Half a lifetime ago, when I was in high school, people were positively buzzing about “virtual reality,” also known as “VR,” a science-fictiony concept that involved putting oneself into a virtual environment by donning a special helmet that allowed you to look around, hear three-dimensional sound, and feel immersed in a world of polygons.
Of course, VR was a little too high-tech for many people. I remember getting very excited about potentially being able to play a game called “Dactyl Nightmare” at the Virtual Reality arcade at St. Louis Union Station only to be told by my mother that I was forbidden to play it because she didn’t like that virtual reality and actual reality were so close together. She was afraid it could have some sort of negative effect on me. In essence, she was frightened by what she didn’t understand.
I think a lot of people feel the same way about Augmented Reality, or AR, when they first hear about it, because it bridges reality and technology in a bizarre and semi-frightening way. The idea behind Augmented Reality is that you can use your smartphone or computer to see the world around you in a different light. Many of these applications are built for the iPhone, so we’ll use it as the standard here. For example, you can:
- Use an AR Yelp! Monocle application to scan an area with your camera, and the application will access your GPS to figure out where, exactly, the best places to eat are within your vicinity, actually overlaying Yelp! reviews over the image on your screen with approximations on where the restaurants are located.
- Use an AR app called Wikitude World Browser to scan a tourist attraction (such as ruined building in Greece or Rome) to pull up the Wikipedia entry for the site.
- Use an AR app called Twittaround to find location-stamped tweets from other Twitter users.
- Use an AR app called iPhone ARider to hook your iPhone up to a special bike helmet peripheral so you can see real-time Google Maps data and know where you’re going when you’re riding your bike.
- Coming soon: an AR app called TAT Augmented ID that will allow you to scan a stranger’s face and find out who they are by searching public profiles on social networks.
(I used this article to learn more about these apps, since I use a Blackberry, not an iPhone or an Android phone.)
Esquire recently did a cover story on AR with Robert Downey Jr. sitting on an odd-looking box. Those who downloaded some special software from the Esquire site and who held the magazine in front of a webcam were treated to a number of neat features that could be manipulated by moving the magazine around. (Read more here.) McDonald’s did something similar by offering Avatar-themed AR cards that would allow customers to take interactive tours of the fictional world of Pandora from the film. Hallmark has even created AR cards that can be held up in front of a webcam to give a special animated greeting that moves around with the motion of the card. (Watch this video to see it in action!)
But that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Imagine AR software that allows you to try on clothing or accessories before you buy them, simply by sitting in front of a webcam. Consider the possibilities of that for a moment — being able to see items on your body without ever having to wear them. This sort of thing could change retailing forever, right?
Ready for a shocker? Ray-Ban rolled this technology out over a year ago with their “virtual mirror” software. (No, really. Click here for more info!)
The neat thing about AR is that its applications are just beginning to surface, and it’s popping up in all sorts of unexpected ways. Both Microsoft and Sony are about to launch AR platforms for their game consoles, and it’s likely that within a few years, AR kiosks will be a common sight in malls and big box retailers.
So, why should marketers care? AR has several advantages over traditional Web sites and in-store marketing:
1) AR encourages users to be engaged with a brand or product. AR messages are active, not passive, and they allow users to have a heightened sense of activity with a brand or product without actually using it. It makes the message much more memorable and it allows for a longer exposure to marketing messages.
2) AR encourages users to be connected. Think about how useful it could be to be visiting a city like Chicago or New York City and to be able to use an AR application on a smartphone to track down good restaurants, hidden stores, or lesser-known attractions. Unlike annoying “push” text messaging systems that want to send marketing messages out to cell phones as users walk by stores, these applications would encourage users to find the messages for themselves — a much more valuable and meaningful way of sending a message to potential customers.
3) AR can become a new touchpoint. One thing I have not seen yet, but I’m sure is coming, is AR as a means of improving sales and customer service. AR can allow reps to give more exciting demos, give customers the ability to share rich content such as real-time photos or videos with agents during exchanges, and even allow those sitting through a virtual presentation to make notes on virtual slides or submit real-time questions to presenters without ever having to speak a word. There are all sorts of options, and the applications will be limitless once the technology is a little more established.
For now, AR is more of a novelty with some exciting potential. But I would be willing to guess that within the next decade, it will become a standard way of reaching out to customers… and maybe even its own discipline within the field of marketing.
What do you think about AR? Post your comments below!