Margie Chiu’s 15 Minutes Ahead: Augmented Reality – Sure, It’s Cool, but What’s in It for Me?

If 2009 was the year of iPhone apps, then augmented reality may be the darling of 2010. It’s that Hollywood technology that’s found its way into Burger King banner ads, a slew of “must-have” smartphone apps, the cover of Esquire and soon Adidas shoes. 

If 2009 was the year of iPhone apps, then augmented reality (AR) may be the darling of 2010. It’s that Hollywood technology that’s found its way into Burger King banner ads, a slew of “must-have” smartphone apps, the cover of Esquire and soon Adidas shoes.

So, what’s it all about?
AR enhances the “real” physical world with contextually specific imagery or information. The AR experience is typically triggered in two ways.

The first is through location recognition via GPS/compass-enabled smartphones or other devices. With Wikitude, for example, you can point your camera phone toward a famous landmark and see an overlay of information about the destination pulled directly from Wikipedia.

The second is through image recognition via a video camera in your laptop, desktop or phone. With the USPS Virtual Box Simulator, you can hold up a package to your webcam and the simulator helps you determine the shipping box size you need.

What are the facts?

AR has captured more than its fair share of press coverage lately due to a handful of high-profile marketing application launches and the entry of major players into the space, including Google with its Google Goggles (think search on steroids), Nokia and Apple. But is 2010 the year AR takes over? Probably not.

Penetration of webcams is still limited, and the market share of GPS/compass-enabled smartphones is even lower. The installed base for webcams is estimated to be in the 15 percent to 20 percent range. As for smartphones, despite all the excitement (and what you and your tech-loving marketing friends are toting), more than 80 percent of all U.S. mobile phones are still limited-function, “nonsmart” phones.

Does this mean you don’t need to be thinking about AR? Try again. It’s a technology that will hit mass penetration in a couple of years. Many newly shipped computers now have webcams preinstalled. And two-thirds of Americans will be getting new phones within two years — and many of them have their sights set on smartphones.

What are the opportunities?
Whether and when AR should be considered as part of your marketing mix depends on your company, brand and audience. But the following are three potential marketing applications for AR:

1. Riding the buzz wave. Want to be perceived as hip and of the moment? This is the low-hanging fruit with any new technology. This opportunity is most applicable to the entertainment industry and/or companies targeting youths and early adopters. This is a tricky area, however. Speed is of the essence, as you want to be seen as being on the “bleeding edge.” Remember, though, to hang with the cool kids, you have to be, well, cool. Halfhearted attempts without a strategy or purpose will be viewed skeptically.

2. Bridging offline and online. AR can be an opportunity to smooth sales or service friction points that result from a lack of in-person interactions. Natural fits are with beauty, apparel or home furnishings e-commerce sites. Ray-Ban’s Virtual Mirror is a good example of this. It helps consumers find the perfect sunglasses. They just look right into their cameras and “try on” different looks.

3. Enhancing the real experience. Possibilities include helping customers find their way through a store or shopping center, on-demand product information, and more. Unfortunately, the limitation of GPS indoor signal strength and the complexity of image recognition will be significant near-term hurdles. But you might be inspired by the Voodoo Festival and its custom AR app, which enables festival attendees to use their camera phones to get details about performances and navigate the festival venue.

Thinking ahead
What would you do differently if device penetration wasn’t a barrier? Are there processes or experiences that can be enhanced through AR — either made more entertaining, informative or relevant? The possibility of AR is exciting. Creatively it opens a good many doors and forces marketers to look at customers’ experiences in a different way.

Stay tuned.

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