As branded apps go the way of the microsite, the emerging mobile technology of augmented reality will open new doors for marketers.
At last week's New York Tech Meetup, Ryan Charles from Zagat showed off an impressive augmented reality (AR) app built on Google's Android platform (and coming soon to the iPhone). The application, NRU, gives you a 360 view of Zagat-rated restaurants, nightspots and shops nearby along with their ratings for food and cost.
When asked why they built an AR app that uses the uses the power of the accelerometer and compass rather than a simpler one that just uses GPS, Charles said simply that this way was more fun. That seems to be the real appeal of AR at this point -- more entertainment than utility. Will this novelty factor wear off?
Of course, but it will also become more useful. The web is merging with the real world, and phones are turning into computer mice. Thanks to AR, soon we'll be able to just "click" or "hover over" something in our environment to learn more about it. As with any technology, it will get less clunky and easier to deploy. As this happens, the learning curve will drop, more people will use it, spurring developers to add more information layers to the real world. The technology will also get better with more accurate GPS in phones as well as compasses, accelerometers and video cameras becoming standard equipment.
Layar, the AR browser for Android, is moving quickly to enable this information layering through their platform. SPRXmobile, the company behind the app, will pick 50 developers to build on its API and provide them with the documentation, tools and a test environment for their third-party data layers. It seems Layar hopes to become the Google of AR, competing against players like Tonchidot's Sekai Camera and Mobilizy's WikiTude. Even IBM is playing around with mobile AR apps, and Apple just filed patents for apps that rely on image and facial recognition to browse the real world through the phone.
This is the real promise of AR for brands.
This new system will give brands the ability to present data relevant to the consumer's experience with products and in stores -- information, purchase incentives, service discounts, etc. And it could be accomplished with a savings in both cost and time compared to a traditional physical campaign since these tags can be changed and monitored remotely. Another aspect is that by allowing the mechanism for change you can easily respond to user feedback.
Think of it as adding a listing to the phonebook, hanging a sign outside a store, or creating a Wikipedia entry. It's the same principle; putting information in a place where people are looking. Just as brands are now moving away from creating microsites, turning instead to strategies that engage consumers where they are (Facebook, Twitter, etc), they will stop creating their own mobile applications. Smart ones will simply plug their data into the many mobile services that people are already using. This applies to any mobile application with an open API, be it a location-based service, m-commerce site, etc.
There is already lots of data out there that can easily be translated to the AR interface. Take TwittARound, an iPhone app that lets you see who is tweeting around you by looking through your camera lens. This will be the future of social networking. Soon we imagine you'll be able to scan people's Facebook profiles at a bar, or LinkedIn listings at a conference, for example. Of course this would raise major privacy issues. Also, a techy friend tells me that indoor position tracking is "way hard" right now. But this is the future I'm talking about.
As ReadWriteWeb points out the APIs for video on the 3Gs are still private. However, as Apple comes up to speed on documenting and opening the API to developers, we're sure to see more apps like NearestTube along with the ones being developed for Android and Nokia. When they do, AR will surely make bigger strides towards mainstream adoption.