The New Reality Will Be Augmented

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Augmented reality has been around for some time, but by any measure is still in its infancy, and at best remains experimental. AR animations are still simple, don’t have a lot of interaction beyond rotation, and require moderate ability to line up the product directly with the webcam. Even where the feature has been deployed, awareness is low, and not every product is outfitted with the ability to display the interactions.

While realization of AR’s potential is still a few years out, the technology can clearly help brands deliver an engaging experience by uniting the digital and the real. So far, three major business opportunities have emerged:

Extending the Web to the real world: The real-world repurposing of digital content from the Web will add mileage to marketing assets. Consumers can access, from wherever they are, existing content such as reviews or Web-based demos, without looking for a URL. The camera lens will identify the product, then serve up the contextual information automatically.

Greasing the marketing and sales processes: Creating an engaging experience with customers at or near the point-of-sale reduces sales costs by raising interest. Animations and virtual experiences can be connected with any device from anywhere, triggering demos, how-to videos, or even three-dimensional media that would entice a prospect to commit more time, or even trigger a purchase. Essentially, this means a virtual salesperson or guide could assist any consumer from anywhere at any time.

Ubiquitous information with mobile devices: Mobile devices will eventually be equipped with the capability to instantly bring up Internet information about any product in real time. Expect Google to develop an offering that maps online information onto physical products, making the search-engine leader the middleman for Internet advertising—yet again. Furthermore, one company can “hijack” another’s brand by creating AR experiences on or near the competitor’s packaging.

I’ve watched as many AR clips as possible, read blogposts (in the absence of any substantive mainstream coverage), and talked to some seriously smart people. The videos I’ve seen mainly involve folks excited about AR toys—yet with little reference to how the technology might impact business. I’ve also been experimenting with an early AR application for the Apple iPhone—Monocle, from user-generated-review site Yelp—but it’s subpar at best.

The biggest challenge? We’re in the wrong country. The innovation with these tools will come in Europe and Asia—not the tethered United States market where mobile devices are provider-specific.

I have, however, found a few ideas that avoid the “shiny object” syndrome and focus on how AR could improve people’s lives—or fulfill a meaningful business need.

Lego’s Digital Box Delivers an Interactive 3D Digital Experience: A visit to my local Lego store revealed a practical version of AR—an in-store kiosk called Digital Box. The kiosk, powered by AR vendor Metaio, enabled shoppers to access 3D footage by holding an unopened product package up to a webcam. Not all boxes were equipped, but on some, the kit would “assemble” on the kiosk screen, and come to life as an animation. As I rotated the box, the virtual animation would move with it, giving the illusion that, say, a bus was actually moving across the box.

Supplemental Info: Dutch company Layar is one of the emerging platforms enabling the use of location-specific data—related to real estate, shopping, healthcare, etc.—via properly equipped smartphones. Add on a social layer (Where are my friends? Are they nearby?) and things get interesting in a hurry.

Contextual Info: Virtual-reality glasses (still more fantasy than reality) could be used to provide auxiliary content while reading books. As a character in a novel visits a physical location (real or imagined), AR could provide additional visuals. Imagine if every book delivered supplemental information from the Web or other digital sources—each name could link via AR to profile information powered by Wikipedia, pictures from Flickr, tweets via Twitter, and videos from YouTube. Sure, this is futuristic, but, as a rough parallel, compare the multimedia formats now employed by online news sites to static offline print editions.

Unified Social Data and Contact Info: In a business setting, an audience member could scan the speaker, getting additional detail about the presentation, accessing her contact info, and even rating her performance.

Augmenting AR: These may be just the early days of AR, yet that shouldn’t keep us from examining what’s going to emerge in the coming years. Expect innovation and adoption in Europe and Asia, with the U.S. trailing behind. Early bridges will display data from existing Web-based data sources such as Yelp, Facebook, Wikipedia, and review sites. 

Remember when some Web sites weren’t compatible with certain browsers? Today, the AR space is in a similar state—many applications don’t run on all mobile platforms and the data sources are limited. Even more critical, the industry will need to focus on uniting AR and mobile social networks.

As a partner at Altimeter Group, a consultancy focused on leveraging disruptive technologies, Jeremiah Owyang (jeremiah@altimetergroup.com) is an expert on customer strategy. His Web Strategy blog (www.webstrategist.com) examines how corporations connect with their customers using Web technologies. He can be found on Twitter as @jowyang.

Visit http://sn.im/jan10-issue for links to videos illustrating the examples in this column. We also have Jeremiah Owyang’s in-depth assessment of the Lego kiosk.

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