Augmented Reality: Can the 'Stars Wars' Effect Sustain Engagement?

Despite Intriguing Trials, the Technology Remains Is Still Niche

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Garrick Schmitt
Garrick Schmitt
We are obsessed with the next new thing. As an industry we eagerly anticipate new software releases, tirelessly champion new services (MySpace to Facebook to Twitter) and new eras (Web 3.0 anyone?). We also have no fear of eating our young -- how many times have you heard the phrase "Google-killer"?

For digital marketers the eagerness to find the next new thing is both a blessing and a curse. Steve Rubel, Edelman's digital czar, summed up the paradox best recently when he said, "Second Life was digital marketing's Vietnam." There is a price to be paid for being too quick to embrace a new, untested technology after all. You can both overshoot the market and look foolish at the same time.

Augmented reality, also known as AR, sits at that precarious nexus today. It could transform the digital landscape, merging online and offline in wild new creative ways, as Hashem Bajwa points out in an earlier DigitalNext post. Or it could forever be the stuff of freaks and geeks. Will the hype around augmented reality crush the technology before it can really take off?

First, a bit of background: today augmented reality enables consumers to physically manipulate 3-D objects as displayed on a monitor. The technology is based on using markers that are basically printed patterns on paper that when viewed through a video stream and recognized by software create a type of hologram-effect.

Think Star Wars' Princess Leia's hologram communication with Obi-wan and you are pretty close.

Brand marketers have spared no time in utilizing augmented reality to inspire consumers' imaginations -- here's a look at some of the best early work:

Lego and K'Nnex:
The toy company, with its "digital box," has one of the more arresting uses of augmented reality today. Simply hold up the Lego box to an in-store kiosk with a web cam and watch a rendering of the toy assemble itself. Metaio, one of the leaders in AR, designed the experience for Lego. Total Immersion, another leader in AR, created a similar experience for K'nex toys which also allows you to control and even pilot the AR rendering of the toy.

Topps is leading the way with augmented reality today and trying to ignite new consumer interest in sports trading cards for the digital era. The company enlisted Total Immersion to create a full AR experience that brings Major League Baseball favorites like Ryan Howard to life. At Toppstown fans get the full 3-D experience, can make the tiny players bat and pitch, plus explore stats and game info.

The marketing for "Coraline," the first stop-motion animation feature shot in stereoscopic 3-D, was top notch. One of the highlights was the creation of a digital out-of-home campaign that literally placed consumers in the story by allowing them to see themselves as a part of the film through augmented reality. These "Storescapes" used AR to superimpose images onto pedestrians, so onlookers could see their reflections in a screen with animations including button eyes covering their real eyes.

Toyota IQ and Mini:
Car companies such as Toyota and BMW have been quick to use augmented reality technology to create a 3-D interactive experience for new cars. Toyota employed the technology to show off its new small car, Toyota IQ, which allows consumers to interact with the car and discover its agility and interior space. MINI employed the same strategy for the release of its Cabrio convertible.

Fanta Virtual Tennis:
Fanta uses augmented reality to bring a bit of whimsy and play to its Play On Virtual Tennis offering. The game enables consumers to play in either single or double mode, facing off with a friend any conceivable location. It's promises the closest thing to an out of home Wii experience that we've seen yet.

As novel and fun as these examples are (and there are many, many more -- even GE is in on it), we are still years away from realizing the true potential of augmented reality. The next wave, which is just starting to emerge from the labs, promises a full melding of virtual and physical without markers. Imagine walking down the street and seeing digital overlays on physical locations (bars, restaurants, movies) with adverts, video clips and even avatars.

The primary way to experience this today (albeit with bugs) is with a mobile device, such as T-Mobile's G1, which runs Google's Android software. For example, Wikitude from Mobilizy is a mobile travel guide that provides overlays of locale information for more than 350,000 world-wide points of interest. Similarly, Enkin wants to "reinvent navigation, by combining GPS, orientation sensors, 3-D graphics, live video, and several web services into something wholly new. More practically, SPRXmobile and ING deliver a mobile ATM finder for the Netherlands that allows you to locate ING ATMs simply by holding the phone in front of you.

At this moment, augmented reality for marketers is a novel, nifty new technology -- but one that will probably grow gimmicky quickly. I've personally played with seven or eight demos at this point (many mentioned above) and after the "gee whiz" factor is exhausted, there's not really much there to sustain any real engagement. Besides, there's a vague whiff of "Dungeons & Dragons" around this stuff that's will be hard for most to get over.

Today, the biggest potential is for both geeks and gamers. It's not hard to imagine how a video-game company could use the technology to literally place consumers into the game. Or how companies like Topps and Legos will further use augmented reality to enable a more enhanced game play experience. Check out WiiSpray for a taste.

Augmented reality has huge promise, but in the short term it's a niche technology for a niche audience. But, of course, gaining a foothold in the multibillion-dollar gaming industry is not a bad place from which to start. Let's just hope our desire to hype it AR as the next big thing won't harm it.

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Garrick Schmitt is Group Vice President of Experience Planning at Razorfish and the agency's global lead for User Experience. He publishes FEED, Razorfish's annual consumer experience report, and writes and edits the Razorfish Digital Design Blog. In his spare time he flails about on Twitter @gschmitt.

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