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HP's Autonomy Gave Away Augmented Reality Tech to Brands

But Will Brands Pay Once Autonomy Starts Charging?

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HP gave thousands of large and small brands its augmented reality technology for free for over a year, and only now is planning to monetize the platform.

HP bought Autonomy in 2011 as part of its move into marketing software and services. Though allowing beta access to technology platforms at no cost is not a new concept, Autonomy's decision to give away Aurasma for free for so long isn't the norm. In November, HP announced it was writing off 80% of the $10.3 billion it paid for Autonomy, citing problems with Autonomy accounting.

For the past year-and-a-half, Aurasma has partnered with entertainment, packaged goods and other consumer brands in what was essentially an extensive beta-period barter. The firm used in-house creative production staff to help brands, including Universal, develop campaigns that turned print and outdoor ads into 3-D mobile-video experiences at no cost to the advertisers and publishers in exchange for assisting in promotion of the technology.

Now, after working with 15,000 ad partners on AR-enhanced mobile efforts, the company finally plans to start charging for use of the Aurasma platform. It also no longer needs the creative production and consulting staff who built those campaigns. Whether those staff will be laid off or simply transitioned to other roles within the company is unclear.

"We certainly don't need to be a creative agency," said Andrew Joiner, general manager of emerging technology and marketing at Autonomy, adding that the free services were provided "to help seed adoption." The company released Aurasma 2.0, featuring a new development interface and app in December.

While Autonomy gave away the software and creative services, it built relationships with an impressive array of brands. The Aurasma team worked closely with Universal Pictures to create its Universal 100 app, an Aurasma-powered mobile promotion developed in conjunction with the film studio's 100th anniversary last year. "Universal met closely with our team to figure out what would be the best content overlay," said Lauren Offers, global head of marketing for Aurasma

A video featuring the app -- in this case branded by Universal -- was posted to Aurasma's YouTube channel, home to a variety of promotional videos showing examples of how brands have used the AR platform to tie print campaigns to mobile. Similar to QR codes, the Aurasma technology connects print or outdoor ads to lively mobile experiences; what sets Aurasma apart is its ability to transform print ads viewed through a mobile device into 3-D images.

Brands including Kellogg's, Downy and Pennzoil, along with publishers such as Conde Nast and GQ used the technology, and Aurasma promoted the efforts in videos and press releases. Even Kenyan Prime Minister Raila Odinga, who used the platform for his Raila for President election-campaign app is highlighted in a video on Aurasma's YouTube channel.

In December 2011, performance-watch brand Shark was featured in an Aurasma press release. Freestyle, maker of Shark, ran an Aurasma-enabled ad -- known as an "Aura" -- in Surfer magazine and touted the technology through marketing materials it featured at a trade show. But the company hasn't used Aurasma since, said Chad Labass, marketing manager for Freestyle Watches.

The ability to trade free use of the platform in exchange for some media outreach and inclusion of the Aurasma logo in Freestyle's ads "wasn't typical," said Mr. Labass. He liked the approach, which helped raise awareness for the timepiece brand, he told Ad Age. "The technology was so awesome, [it was great] to be able to have our brand be associated with it…. They put out the press release, so we rode their coattails."

Mr. Labass said he thinks consumer adoption of AR or QR code apps has not reached critical mass, and Aurasma has not reached out to Freestyle since the initial partnership. Still, he'd consider using the platform again -- for free, that is. "If I had to pay, I wouldn't -- not right now," he said.

Though some users still will be able to access the Aurasma studio for free, the company will now charge for commercial use of the platform, said Ms. Offers. "That's when we'll start to have those conversations…based on an individual partner-to-partner basis," she said.

HP took the free-services approach to help legitimize the platform, suggested Sam Ewen, CEO and founder of Interference Incorporated, an agency that runs AR campaigns for clients. "If you're someone like an HP, you need some good case studies," he said. Mr. Ewen said he tested the Aurasma platform twice but found it to be difficult to work with.

As noted in an Autonomy memo published by AllThingsD on January 14, Aurasma is "ready to move to the next stage of this exciting business and focus on commercialization and revenue generation…." Robert Youngjohns, head of Autonomy, went on to explain that HP would integrate the AR platform into print related offerings.

"While a number of roles will remain largely unaffected by this, other roles within Aurasma will no longer be required going forward and some work force reduction is likely," continued Mr. Youngjohns in the memo.

While the decision to incorporate the technology with other HP offerings seems to signal a de-emphasis on efforts to attract advertisers to develop Aurasma-specific campaigns, Aurasma will continue to talk with advertisers and brands, said Ms. Offers.

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