Augmented Reality: Whats it for?

When Mobile Marketing editorial director David Murphy saw mobile Augmented Reality for the first time in 2009, it took his breath away. “I met this guy from a company called Intelligent Spatial Technologies outside Hall 7 at Mobile World Congress, and he proceeded to point his phone at various buildings around the Fira complex,” says Murphy. “As he did so, photos and information about the buildings appeared on the screen. It might seem like no big deal now, but back then, it was like a kind of magic.”

Some would argue that since that time, the art of AR has not advanced a great deal. There have been isolated campaigns bringing the pages of a printed magazine or an in-store display to life, but it would take a brave soul to argue that AR is part of the mobile marketing mainstream, or that it’s about to be any time soon.

So what’s AR’s problem? Is it too clever for its own good, or is it just a case of brands and agencies not having worked out how to use it to its best potential?

“It’s not necessarily something you can explain – you have to demonstrate it,” says Windsor Holden, research director at the analyst Juniper Research,“it takes time to educate people. And not just consumers – the middle of last year, I was speaking to people in the mobile advertising business who didn’t know what AR was. Going into 2011, the question was: what exactly is AR?”
It’s a good question. From humble beginnings – in 2008, only a handful of Android devices were AR-capable, with an audience of 8-9m consumers – the AR-ready global audience has grown to something closer to 100m, thanks to the the launch of the iPhone 4 in 2010, which added a gyroscopic sensor alongside the iPhone’s accelerometer. There are now several hundred AR-enabled apps available, and it’s a broad church – some focusing on using GPS technology to offer location-based services, as used in the TripAdvisor app’s ‘Live view’ mode.

Other apps, like Layar’s Stiktu, use image recognition to overlay information about a product, while a few – particularly in Japan – focus on using QR codes as a jumping-off point.

The effects can be highly impressive – certainly when the technology works, it feels positively futuristic. And, if you listen to some of the loftier claims, perhaps AR does represent the ?future. Dutch AR company Layar’s Maarten Lens-Fitzgerald says: “Augmented Reality liberates space, just like the web liberated information – with AR you can create your own world.”

For now, though, it offers a way of embedding direct call-to-action into an exciting and novel piece of technology. It’s not difficult to imagine AR enhancing – or ‘augmenting’, perhaps – location-based vouchering. A consumer walks down the high street, and is able to scan shop fronts to be presented with a coupon they ?can immediately use in store.

“The benchmarks of our ?customers show that the interaction with a product increases sales and brand identification,” says Daniel Gelder, head of ?marketing at metaio, the ?Munich-based company behind the junaio AR browser.

Novel approach

“It’s a fantastic way for consumers to engage with brands, and brands need it more than ever, in the current financial environment,” says Carl Uminski, COO and co-founder of mobile marketing agency Somo, whose 24-hour Le Mans app for Audi last year included AR content. “But the number one reason why brands want to be involved, right now, is innovation and ?being first to market. Take ?Nike for example – it’s seen ?as a high-end, tech-led brand, ?so its consumers expect it.”

If this rush to get in first is the only driving force, though, that could be dangerous. After all, as Uminski points out: “What the technology really doesn’t need is AR that doesn’t work.” And one man’s brave innovation is another’s tacky gimmick – an accusation that’s been levelled at the technology more than once.

“AR campaigns are good at attracting attention but that is in itself part of the problem – it’s seen as gimmicky. It does grab your attention to have a game where you can make blue aliens dance around your desk, but that doesn’t keep it for more than five minutes,” says Juniper’s Holden. “How does AR translate into a campaign which is driving footfall into shops, which is driving purchases?”

As enticing as it is to imagine an AR-enabled customer walking down the high street, using an AR app to decide which shops to visit, there is a potentially fatal flaw – how many people are really willing to walk with a screen held constantly in front of their face? For that matter, how many can be convinced they’d even want to try it?

“I love AR, but in the right place,” says Jonathan Bass, managing director of mobile marketing company Incentivated. “I am not sceptical of its viability, but it is never going to be mainstream – that is, of use to the majority of brands.” There’s a feeling that AR might be a case of the “Emperor’s New Clothes”, as Bass puts it, adding he’s yet to see any direct proof of ROI on AR campaigns.
Other companies that are investing in AR have to concede the point: “There’s no way there’s going to be a huge consumer adoption,” Somo’s Uminski admits.

Jessica Butcher, marketing and founding director at Blippar, which specialises in image-recognition technology, of which AR is just one application, says: “AR is often used to quite faddy effect and some of the novelty factor is starting to wear off. We see more long-term scope for some of the more functional take-away applications of the technology, as opposed to AR.” Hardly shining endorsements from companies who are currently working to sell AR marketing as a viable option to brands and agencies.

Reality distortion

And it’s not always an easy sell. “Some brands have told us it’s a little too chicken and egg, and they don’t want to be the ones doing the hatching,” reveals Butcher. It seems that brands, even those keen to try out the technology, still don’t quite ‘get’ AR. “Some do. Most don’t,” she says. “Those that truly appreciate the implications of our technology embrace it as the new content-delivery medium that it truly represents. Others don’t and simply use it as a way of linking together other assets or media – to play a TV advert, or linking to a website that isn’t mobile optimised – which doesn’t produce particularly satisfying experiences.”

Which might just sound like a familiar story to anyone who’s been preaching the mobile marketing gospel to clients for the ?last few years.

“Any brand has to think about what the return is that they’re looking for – ask yourself how many consumers are going to use this, and is the consumer base growing?” says Somo’s Uminski. After all, it’s in the interests of any company invested in the future of the technology that clients get the most out of their first AR experience, even if it means holding back until a more strategic moment. And it looks like that could be starting to pay off.

“We’re seeing more and more interest, from some very large brands,” says Uminski. “Where last year the focus was around AR as a brand-supporting tool, we’re now seeing people using it for a wider range of purposes.”
If AR is deployed with this kind of strategic foresight, and brands and developers alike are willing to learn from their mistakes, then even failed experiments in the technology are ?valuable. It’s still early days, ?and there are undoubtedly ?lessons to be learned.

Layar’s Lens-Fitzgerald explains how the company’s understanding of the technology has changed over time – having originally presumed users ?would demand and create high-quality 3D content, Layar has since realised that simplicity is the key. It’s a mantra Somo’s Uminski echoes: “Companies need to keep it simple, and get ?it to market quickly.”

Keep it simple

Lens-Fitzgerald uses the analogy of web pages in the early days of the internet, and how important the idea of a ‘page’ – something which could be scrolled, and contain a certain amount of textual and visual information – was to helping people understand the basic format, that has since been built on.

“We’re still looking for the ‘page’ format that will make this part of everybody’s lives and businesses,” says Lens-Fitzgerald, “and that is still the core story of AR – what is that one thing that will make it ubiquitous.”
Like any technology, AR is neither good or bad – it all comes down to how it is incorporated. “Walking the streets looking for houses for sale? Great. As a tour guide in a museum? Great – and yes we’re working on an AR app for precisely this,” says Incentivated’s Bass. “But using it for finding Tube stations, McDonald’s and Starbucks is stupid, as looking through the lens provides zero extra utility.”

Juniper’s Holden agrees: ?“It’s a similar problem – perhaps more acute – to the one with 3D in cinemas. The technology has to be there at the outset of development, rather than overlaid as an afterthought. The other thing is, it has to be a good film, a good product, in the first place.” And what makes a good app? “You don’t necessarily have to have the most sophisticated app – go back to Angry Birds, which is graphically quite limited. But it has to be fundamentally good to use, intuitive, and – in the ?case of a game – addictive,” ?says Holden.

Technologically, both hardware and software have reached a level where AR can begin to fulfil its potential, as Somo’s Uminski says: “If you look at the triggers you need, nine months ago you needed a border around the trigger to make it register, today it can be anything. Obviously that requires more processing power, but the handsets are ready for it now. The technology is already moving at a huge velocity, changing more quickly than consumers can even engage with it.”

There are still slight setbacks – metaio’s Gelder stresses the importance of expedient access to “huge data sets” to streamline the experience, something which would be aided by widespread high-speed 4G connectivity – but AR is getting ready to enter its adolescence, and make the most of all that potential everyone keeps mentioning. The next 12 months will be a fascinating sink-or-swim test for AR, as the current technology is consolidated and perfected, while the next generation develops alongside it.

Augmenting commerce

So, what should we expect to see in the near future? “Over the next 12 months, the focus will be on commerce in AR – that’s where the money’s going to be made, where the numbers, the growth, the scalable turnover, will be,” says Layar’s Lens-Fitzgerald. “Meanwhile, AR will emerge as useful and something that will never go away. Every object in the world eventually will have layers of content – whether from the brand, the retailer, or the consumer – all stacked on top ?of one another.”

There seems to be a consensus that AR hasn’t yet found its killer app. Developers such as Layar, Blippar, and metaio obviously hope to hit upon the perfect formula for AR, but for now, it’s game for the imagination of anyone.

Killer app

“Imagine if Google Maps had AR built into it – then everyone would start using it. If Streetview was AR-enabled, so you could scan store fronts and see promotions, then you’d suddenly see it come together,” says Somo’s Uminski, returning again to that idea of an AR-enabled high street, conjoined with a highly popular app that the public are already familiar with.

So perhaps it will be one of the big names that will make AR their own – Google, or perhaps Facebook? Juniper’s Windsor Holden foresees “sophisticated facial recognition technology – something which would obviously be useful in a social media setting – but that will be much further down the line.”

Meanwhile, will the smartphone stay the home of AR? “Things like AR glasses might come along at some stage, but they’re not there yet,” says Layar’s Lens-Fitzgerald. “And maybe it’s a sort of ‘flying car’ scenario – people talk about it as the future, but ultimately they don’t want it because the functional technology already exists.”

That certainly fits with the view of Blippar’s Butcher: “Ultimately, a truly entrenched second screen behaviour will emerge over the next 12 months, where phones are held up to things in the real world, not to take pictures, but to extract content and experiences. We won’t do this alone, but in conjunction with all the other AR players out there whose efforts and creativity we applaud and learn from, and who we intend to work closely with to help educate both the brands, and the masses.”

It all sound almost too good to be true – the opportunities, for developers and marketers alike, of a truly immersive technology that can turn the emphasis in advertising from ‘push’ to ‘pull’, are enough to make your head spin – but it has to be remembered that the success of AR still isn’t guaranteed. “It’s all down to education of consumers, and whether something else leapfrogs the technology,” says Somo’s Uminski.

After all, the success of AR won’t be a decision made by the marketers, or even by the development of the technology – which has reached a functional level – but by the man and woman on the street. The reaction to AR from consumers is still mixed, and Blippar’s Butcher says that rebranding its technology with “more fun definitions”, like ‘Magic Lens’, has produced a warmer reaction.

Reason to engage

“Consumers like to engage – if they’re given cool and fun new reasons to do so through new technology,” she says. “So it’s about finding a reason to engage – in Domino’s Pizza’s case, it was an exclusive deal and opportunity to order by mobile. In Tesco’s case, it was to find a nearest store and download a recipe file – functional and with content value. In Cadbury’s, it was to get consumers playing with the brand in real-time – enhancing memorability and competitive edge.”

“Useful consumer elements – like offers and discounts – are key to getting users in, then you must ensure there’s brand engagement and rich media content,” agrees Somo’s Uminski. But once consumers have been drawn into AR – and brands have been convinced that it could work for them – keeping their interest comes back to the question of having a good app in the first place. An app that can be, as Uminski puts it, “stitched into everyday life”.
As of yet, AR hasn’t reached that point. AR is a technology that can feel futuristic, but also as though that is still where it belongs – that its moment ?in the sun is still somewhere ?in the future.

Layar’s Lens-Fitzgerald puts it best: “So far, it’s been a great journey of discovery – of what exactly the medium is, of what works and what doesn’t work – and we’re still on that journey.”