Bridget Dolan and her team at Sephora’s Innovation Lab, based in San Francisco, were a year into developing a new virtual reality tool for the retailer’s mobile app when the technology used to power the experience saw a breakthrough.

“When it comes to augmented and virtual reality, it can only be successful if it’s truly useful,” said Dolan, Sephora’s vp of the Sephora Innovation Lab. “We weren’t interested in just buzzy. A lot of things like technical accuracy and timing had to come together, and there was a time last year when, during testing, we hit a tipping point.”

Sephora’s team and its technology provider, augmented reality platform ModiFace, had pushed facial recognition technology to a new point of sophistication. After months of development, the technology can break down one virtual makeup application into a step-by-step layering process, while maintaining critical accuracy and reaching mass scale.

In its mobile app, Sephora has fleshed out its augmented reality offerings with newly launched features. The Virtual Artist tutorial tool currently offers steps to perfecting a nighttime-perfect smoky eye, eyeliner three ways, brows three ways, contouring and highlighting. When in the tutorials, users see a video play in the bottom right of their screen that reflects their face shape and skin tone. As each step is completed, the product and instructions on how to apply it appear over their image.

The AR tool in the app also new features thousands of eyeshadow shades, as well as new “expert looks,” which feature full stylist looks at once.

Through the AR experiences, an “add to cart” option lets the testers dump every product that appears in the video into their mobile carts.

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The Virtual Artist tool in the Sephora app

“Our time, money, effort and energy goes into teaching clients,” said Dolan. “To achieve new looks, you need to try new products, and if we can make you feel confident, you’ll be more engaged overall. It’s really about that halo effect, and we’re seeing sales through the app.”

Sephora’s mobile and digital strategy is built around the idea that when people know how to use a beauty product, and what tools are needed to complete a look, they’ll be more likely to buy it. They’re far from the only beauty company to realize that augmented reality could be the answer to selling beauty products online, where customers are typically expected to make decisions off of a few photos. Brands like CoverGirl, Rimmel London, Shiseido and OPI have launched augmented reality apps to let customers try on products using their phones.

“Beauty brands are constantly faced with the challenge of creating a connection between physical products and customers,” said James McCrae, head of digital strategy at Blue Fountain Media. “However, brands should only commit to something like AR if they’re going to keep investing.”

But virtual product try-on only solves for one problem: choosing the right product. Dolan saw an opportunity to teach customers how to apply them in order to drive more purchases.

“About two-and-a-half years ago, we made a very basic initial version of a tutorial that had two steps: showing where blush should go, depending on your face shape, and how to apply it,” said Parham Aarabi, CEO of Modiface. “Sephora saw this preliminary version and its potential, and ran with it.”

Aarabi said that typically, ModiFace is tasked with pushing brand partners to try new ideas, but that Sephora understands the pain points of its business and what to offer customers. Because of that, Sephora’s team of makeup artists and engineers worked with ModiFace’s team of makeup artists and engineers, as well as scientists, to develop the new technology at a faster pace.

“Brands need a champion who has the vision and who sees the long-term possibility — that’s Bridget and her team,” said Aarabi. “They’re really invested in getting the augmented reality right.”

“This could be a fluffy additional app, but the time and energy it has taken to make this complete is necessary for actual utility. Otherwise it’s just fun,” Dolan said.