Seeing things differently: Are brands missing the boat with augmented reality?

Augmented reality (AR) has opened up a brave new world for advertising, bringing brands to life and enabling consumers to engage with them like never before. As the medium gets a boost with the launch of Google Glass next year, how are brands harnessing AR? And what further boost does the technology need to propel it into the mainstream?

From envisaging a piece of furniture from a catalogue in your own home to accessing additional video content in your favoured publications, augmented reality technologies offer a wealth of opportunities for marketers looking to reach their consumers in new and inventive ways.According to research company Gartner, augmented reality (AR) is one of the top 10 disruptive technologies of our time. Despite its capabilities and myriad opportunities, however, AR is not yet a mainstream element of most marketers’ mobile strategies; yet those brands harnessing the technology to interact with audiences via hidden content have found success in their campaigns, with downloads and engagement rates reflecting consumer enjoyment of the medium. The technology is being used in bigger, more compelling ways – last year saw rapper Tupac Shakur ‘perform’ at Coachella music festival despite being dead for over ten years, while the museum and art worlds are making increasingly creative use of augmented realities. Visitors to Damien Hirst’s installation at the Tate Modern, for example, found nothing to see in their surroundings until they installed the Layar app to visualise the virtual artwork popping up on their smartphone or tablet screen. AR also offers a wealth of opportunity for retail, with brands including Tesco, Clarks and Ikea taking advantage of the experience it offers consumers to interact with their products prior to purchase. The growing trend of showrooming and increased consumer spend via mobile devices have given rise to retailers looking to incorporate the technology into their mobile strategies. eBay, which sees around 30 per cent of its transactions touched by mobile globally, integrated augmented reality with the physical retail experience when it launched its first interactive social shopping experience in London in December 2012. This enabled consumers to see gifts come to life with the aim of helping them make a more informed purchase decision by allowing them to ‘experience’ the product before purchase. “Shopping is no longer a case of see it, try it, buy it,” says Laura Wilkinson-Read, head of UK PR at eBay. “These days the power pendulum has swung, we’d rather seek out recommendations and ideas online; we want inspiration. Buying ‘blind’ is increasingly becoming a thing of the past. Augmented reality allows shoppers to get even closer to the product and experience a more realistic and lifelike product purchase.”In relative infancy as a marketing tool, do brands risk investing in a channel once deemed a ‘gimmick’? Trak Lord, head of US marketing for AR solutions provider Metaio, argues value to the user is the point of difference when it comes to the usefulness of the technology. “What separates gimmicky AR from useful AR is the value to the user. I think we have a tendency to label extremely useful technology as a gimmick based on high visibility marketing campaigns. But AR is more than a bunny popping out of a photograph of a bunny – it’s the future of user interfaces.”Blippar CMO Jessica Butcher says AR’s current image problem comes down to the content, not the channel itself, highlighting the responsibility of publishers and the creative industries to create compelling experiences to optimise use of the medium and ultimately change perceptions.“AR should be considered a content medium more than a ‘technology’. If the content ‘unlocked’ and delivered through this medium is gimmicky, or novelty-esque, then that’s what the perception of it shall remain.”Blippar as a business is moving away from the term ‘augmented reality’ to describe its offering; it believes, as Butcher explains, that the name is limiting in terms of what the interactive experience actually provides. “The real power is not how a content response might appear ‘floating’ or ‘augmented’ as if ‘in’ the real-world with us, but the fact that anything physical in the real world can effectively be digitised and ‘unlocked’ with an interactive experience simply by looking at it through a device,” she says.Since its inception, AR has been championed by a number of publishers, leading to behavioural change as more and more audiences become familiarised with it. The Independent recently launched a fully integrated augmented reality feature in its print production using the Blippar app. According to Blippar CEO Ambarish Mitra, more engagement from media partners is needed to give AR a boost and propel it into the mainstream. “This movement is absolutely critical for the consumer-adoption side of the behaviour, helping to move the tech away from just being a marketing medium, but a more wholesome, cross-application content experience,” says Mitra. “Voting on magazine stories, buying from printed gift guides, watching sports content off the pages, or entering a reader competition drives high conversion – and of course hugely supports the advertiser conversion on the next interactive advert in the edition.”AR will be further propelled into the mainstream with the introduction of AR-enabled mobile devices (without the need to install an app). Progress is being made in this area, with Metaio and ST-Ericsson introducing the first augmented-- reality chipset in February this year, paving the way to always-on AR. Chip designer ARM is also working with developers to build augmented reality that can track real-world objects such as buildings. Joel Blackmore, senior innovation manager at Somo, believes universal access is crucial to build mass-market scale. “The problem with current AR is that it needs to be fired up in a native app, requiring a download or an open app in order to interact. This places unnecessary barriers for customers to engage in an AR experience, in what is often an impulse situation,” he explains. “For AR to become mainstream and open up all the marketing opportunities it promises, the experience either needs to be fired up within mobile web (thereby negating an app download) or even better, be built into the smartphone and tablet operating system as a standard AR viewer. Once steps are removed from the process through mobile web access, or removed altogether through universal access to an AR engine, we can use mobile to create the link between the physical and digital worlds and augment on a mass-market scale.”AR offers brands and publishers the opportunity to tailor-make content to create interactive experiences for their audiences. However, for the technology to achieve mainstream take-up, perceptions need to change. As the medium becomes more prolific as a result of AR-enabled smartphones and big player investment from Google (Google Glass will be released to the public in 2014) it shouldn’t be viewed as simply another tick-box marketing channel. Instead, as the link between the physical and virtual worlds becomes more normalised, the medium provides an opportunity to create cross-platform content experiences that offer genuine engagement, and ultimately add value for both sides of the marketing spectrum. Layar co-founder Maarten Lens-FitzGerald compares it to businesses’ approach to the internet in the late 90s.“Large companies are realising that AR will become part of the media mix in the next five years. It’s like the web in 1996. Can you imagine not having a web presence today? Be bold and smart. Publishers sell more ads and provide more content experience for their readers. Brands and retailers get an extra communication channel as well as a commerce channel. The medium is ready: step in.” Tips for AR success: How can advertisers harness what is still a relatively underused medium?“Determine your campaign objective. Don’t think short term, think how all surfaces you have with your marketing and products can help customers and you in the long term. Design a frictionless user flow starting with a mindful reason people need to pull out their phone and scan (communication, engagement or commerce).”Maarten Lens-FitzGerald, co-founder, Layar“Give consumers a compelling reason (or two, or five!) to try the experience. If the same print ad can deliver a different digital experience each week, consumers are more likely to view the print ad again and again. Your audience is more connected and receives more communications than ever, so encouragement and incentives are instrumental when asking them to take action.”Lauren Offers, head of Aurasma marketing, HP Autonomy“Your experience is only as good as your content. If you are delivering any content through your experience, make it worthwhile. If the user only gets the same trailer they have already seen on YouTube, is this a good experience? Provide exclusives if you can.” Joel Blackmore, senior innovation manager, SomoImage courtesy of Metaio