Augmented reality is finding its way into more and more companies' ads, and it's equipped to deliver tangible value for marketers.
Think of any sci-fi movie you've seen and you'll find that ads in our alleged future aren't anything like ads of old. If screenwriters are on target, then years from now televisions will superimpose products onto our bodies and billboards will call us by name.
We're already halfway there.
Last fall, digital technology company StyleCaster launched an interactive tool that allows users to try on makeup from advertising brands through an app online. While consumers experiment with their look in a computer-mediated reality, they can watch a 3-D classical concert unfold atop their tub of Häagen-Dazs. When it's time to sell their home they can enlist Virtual View, a new mobile app that allows house sellers and realtors to create augmented reality property models. Meanwhile, their children can immerse themselves in colAR Mix, which transforms objects on coloring sheets into moving 3-D images that leap off the page.
Not all such tools are branded, as evidenced by Virtual View and colAR Mix, but the opportunity certainly exists for brands to introduce augmented reality (AR) into their digital marketing campaigns - and service providers are eager to help. Companies like Total Immersion, which has been working with AR since 1999, specialize in commercial campaigns by offering an augmented reality platform designed for brands. In a project for Ray-Ban, the company created a Virtual Mirror that accesses the user's webcam to capture a facial image that can be used to try on sunglass models. It's an ideal solution for brands that sell their products online, but it also represents an additional channel for engagement and share-worthy content.
The great appeal of augmented reality, besides its interactivity and ability to engage, is the way in which it extends the reach of the digital realm. Not only does it obscure the lines between branded messaging and useful, life-hack content, but it obliterates those that separate the physical world from the virtual one. Last year, Total Immersion partnered with Toyota to build an automotive experience for the Chicago Auto Show that allowed visitors to interact with a car that wasn't even on display at the event. With the use of a tablet consumers could track the Toyota Avalon back to its conception, get to know the engineering and design concepts that brought it to life, and place themselves within the vehicle interior. Through augmented reality, Toyota was able to "tell the story" of its new model in a way that mirrored the modernity of the product.
The technology available to brands is impressive, the functions endless. Why, then, aren't more marketers chomping to recreate the in-person experience of interacting with their products online? Cost is a factor, but so too is the consumer's willingness to embrace this unorthodox marketing approach. In order for augmented reality to find its footing, consumers must be willing to download the apps and set aside the time to explore them.
Given the rate at which we're adopting mobile technology, this isn't implausible. In 2013 consumers downloaded 102 billion apps, according to research firm Gartner. The vast majority of apps downloaded are free: 60 percent of those acquired through Apple's App Store, and 80 percent of those through Google Play. Gartner predicts that this growth will slow as the excitement of a new device or technology wanes, but mobile users are loyal to handy apps, and that isn't likely to change.
Online, consumers continue to be bombarded by display ads, but native content as a category is strong. It can also be effective. It's been reported that Hearst has registered native ad click-through rates of up to 1.5 percent on its Harper's Bazaar site, compared with the 0.1 percent industry average tied to banner ads.
As a branded content feature with mobile applications, augmented reality is equipped to deliver tangible value. The question, perhaps, isn't whether there will be room for it on consumers' devices and in their lives online, but whether brands will be able to consistently build something relevant and interesting enough to ensure that this technology maintains its allure.
The reality is that they'll have to.
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Tessa Wegert is a business reporter and former media strategist specializing in digital. In addition to writing for ClickZ since 2002, she has contributed to such publications as USA Today, Marketing Magazine, Mashable, and The Globe and Mail. Tessa manages marketing and communications for Enlighten, one of the first full-service digital marketing strategy agencies servicing such brands as Bioré, Food Network, illy, and Hunter Douglas. She has been working in online media since 1999.
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