Need to Know: Augmented Reality

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The use of augmented reality technology in marketing and media has increased over the last year, from General Electric's open source-built Smart Grid site, to CNN's election coverage, to Total Immersion's Topps 3D Live baseball card treatment (above). It's a technology that, at least in the ad world, seems to be teetering between useful consumer engagement tool and cool-yet-useless gimmick--see a gallery of recent work below.

But first, just what is AR? Well, it's a generally defined space that involves an interactive experience that features a real-time merge between live video flow and a digital or synthetic element. In the case of Total Immersion's Topps project, it means a 3D baseball player appears standing on a baseball card users hold up to their webcam. Other AR requires a specific visual marker like a QR code, printed out from your computer, that users hold up to cue up the technology.

The two most common ways to build and market AR experiences are Flash-based, primarily open-source applications, and the specially created turnkey programs that often require a specific application to run. Carlos Ulloa, founder and lead designer of open-source Papervision 3D, sees the Flash advantage in sheer number of potential users, but doesn't discount other turnkey plug-ins. "The advantage of using Flash is that it's already installed in most browsers and platforms, and the potential audience is much greater. On the other hand, specialized plug-ins might deliver a better experience for a limited audience."

Greg Davis, general manager at software company Total Immersion, which specializes in AR, understandably approaches things more from the custom plug-in side of things. "GE developed that (Smart Grid) project using open-source, but I think the emphasis there for GE was, Here we have a set of community tools that we used and we invite others to look at the code and develop their own thing. And because their communication is about innovation, it works. The problem with open source tools is that a lot of the components are very old. The three components that make up an augmented reality experience are recognition, tracking and rendering, and they are three concurrent processes. The tracking in the open source tool kit is eight or 10 years old, tracks to markers, and [thus] the result is a whole lot less believable."

Despite their differences concerning open-source, both Ulloa and Davis see significant possibilities for augmented reality in advertising. "The advertising potential is still to be fully employed," says Ulloa. "AR links print and online in a unique way, but can also create an online dimension for the product itself." Davis sees a time in the very near future where AR technology will go beyond "Oh cool, live 3D..." to impactful, practical use, and cites mobile as the next logical platform. "We have a video on our website where the CEO of Intel holds his phone over the view of a street sign in China and it does a language translation by overlaying the name in English over the existing sign. That really makes your day-to-day experience better. The fact that everything will be interactive at some point doesn't mean everything will be about selling. It's about relationships and appropriately targeting consumers at the right time, and this has a position in that paradigm of how communication is managed between brands and the consumer."

For more on augmented reality and its future in mobile and gaming, read on.

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