What are augmented reality apps, and how can they be used for marketing?

Over the past couple of years, augmented reality has become one of the hottest topics in marketing, and a new breed of mobile apps geared towards augmented reality has sprung into being. But just what is an ‘augmented reality app’, and what opportunities does it present for a new kind of marketing?

Over the past couple of years, augmented reality has emerged from relative obscurity to become one of the hottest topics in marketing.

Historically, it has always been mentioned in the same breath as virtual reality (the two are usually referred to collectively as “AR and VR”), but next to virtual reality’s almost mystical potential, it was sort of the awkward cousin that no-one quite knew what to do with.

But while VR is still finding its footing in the consumer market, AR has been launched into the limelight. With the viral success of Pokémon Go in 2016, everyone was suddenly talking about the possibilities of AR; and it now looks like it might be the next big trend in social media, with first Facebook and now Instagram showcasing innovative new uses of AR.

At the center of the augmented reality revolution is mobile. Whether through a game about catching digital monsters or a filter to transform your face, smartphones have proven the perfect tool to project an augmented reality onto users’ everyday surroundings.

So it comes as little surprise that a new breed of mobile apps geared towards augmented reality has sprung into being. But just what is an ‘augmented reality app’, and what opportunities does it present for a new kind of marketing?

What are augmented reality apps?

Augmented reality broadly refers to any type of visual or interactive experience overlaid onto your surroundings (thus “augmenting” them), and an augmented reality app is any app that features AR as its main premise.

What makes an app an augmented reality app is that it adds something to your environment, but also depends on your environment in order to work. Pokémon Go, for example, allows its players to visualize catching monsters in their everyday surroundings, but even with the AR “mode” turned off, the game still depends on the user’s geographic location and the features of their environment in order to work.

Not unlike its cousin, virtual reality, many of the popular applications of AR so far have been in gaming. But there are a number of other apps based on augmented reality which open up new opportunities for brands to engage users and promote themselves, or their products, in an immersive and memorable way.

What are they, and how do they work?

How can AR apps be used for marketing?

In researching the topic of AR apps, I identified a few broad categories of AR apps which lend themselves particularly well to marketing.

Note that these aren’t the only types of AR app around by any means, but from a marketer’s perspective, these have the most intriguing potential for carrying out new kinds of marketing through AR – and many of them are already in use.

Virtual showrooms

When we think about one of the most basic capabilities of AR, that of being able to project new visuals onto your surroundings, the idea of a virtual showroom seems like an absolute no-brainer. Virtual showroom AR apps allow you to try out objects in your environment before purchase – so you can see for yourself whether that armchair really does match your living room, without needing to try and imagine it.

Despite this natural fit, there isn’t a huge abundance of virtual showroom AR apps available at the time of writing – although I wouldn’t be surprised if that changes as augmented reality technology matures and becomes more widespread. One notable entry into the virtual showroom space is Augment, an app which allows users to take any 3D model and visualize it in their surroundings.

Another example is Roomle, a floor planning and interior design app that lets users visualize furniture and decorations from its partner brands in their intended environment.

Google’s Tango AR platform also has 3D mapping and physical space measurement capabilities which can be applied to a virtual showroom experience. BMW made use of this technology to develop an app that allows users to import a virtual car into their surroundings, explore and customize it, and even save a photograph of it to their device.

It’s easy to see how virtual showroom apps could be a huge boon during the sales process, particularly for brands selling large, high-consideration products and appliances. They would allow consumers to get up close and personal with the product, trying it on for size within their own home. It is also a natural complement to online shopping, as Curtis Moldrich of Alphr writes:

“If both Apple and Google are able to deliver new standards of AR, there’s no reason why apps such as eBay and Amazon can’t have an AR feature that can show products in customers’ homes. Purchasing online is usually cheaper, and the only drawback is the inability to see the project in the flesh. In some ways, AR solves that problem completely.”

Location-based apps

Virtual showroom apps confine AR technology to your indoor environment, but location-based apps are all about the great outdoors. These are a breed of app that are designed to give you additional information about the world around you as you explore it – sort of like an AR version of Google Maps.

The advantages of this for businesses are obvious: a business which is featured in a location-based AR app has a unique opportunity to present itself to consumers as they investigate their surroundings, giving them information about what it can offer.

These were in fact some of the earliest AR apps available, starting with the Wikitude World Browser, which claims to be the “very first Augmented Reality Browser for smartphone users”, and was published to the first Android device at the end of 2008.

The Wikitude World Browser (now simply Wikitude) is a location-based augmented reality app that integrates with sites like Wikipedia, Google Places and TripAdvisor to find information about places nearby, superimposed onto the user’s surroundings. As long as businesses have a presence on the sites that Wikitude draws its information from, they will presented to the user as suggestions for places to eat or visit nearby.

Suggestions for places to eat and visit with the Wikitude app

Yelp’s ‘Monocle’ feature is another early example of location-based AR technology. When activated through the iOS or Android app, it allows users to view the businesses around them using the camera on their device, and also to see which businesses their friends have checked into, giving it an element of social recommendation.

A more recent example of a location-based AR app, although only available on the iPhone, is Localscope. Much like Wikitude, it draws its information from external sources like Google, Bing and Foursquare, to give users information about the local businesses surrounding them as they browse their environment with its augmented reality view.

The technology behind location-based AR apps is in many ways still being perfected, and can be a little inaccurate or clumsy. But with enough refinement, location-based AR seems like the natural next stage for local SEO, especially given that local SEO is already evolving more and more towards optimizing for the kinds of “near me” searches that users make with their smartphones while on the go. What is location-based AR if not the ultimate “near me” search?

Brands with a physical branch location can maximize their marketing opportunities for location-based AR by making sure that they have a consistent presence across the different sources that AR apps draw their information from.

If you have already optimized your online presence for local SEO, you should be most of the way there; by adding one or two extra sites to the list of places where you maintain a profile, you should be in an excellent position to take advantage of location-based AR.

Additional content AR

Finally, our third category of AR apps is what I’ve dubbed “additional content AR”: augmented reality apps which let users access additional content and information as they interact with the objects in their surroundings.

You’ve probably seen a demonstration of this type of AR app at some point in time – particularly if you were at our Shift London event in May 2016 and watched the session by Blippar. Interactive packaging, shoppable print catalogs and in-store augmented reality are all examples of additional content AR.

Some notable entries into this space include Blippar, a visual search and discovery app which recently made waves with the addition of facial recognition to its repertoire, allowing users to ‘Blipp’ the faces of famous individuals (whether in person or via an image) to identify them and access information about them.

Layar is another additional content AR app developed by Blippar, which specializes in augmented reality experiences for interactive print materials. Then there’s Aurasma, which creates interactive AR experiences activated by everyday objects, images and places.

Additional content AR is the most popular type of AR for marketing, with brands using it to create memorable and interactive experiences triggered by their products, stores, catalogs and packaging. Some brand examples of additional content AR include:

Maybelline – In 2012, Maybelline ran a campaign in several U.S. women’s magazines to promote a new line of nail polish. The interactive print ads allowed readers to virtually try on the new nail polish colors using the Blippar app, with 40 different shades available to choose from.

Argos – Argos has run multiple augmented reality campaigns aimed at making its print catalogs shoppable. It first integrated AR technology from Blippar into its 2013 holiday catalogs and Christmas gift guide, allowing customers to instantly buy products by ‘Blipping’ the pages.

More recently, it partnered with Aurasma to integrate augmented reality directly into its mobile app, allowing users to scan pages and images within the Argos catalog to launch product videos, 3D models, games and competitions.

American Apparel – American Apparel used augmented reality to enhance its in-store experience, using its app and an AR platform called Vuforia to provide additional product information in store, display customer reviews, and give information about stock levels and the availability of different colors and styles.

Additional content AR apps tend to require a dedicated partnership with an AR app provider or platform in order to develop a marketing campaign, although tools like Wikitude Studio are also available for brands to create their own AR campaigns from scratch – and more may well crop up in this space, given the newfound popularity of augmented reality.

Facebook’s AR Studio, for example, currently in invite-only beta, is designed to allow brands to create AR experiences that appear in photos, videos and Facebook Live broadcasts.

Augmented reality marketing campaigns are still rare, and require a significant investment of time and resources, providing quite a high barrier to entry for smaller businesses and brands who want to try AR on for size.

However, this is likely to decrease as AR gains in popularity and more tools are developed; meanwhile, for those who do have the means to invest in an AR campaign, its relative rarity makes it an excellent way to stand out from the crowd.

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