Google's recent announcement may give this technology the attention it needs.
A technology exists today that has the ability to change the world around you, to alter reality in a way that is unique to you. Not only does that represent a significant impact on our lives in the future, it also presents marketers with the opportunity to build engaging and valuable experiences way beyond what they're doing today.
Put simply, augmented reality (AR) is a view of the real world that's being altered, or "augmented," by a digital view. It's being adopted by the military, medical professionals, education, retail, and entertainment companies, but is still seen as somewhat of a gimmick by ad execs.
While investment in AR has been growing, it may be the recent discovery of Google's "smart glasses" project that brings it the attention it deserves.
Most people have actually seen AR in action but not realized what was happening - in football, the "first and 10" line magically appears on the ground under the feet of the players, seemingly disappearing as they walk over it, and has dramatically enhanced the interactivity of the sport for the TV viewer since 1998. It has become so mainstream that viewers would miss it if were taken away and their watching experience would be lessened.
Back in 2008, I first wrote about the potential of AR having seen an experiment from the BBC as a way to bring music to life. Chasing down the company behind it, Total Immersion came in from Paris and gave me a demonstration I will never forget. We sat around a conference table and the company pointed a webcam down at it, projecting the image onto a large TV screen, and while the table remained empty, a racing car appeared on the screen, and by using a wireless game controller I could drive the car around (and off) the table! A real wooden ramp was introduced and the car responded to it, needing extra power to ascend and falling off it when it reached the edge. A virtual object interacting with real objects seamlessly - I was hooked.
At the time I was working at an ad agency with LEGO and knew it had a problem with little boys opening the boxes in its stores to check the contents - a costly issue because those boxes would have to be sent back for repacking.
LEGO solved this problem with AR, creating a 3D and interactive model of each LEGO kit that would show those little customers exactly what was inside and how they could play with it. The virtual models feature moving parts that wiggle when the box is shaken, video, and the all-important mini men interacting with the toy to stimulate the imagination. It added another reason to enter the store, and reduced the number of damaged boxes.
To other marketers it remained a tough sell in part because of the relatively high cost of modeling each of their products into 3D, but also because it seemed like another new thing to invest in, and it required a complex setup of a computer and a webcam for the consumer. But as the technology became more accessible, more examples began to appear, including these recent campaigns:
The Role of the Smartphone
Today the smartphone is the device for which as consumers we can experience AR - it's a natural progression given nearly all of us have the perfect combination of camera and screen at our disposal 24/7; a fact that has not escaped app developers. I'm particularly impressed with the Word Lens app that allows you to point your camera at a street sign written in Spanish or English and it will replace the words with English. It's so simple and clean, and in its launch video it appropriately uses the phrase "Welcome to the future."
A quick search reveals many more options to suit most needs, including a GPS overlay for golfers, a potential fix for color blindness, a furniture showroom in your own home, a car finder for the forgetful, and even a local crime spotter.
As cool as these are, they limit the experience to the environment of the smartphone - to really see the future, we must look to the military to see how far the boundaries can be pushed.
Tanagram Partners is actively working on a solution for a heads-up display system that will provide real-time visual data representation to soldiers in the field, but also facilitate data flow between combatants, including manual visualizations, GPS, battle status, and floor plan data for buildings. Ironically, the military is now seeing the development of AR technology starting to surpass its own capabilities, and in response, the Navy issued an RFP in December 2011 for a new form of head worn display (HWD) that would ideally look like a pair of sunglasses.
Google is giving us a glimpse of where this is going with its new glasses - limited currently to data points from its products, but why not ultimately something that will replace reality with an alternate experience altogether? And of course contact lenses will likely follow, giving us invisible devices that allow an individual to change their world. No more looking at your cellphone - just bring the call, text, or browser into a heads-up display and control it with hand gestures on a keyboard only you can see. The smartphone as we know it won't exist.
Take this into travel. Don't like how your hotel room looks? Download a new color scheme and change it instantly. And perhaps why travel at all? That video conference call now becomes a 3D experience with each attendee augmented into the room where you are.
Retailers can turn their online catalogues into what appears to be a virtual shop or even a mall, but all visited from within the comfort of your own home. And trying clothes on could become a thing of the past, with the clothing being layered over your dimensions that have already been scanned. Why have a physical presence at all when you give the same experience elsewhere?
For the next generation, this is already becoming the new standard; there will be a day soon when a 5 year old asks why they can't change the world they see at will, just as my 5 year old today asks why the TV doesn't do anything when she touches it with her fingers. I watch with fascination as they point their iPad at the night sky to see the planets and stars highlighted with data for their consumption, and can point it down at the ground to see what satellites are passing under their feet on the other side of the planet (using the Star Map app ). It's somehow "Tron," the holodeck, and "Minority Report" combined.
This technology exists today and is slowly creeping into our society. For the marketer, the most obvious application is to bridge the gap between the physical ad and the digital experience. Give individuals the opportunity to access engaging content by simply pointing their phone at your billboard or newspaper ad and you have them hooked, waiting for more.
Marketers must see beyond the gimmick and believe in the possibility. There's a gap for a brand to provide the bridge into this technology in a way that gains mass appeal, and that brand will win with an association with innovation and enrichment.
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Dax Hamman is chief revenue officer at Chango, the innovators of search retargeting, and is based in Chicago and Toronto. Prior, Dax founded and led the global iCrossing media group, developing the concept of "performance display," an innovative planning strategy that drove significant ROI from display advertising for some of the world's largest and coolest brands.
Dax has 12+ years in the digital space with experience in just about everything online, including media, usability, creative, technical management, and affiliate marketing. He writes and speaks extensively, particularly on new and emerging techniques within the digital media space.
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