What is augmented reality? Rather than the subject of a dorm bull session, that was a valid question at the Augmented Reality Event, which took place earlier this week at the Santa Clara Conference Center. Exhibitors gave attendees the chance to overlay an animal face on top of their own and make it open its mouth or roll its eyes, play a game of Pong in midair, or wave at cartoon characters that popped out of a tile on the floor. All these additions to reality involved some kind of camera--usually in a tablet or smartphone--and software that would recognize the object and trigger the special content.
At the same time, the question was raised: What is augmented reality (AR)? During his keynote, Miles Ludwig, VP digital for Sesame Workshop (the Sesame Street people), showed slides from an upcoming project that uses the Xbox and its Kinect camera to place a child into Elmo's World on their televisions. But Ludwig wondered whether placing a real-world object into a virtual environment was really AR, which usually refers to overlaying virtual objects (like games or animated characters) on the real world. Other examples collected under the AR umbrella included photographs that came with a musical accompaniment and posters that would download a catalog of shoes when you pointed your phone at them.
The slippery definition of just what AR is illustrates the youth of the technology and the market. But the bottom line is the ability to access content that's not "really" there.
"Content" is a key word. Another keynote speaker was Mark Silva, SVP of emerging platforms for brand development firm Anthem Worldwide. Silva spoke of how AR gives a brand a new sponsorship opportunity in which it can be a "curator and creator" of content.
There was also general agreement on the marketing potential of AR, at least when properly used. (Read on for what "proper use" entails.) Marie Geffroy, marketing manager at AR platform provider Total Immersion, spoke about her company's TryLive solution for virtual fitting rooms. In a survey Total Immersion conducted, about two-thirds of respondents said they'd be more likely to buy clothes online if they had a way to "try them on" at home. And one of Total Immersion's clients, U.K. online glasses store Mister Spex, has reported that 50 percent of site visitors end up buying glasses if they use TryLive. (You can see TryLive in action with Ray-Ban's Virtual Mirror, which lets you take your photo with a webcam and try on different sunglasses.)
Ambarish Mitra, CEO of AR platform provider Blippar, assured any doubters in the crowd that "we have enough data to prove you wrong. AR is an area of high ROI for brands." But Total Immersion CEO Bruno Uzzan pointed out that not enough consumers are using AR yet for it to be considered a mature market. "It requires adoption by end users as a natural part of their day-to-day behavior," he said.
It's Not About The Technology
As with every other digital marketing innovation that has come along, marketers looking at AR can be subject to what Silva called the "bright, shiny object syndrome." Speaker after speaker advised that AR can't be an end in itself--that you have to think about the user benefit first. Uzzan described AR as an "enabler" only after you already have an idea.
Lisa Murphy, marketing manager at platform provider Metaio, put it this way: "The end consumer doesn't care about technology."
Murphy also said that the key to AR taking off as a marketing tool is "making digital a natural experience." During the "AR in Marketing and Advertising" session, the moderator asked what the most important trends in AR for marketing over the next 12 months would be. Murphy replied "usefulness"; Justin Farris, product manager at AR software developer GravityJack, replied, "compelling use cases"; and Scott Wellwood, VP at Total Immersion, said, "no gimmicks."
One good example of useful AR came was offered by Blippar's Mitra. He showed how a Heinz ketchup bottle label turned into a recipe book when "blipped," letting the user turn virtual label-shaped pages.
For consumers to embrace AR--which requires them to actively solicit a brand's content--the experience has to be easy and quick. Silva described a campaign from Red Bull that required the user to acquire several cans, arrange them on the floor, download an app, and take pictures of the cans to build a track for a racing game. "That's a high barrier to use," he said.
One problem for AR meeting this goal is the fragmentation of platforms that's characteristic of a young technology. At the moment, the app you download for the Red Bull promotion won't be any help in reading the Heinz ketchup label. Consumers are unlikely to be happy filling their smartphones or tablets with multiple apps just to view all the AR content competing for their attention. A mature AR market will almost certainly require some degree of cross-platform compatibility or a shakeout in the market.
Consumers especially aren't going to want to download apps that they're only going to use once. "You can't build an AR market on one-shot applications," Uzzan said. "You need repeat business. Otherwise it's a gimmick."
Farris described a campaign his firm did with MySpace, involving a concert MySpace sponsored during this year's SXSW conference. But MySpace didn't want "a single-serving campaign," he said. "They asked, 'The day after SXSW, what are we doing?'" Now that the concertgoers have the GravityJack platform on their phones, he said, MySpace can continue to push information and promotions to its customers, and can also execute another campaign very quickly.
An AR addition to an ad or a package is useless if people don't know it's there. And so far, most people don't expect or understand it. Maarten Lens-Fitzgerald, general manager at platform provider Layar, said, "It's like trying to give someone instructions about e-mail when they've just bought their first fax machine."
Blippar's Mitra said that clear instructions on how to download and use the app are necessary, illustrating the point with a WKD vodka package with a very clear call to action on the side. And Metaio's Murphy described a campaign for Toyota that included a flyer with explicit directions on how to make a Japanese virtual pop star use the paper as a stage.
But you shouldn't rely solely on the AR item to do all the work. "Don't expect AR by itself to educate the end users," Uzzan said. "You need a good overall communications plan." Murphy echoed that advice: "You're spending all this money on an AR app. Spend a little more advertising it," she said.