that).
Further developing these sorts of standards will only be possible through intentional, cross-disciplinary collaboration between both public and private stakeholders. There are already several public initiatives focused on dealing with the ethical and societal consequences of AR that brands can consider working with: The World Economic Forum recently launched its Global Future Council on Augmented and Virtual Reality, while the UK Parliament created a Committee on Immersive and Addictive Technologies.
But these are still early days. Policymakers and researchers are hungry for data-driven insights from commercial stakeholders, and brands that are already implementing AR are in the best position to provide that critical information and on-the-ground perspective, as well as to demonstrate ethical technology development in action. It’s up to the people building and selling these technologies to support these wide-ranging efforts, and to create a framework for ethical deployment going forward.
AR has opened up a whole new world of consumer experiences. But with that new opportunity comes new risk, and organizations must be proactive about addressing the unforeseen challenges that go along with augmenting a person’s sense of self. To create truly meaningful AR experiences — and to ensure customers aren’t harmed in the process — brands must deploy these technologies thoughtfully, responsibly, and with a constant focus on how they might impact consumers’ mental wellbeing.