Bridging the Gap Between Online and Offline

It’s pretty safe to say that one well-established rule of online marketing is that any technology — no matter how cool or potentially useful — that requires consumers to acquire new hardware even if it’s given to them is doomed to fail. But developments in mobile and augmented reality have begun to offer new opportunities for interesting and immersive consumer experiences that bridge the gap between the digital and analog worlds.

But let’s look at a few failures first.

Remember the :CueCat? In the late ’90s, many of us were bombarded by these ridiculous plastic cat-things in our mailboxes. After some head scratching (and RTFMing), we realized these devices were supposed to plug into our PCs so that when we encountered a :CueCat barcode in a periodical (or on a product) we could scan it with the Cat and be sent to a Web page providing us with more information.

Problem was, the device required you to plug an unsolicited device into your computer and install software from an unknown company — something not exactly smiled upon by corporate IT security folks. Second, each Cat had a unique ID that would report our scanning activities back to the Digital Convergence Corp. mothership, guaranteed to result in a boatload of new spam and “special offers.” Finally it was just stupid: are URLs that hard to type?

Another seemingly brilliant-but-destined-for-the-dustbin idea of the boom was iSmell, a device marketed by a startup called DigiScents designed to bring smells to the Internet (and other interactive media). The idea: you plug this device into your computer, then experience smells wafting out of it when you encountered Web sites equipped with the technology.

OK. John Waters playing around with Odoramaas a sort of scratch-and-sniff gross-out joke in Pink Flamingos back in the early ’80s was one thing. But expecting that consumers would want to pay for this thing and be willing to accept uncontrolled smells from their computer — that’s a totally different story. It’s just gross.

Bridging the gap between the real world and the digital world has always been tough, especially for marketers. Yes, that bridge is crossed every time we open our computers and look at our screens, in some way, but it’s really more of a window into a digital world rather than a bridge that truly connects the digital and the analog. So once digital starts to come into our real lives, in some ways the last foot and a half must be crossed to create immersive consumer experiences.

With mobile technology (especially the iPhone), the lines between the real and the digital start to blur. Because mobile technology is so much about where you are in physical space, mobile devices can provide location-specific services or bridges to real-world objects that desk-bound computers and clunky laptops can’t. Social networking apps like Tweetie let us send updates to friends no matter where they are. Google Mobile Maps and associated service-finding applications that take advantage of built-in GPS give us a bridge to services and products we may have never stumbled on before. Apps like Urbanspoon add an element of excitement by making random choices for restaurants. Nifty apps like SnapTell provide a bridge between real-world products and online information about those products just by taking a picture.

As cool as this mobile stuff can be, the next Big Thing coming down the pike is augmented reality (AR) technology that seamlessly blends real-world information and environments with computer-generated information and environments. Rather than having to leave the real world for a virtual world — as so many have promised, and failed, to do with virtual reality technology — AR technology allows you to combine the best of the real and virtual worlds.

This technology is still somewhat in its infancy and some implementations require you to use special hardware (such as computer-connected glasses) to experience AR. Others utilize the ubiquitous cell phone camera and GPS technology to allow you to look “through” your phone to see information overlaid on top of the real world. Point your phone at an object (such as a historical site or a store), and this tech gives you a live view of what you’re looking at surrounded by extra data (stories, specs, prices, operating hours, etc.). For a great example, check out Wikitude AR Travel Guide.

Cool, yes — but it still requires a certain type of phone and a software download. What if you want to use your own computer? Until now it really hasn’t been all that possible, but GE’s SmartGrid campaign provides us with a fantastic view of how marketers can use AR technology from the desktop and begin to make that leap between cyberspace and the real world.

The idea is amazingly cool. Go to the site, print out a piece of paper with a marker graphic on it, (and, not coincidentally, the URL and logo of the campaign), click a button on the GE site, hold the paper up to your Webcam (built into nearly every fairly new laptop these days) and watch a scene including windmills, a friendly scarecrow, and even a floating sun unfold before your eyes as a digital hologram.

OK. It’s kind of hard to explain without seeing it for yourself. If you want to see some videos of it in action, check out one of my latest blog posting to see me playing with it. You’ll be amazed.

While this kind of application may be a little gimmicky, it points the way to a future where the lines between the real and virtual worlds truly start to converge in ways that few of us have ever dreamed of. For example, imagine T-shirts emblazoned with your logo and AR-trigger-marker that come to life when those wearing them show up at your booth at a trade show. Or imagine the ability to create immersive product demos that go beyond flat videos and allow users to see your products from multiple angles in their own environments (ideal for fashion products). Or the ability to allow users to interact with your products in a way that shows them what it would be like to really have them — not just as pictures on a screen. Or the impact of a complicated chart that can leap up before the eyes of someone who can then interact with it simply by using her hands and view it in motion from multiple angles.

We’re down to the last foot and a half of the gap between the real and the virtual. Bridging that gap and bringing the consumer into your branded experiences while allowing them to remain in their own reality gives us some amazing opportunities for reaching consumers.

Does your company or client offer one of the best online marketing products or services? Nominate it now for one of the 2009 ClickZ Marketing Excellence Awards!

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