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Beauty Tech Made Major Strides in 2017, and It's Only The Beginning

How soon can we expect our robot overlords to learn how to do a good cat-eye?
Nyx's virtual reality in-store experience. Photo: @nyxcosmetics/Instagram

Nyx's virtual reality in-store experience. Photo: @nyxcosmetics/Instagram

This was the year that invites to Virtual Reality Beauty Experiences, app download codes and online fitness platforms started piling up in my inbox. In 2017, you could ask Google Home to walk you through an Estée Lauder beauty routine or go shopping on Facebook with a L'Oréal bot. Soon, we'll all be using SmartMirrors to swipe on Kira Kira-ed lipstick and virtual bunny ears only visible through Augmented Reality glasses. Whether the result of a rushed arms race to keep up with Gen Z or in a competitive dash for the most innovative app, everyone from indie brands to the top beauty conglomerates has officially entered the future via one form or another of technology.

"The purchase is not the end-game anymore," L'Oréal's chief retail officer Marc-Alexandre Risch told WWD earlier this year. "It's about engagement with the brands… it's about the lifetime value of your customers." For the sake of that engagement, brands are incorporating technology that's either flashy or confusing, depending on who you ask. We turned to industry experts to weigh in on the best beauty tech advances of the past year and for a preview of how soon we can expect our robot overlords to learn how to do a good cat-eye.

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Augmented Reality

"Augmented reality has become very mainstream in the beauty industry," says Parham Aarabi, Founder and CEO of ModiFace. He would know, since ModiFace built the technology used for apps, websites and in-store experiences by every beauty brand from Sephora to CoverGirl. AR tech lets users try on virtual product by swiping a foundation shade or set of false eyelashes atop a selfie. Even if you're not the type of tech-savvy millennial to download an app like Sephora Virtual Artist, AR-enabled websites make it possible for you to try on virtual product via desktop. 

"On almost any Estée Lauder[-owned brand] website, including Bobbi Brown, Clinique and Smashbox, you can actually try product on, and that’s' powered by us," says Aarabi. The tech advancements, he says, have doubled conversions across Estée brands, a major advancement for a company doubling down on its digital business of late.

If conversion statistics alone aren't incentive enough for a beauty brand to adopt AR, there's also the ever-pressing need to keep up with competitors. "Every beauty brand now has deployed it or is thinking about deploying it," says Aarabi. "It's been very interesting to see just in one year how much transition there was from a novelty to almost a standard, necessary component." That means if you haven't swiped on a new hairstyle yet, you probably will in 2018: Aarabi predicts AR will transition deeper into the hair space in the coming year.

As AR goes mainstream, brands have begun to experiment with more creative uses. Makeup brush brand Real Techniques launched Winter Wondergames, a sort of Pokemon Go for beauty tools in which users roam the streets searching for virtually hidden makeup brushes and sponges, in Dec. 2017. Judging by the Instagram comments, the game had its share of technical difficulties and/or confused users. Still, a rep from the company says that over the span of three days, the game generated 21 million impressions and reached nearly 3 million individual users on Twitter.

Brands are also beginning to adopt AR-enabled mirrors, which let you virtually try on looks in-store. MAC (also an Estée Lauder-owned brand) introduced magic mirrors — powered by ModiFace, of course — in its US stores this year, with plans for a global roll-out in 2018. Customers can swipe on 29 custom eye looks, which a press release calls "an extremely smooth and accurate rendition that is often indistinguishable from the real-life application of the looks by a makeup artist." Of course, in a caustic twist, the real-life MAC makeup artist may be standing right next to you while you swipe.

Virtual Reality

Not to be confused with augmented reality, virtual reality places users in an entirely new world. (It's also the one with the headsets.) NYX Professional Makeup recently partnered with Samsung to launch an in-store VR experience, which will roll out to the brand's 42 retail stores in 2018. "You truly feel like you're transported to an intimate, one-on-one lesson with one of your favorite beauty gurus," says the company's VP of Digital, Mehdi Mehdi. "The in-store VR experience gave us an opportunity to bring a level of immersion that we've never been able to achieve before. When you visit one of our stores, the experience matters to us just as much as the product does."

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Mehdi is right: The experience of popping into a store to buy mascara and ending up in a VR headset is certainly a memorable one. Charlotte Tilbury even chose to launch her Scent of a Dream fragrance in a Samsung pop-up, where headsets transported users inside the Kate Moss-fronted commercial. Brands have thus far been faster to utilize augmented reality — the virtual try-on lends itself well to product shopping. Still, as more brands embrace VR and the gear that comes with it, expect to be able to virtually transport yourself to the Victoria's Secret Fashion Show or the latest Supreme line.

Volition Beauty. Photo: @volitionbeauty/Instagram

Volition Beauty. Photo: @volitionbeauty/Instagram

Tech-Enabled Beauty

Brandy Hoffman, co-founder of Volition, refers to the crowdsourced beauty brand as a "tech-enabled beauty company." Anyone can submit a beauty product idea on Volition's platform, where fans then vote on proposals like "Dual-Targeted Matcha Hair Mask" and "Sesame Exfoliating Bath Powder." If an idea gets enough support, the brand creates it in its labs and it could eventually end up on shelves in Sephora. Part of the business's success is that most customers find Volition via word of mouth, says Hoffman. "When someone has a product, they bring their community because they want to share what they're working on." It's a marriage of the oldest sales tactic in the world — buying from your friends — and the innovation that gets your friend's one-off idea into a Sephora.

Other brands let customers help out in smaller ways. Charlotte Tilbury asked her social media networks to name a new lipstick color and got 7,000 responses in the first hour. Tarte's Instagram followers got to name a palette. Hairstylist Jen Atkin has relied on social media for guiding the inspiration for new products and packaging for her hair-care brand, Ouai. "Authenticity is going to be critical [next year], and consumers want to take authenticity to the next level," says Hoffman. What's more authentic than buying a palette you've named yourself?

A Meitu phone. Photo: @meitumobile/Instagram

A Meitu phone. Photo: @meitumobile/Instagram

Tech That Does it For Us

Raise your hand if your one friend with Portrait Mode has become the group's unofficial photographer. We've transitioned away from photo editing and toward photos that look instantly Instagram-worthy, reality be damned. The New Yorker recently reported on Meitu, a Chinese company that began as a photo-editing app and now makes smartphones that ensure nips, tucks and proper lighting directly via the camera. In the piece, writer Jiayang Fan describes her attempts to get a selfie in China with an "old" camera: "But anytime I took out my iPhone 6 to take a selfie with someone, I was rebuffed. People would suspiciously ask what kind of camera it was before walking away with expressions ranging from offense to pity." Stateside, the iPhone X camera was even designed with selfies in mind. As more of us upgrade our phones in 2018, we may start looking less like ourselves and more like our FaceTuned influencers.

Data, Data, Data

When you share a selfie with an Estée website or tell a Madison Reed chatbot your preferred hair shade, it leaves individualized data in the hands of beauty brands. "I think AI for analyzing data will become a lot more prevailing," says Aarabi. "Often brands have a need for certain questions to be answered, like how do you analyze what people are buying or what shade people are trying on more often, and that's how AI will come into play. How do you analyze all the data you’ve captured, how do you make sense of it and come up with actionable conclusions?" Data analytics may not be consumer-facing, but you can see it in action when, moments after you've browsed a foundation, it's recommended to you via email or Facebook ad.

As beauty tech continues to charge forward, we're clinging to the golden rule put forth by Mehdi Mehdi: "I have a fundamental rule to never include technology just for technology's sake," he says. "There needs to be a reason for the tool to exist, in a way that helps the shopper learn something new, gain more information, or achieve a certain level of inspiration."

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