Why marketers should care about augmented reality

When online advertising hit the market, brands rejoiced at the prospect of tracking and measuring the effectiveness of their media spend. Suddenly, it became much easier to double down on what was working, and quickly discontinue what was clearly not.

It was simply a matter of time before offline media placements came under that same fire. Advertisers now want to see similar advanced tracking mechanisms in place for outdoor and print ads so they can track the results there just as effectively as digital media and user interactionon the web and mobile devices.

But how can you get apples-to-apples comparison of metrics? The answer lies in a technology that has been around since the 90's, first developed by the military to improve human performance.

It's called augmented reality (AR) -- a way to enhance one's current perception of reality with computer-generated sensory input such as sound, video, graphics, or GPS data. That information appears as an "overlay" to our real-world view as we see it through a viewfinder, webcam, smartphone, etc.

An obvious example of this is the yellow "first down" markers you see on televised football games, where the real-world elements are the football field and players, and the virtual element is the line, which augments the image in real-time. A more advanced integration is the head-up-display (HUD) for fighter pilots in the Air Force, or first-person shooter video games. Some newer car models, such as the BMW 7 Series, can have AR built right into the windshield for smoother navigation.

Yes, augmented reality is a technology that is sneaking up on us, and people are finding more and more applications for it in areas like medicine, commerce, translation, entertainment, and education. So what about advertising?

While doing research for "Emerging Marketer," I noticed an article written about an experiment called the Mobile Augmented Reality System (MARS), which was conducted at Columbia University in 1996. The equipment used included a bulky helmet, a handheld computer, battery packs the size of soap bars and well...you get the idea. The project sought to lay coordinates over objects viewed through the lens of the user.

Fast forward 10 years and we start to see this same approach being experimented with by Nokia and other cell phone manufacturers. Add just five more years to that, where we are today, and anyone can check out the animation on the coffee cups at Starbucks during the holidays or experience layers of info in their navigation apps as they peruse the local landscape.

In a span of just 15 years, this technology now resides in a small, portable space. Mobile phones have become our channel of choice -- and it's on the mobile phone that augmented reality's application for marketers will shine.

Why? Enter the idea of interactivity. Animations and overlays can allow the user to interact with AR in a way only dreamed of in the past. Taking this to the next level in advertising -- other than it being a cute gimmick or brand engagement -- is literally around the corner. 

Most mobile apps that use AR today have the programming built within the app itself. But it isn't much of a stretch to imagine how it will be once AR executions are more commonly stored in the cloud and pushed whenever an application recognizes a real-world piece attached to an executable file. 

This concept was illustrated in a successful experiment conceived and performed at Digital World Expo in Las Vegas in September 2011. One brave individual agreed to get a tattoo that was created specifically for a reader (developed by Skywire Media) to recognize and serve an animation in response.  Imagine the bar conversation over that one!

Any time a server is host to information that can be accessed through an external device, analytics can be invoked and developed to give us meaningful data. Given that the technology already exists to serve executable files based on image recognition, it won't take long for advertisers and publishers to control the actions for their own "real world" images such as those found in print, outdoor advertising, or something as simple as a cocktail napkin logo. Once the user's device "discovers" an interactive object (image recognition), the advertiser's video or animation will run its course -- allowing for an instant engagement experience.

The possibilities are truly endless. Engaging with animation and AR will lend itself to instant opt-in for contests, redirects to e-commerce, exploratory views of products, or even crossword puzzles without using a pen. This is another area where offline will merge with online and we can then make more direct comparisons of metrics for each tactic or campaign. At the same time, it will also represent a new world of standards, formats, best practices and everything else we've come to expect with true emerging media.

Shawn Rorick is chairman of the Las Vegas Interactive Marketing Association and founder of the Digital World Expo.

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"Surprised Young people in 3D" image via Shutterstock.

 

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