Augmented reality: Gimmick or great blend of engagement and utility?by
13th May 2010
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As another augmented reality campaign is launched, Christiano De Abreu asks if there is any substance behind the hype.
It’s hard to escape the increasing hype surrounding augmented reality (AR). With new software appearing from all angles, the idea of being able to blend the real-world and interactive elements is intriguing at the very least. This technology is developing rapidly and attracting a lot of attention from marketers and brands alike. Only yesterday there was another major augmented reality announcement, as the Tissot watch augmented reality campaign took to the shop windows of Selfridges London.
The basic concept of augmented reality is pretty straightforward. Whereas virtual reality immerses you in a completely different reality, augmented reality merely adds to, or ‘augments’ the world around you. Simply put, augmented reality is the ability to overlay information on the top of images being shown through a device or computer camera. It allows us to literally source information out of locations, graphics and objects within our field of vision.
The technology itself has been around in the military for quite a while, but has now hit the mainstream due to advances in technology and broadband penetration.
AR is the current buzzword in the industry and brands are rushing to have relevant content at some level. Some people are responding with scepticism to its effectiveness, but at what point does the novelty of browser-based augmented reality become just another gimmick? And how can marketers successfully use augmented reality to their advantage?
Augmented reality and mobile
Like any other media, there are many ways to implement augmented reality: mobile, stands, shop windows, desktop computers and pretty much anywhere you can fit a camera and a video output, by using a marker or physical presence to bring 3D graphics, video, animation and games to life. However, even the paper marker will become redundant, as innovators are finding new ways to trigger AR and track movement and images, for example, tracing people’s eyes and overlaying wigs, masks and other funky styles onto their faces.
Although overlaying graphics is an important part of AR, there is much more to it. The area where augmented reality is already having a big impact is in the mobile space. With the projected growth of smart phones and increasingly sophisticated cameras and graphics, AR is maturing to become a second nature function.
AR opens up all sorts of possibilities for engagement. For example with a smart phone, you can point your phone towards certain locations and get information around them which overlays on the images seen through your screen.
AR can provide engagement with consumers in all shapes and sizes, which Lego (below) has done really successfully as an in-store experience. They allowed kids to hold a toy box in front of a pod with a camera to trigger live footage of the toy being built in front of them – providing magical engagement and at the same time showcasing the product.
Stella Artois’ ‘Le Bar app’ for the iPhone is another great example of a brand using AR technology effectively. It enabled users to search for the best bars nearby that sell Stella Artois whilst also having the option of geo-location, zip code and country search.
Le Bar Guide (below) mixes the real-world view of users’ immediate surroundings with augmented reality on the iPhone 3GS to give their customers an extensive guide to bars nearby and around the world. Le Bar app also reveals profiles of bars in users’ immediate vicinity, overlaid on the street view from their location when holding the phone with the camera pointing to the ground, and in addition revealing arrows pointing users in the direction of nearby bars.
If successfully implemented, marketers have a great opportunity to really engage an audience and capture their imagination. We are really only at the beginning of exploration in terms of AR – currently a lot of it has just been used as eye candy. If you look at practical uses, such as Lego and Stella Artois, it is a great way to get consumers really involved.
An augmented reality future?
AR is another channel, just like social media, which marketers can exploit to engage more with their audience. Where brands have been really successful is when they give people a useful AR tool that’s convenient and inherent to the brand culture, or when it brings magic and added value to an experience - rather than AR for AR’s sake.
There’s no hiding the breadth of uses for AR applications, the car industry are already looking at overlaying augmented reality in windscreens of cars for a clearer idea of where drivers are going in foggy conditions for example.
For me, I think one of the best uses of AR was where it all started – with the Paris Metro app (below). This allowed people to get their location in relation to the stations. This is now being put to use by many commuters and tourists around the globe as more and more brands and developers release apps with this type of functionality.
Face recognition provides another useful opportunity. There is potential that mainstream brands will use it to recognise their customers and within that know all of their preferences. Perhaps a little blue sky, but in the not too distant future it could soon be common place. Imagine an application that has the ability to test hair dyes or try on make-up or even a new pair of glasses through a website or in-store. Or being able to see yourself in different hair colours or shaped frames on your mobile screen through the boxes of different colours or glasses case. It’s all possible and in the glasses case, already out there through a website. It’s all a question of getting brands involved and letting them understand the uses and potentials of it in the long term.
With the take up and new hype of 3D (thanks Avatar!), I believe that we will see more and more of an integrated scenario with even less difference between the physical and the digital in people’s minds. People expect the experiences they get online in the real world. If we go to fantasy land for another second, we could look at the use of AR in underground digital billboards; these could eventually track people’s faces with speech bubbles pretending to know what they are saying/ thinking - that as a marketing tool would be fantastic.
Getting the basics right is vital. It’s true to say that AR will have to live up to its futuristic expectations to appeal to people widely. Brands that are early to adopt and experiment will have to deliver to consumers exactly what they need; useful and exciting tools, and fascinating interactive experiences. I think AR is incredible and moving forward has huge potential, I really believe it will open up a whole new way of accessing and using information.
When combined with face recognition, movement detection, integration with other physical objects, AR has the ability to create genuinely interesting opportunities for brands that have tangible benefits for consumers. Whichever way we look at it, augmented reality is here to stay.
Christiano De Abreu is digital creative director at strategic marketing agency, The Marketing Store.
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