Virtual Gets Real with Augmented Reality

Augmented reality (AR) has become a hot topic among marketers, particularly in light of the release of Yelp’s Monocle app that allows users to see location-based reviews hovering on their iPhone screens. The technology has provoked repeat interest from Mashable, Wired, Fast Company, and ReadWriteWeb, while companies like IBM, GE, Best Buy, P&G, and Wal-Mart are moving beyond pure gimmick to truly connect with consumers via AR.

The seminal promise of AR is as the touchstone technology allowing social networks, geo-based tracking, and the semantic web to converge. Put less geekily, think of AR as your personalized digital butler, who will get to know your behavior so specifically that it can prethink your choices based on your friends, location, and how you search online. The cyberpunk fictions have come to reality with AR, and the cultural ramifications are as powerful as the marketing opportunities.

In this article, we’ll take a look at the fundamental ways in which augmented reality will reshape consumer behavior and interactive marketing, as well as a few companies and applications that are leading the way.

From map to mindset
What’s your relationship to the GPS unit in your car? Do you lament the loss of serendipity that resulted from depending on the tinny voice on your dash? More likely, you’ve learned to lean on your satellite siren and have blissfully embraced paperless travel.

This adjustment to technology represents a step toward artificial intelligence, in which machines can learn our behavior and improve the way we live. Adopting GPS not only saves us time in our travels, it lets us clear our mental palette to make space for other thoughts, a “prethinking” process mirrored in augmented reality. Still in its nascent form until the majority of the public owns enabled smartphones, AR’s ability to layer 3-D images on a phone’s screen in the context of a person’s actual location makes it the touchstone technology galvanizing artificial intelligence and the promise of social marketing.

The tech you shouldn’t see
The trailer for Microsoft’s Xbox Project Natal announcement provides a key insight into the future of augmented reality, human behavior, and commerce. Noting from the outset that “no controller is required,” a typical family runs through a set of game scenarios based on their varying interests. A teenage boy karate-kicks an avatar, his older sister video chats with a friend who recommends a virtual dress to wear, and so on.

Although facial and voice recognition enhance the game, we’re reminded that to enjoy the Xbox, “the only experience you need is life experience.” This idea is key — like your GPS, you forget about the tech and focus on the benefits. You augment your reality in the context of what you’re presented.

Skewing social
Augmented reality assigns relevance for users of the “outernet” via AR applications like Yelp’s Monocle that allow you to see location-specific user reviews on the screen of your iPhone by simply pointing your camera and clicking on links. The process is faster than looking online, especially once users search via multiple AR services that aggregate relevant data for their location. The result is crowd-sourced commerce and a prethinking reliance of users to make purchasing decisions once they’re nearing their destination rather than at home. Social networks take on a new and more immediate relevance when posts are seen in the context of physical space.

Tagging taxonomies
Geo-tagging lets you create text, audio, or video you can assign a physical location to via AR-enabled smartphones. When others come to that spot in the future, they’ll be able to experience the content you’ve left behind. This communal prethinking in relation to location will become commonplace, as will the virtual offers pushed our way when we’re in the vicinity of local stores. Prethinking via dating services like Match.com combined with geo-enabled tweets will alter cultural behavior as well.

The sublime search
Prethinking also applies to how we tag ourselves, an act that has direct repercussions on semantic search. Instead of relying on keywords that have multiple meanings depending on context and native language, search powered by augmented reality assigned to specific geo-locations will have the relevance of our physical actions. Taxonomies relating to our actual locations will transform reliance on clumsy search algorithms in lieu of actual behavior. This aggregated data will provide a wealth of information to marketers in terms of when to deliver key messaging and relevance to geography. And as identity standards like Open ID continue to evolve, consumers can set their geo-privacy preferences to avoid unwanted airvertising to create standards for outernet etiquette as well.

Augmented reality becomes a transformative technology when campaigns move beyond Flash to demonstrate utility. Gimmicks can be useful to attract user attention, but AR needs to lead to relevant social or commercial connections.

Georgia Tech’s zombie game provides an example of flash and function that can move the needle for commercial adoption of AR. We all enjoy slaughtering the undead, and moving around a placemat-like game board to see 3-D action via our smartphone screens is sweet. But when an actual Skittles candy is placed on the game board and game characters react to its presence, the applications for marketing become readily apparent. Virtual aisles in retail environments can be festooned with interactive characters or videos. Beer goggles take on a literal angle, and placemats will provide games that respond to various bottles or cans maximized for AR.

Other services like Zugara’s Webcam Social Shopper let people virtually try on clothes, and users can take pictures of themselves to send to their friends on Facebook. Combining the AR app with crowd-sourced opinions from social networks provides utility along with the benefit of collaborative shopping.

USAA has also proven that non-sexy AR applications can gain more traction than gimmicky campaigns. Its iPhone app allows people to take a picture of their checks for instant deposits, a simple yet profound action inasmuch as it engenders ease of financial transaction. As reported by eWeek in an article about the application, “USAA’s customers have conducted more than 13.3 million mobile transactions in 2009.” Prethinking leads to profits via AR-enabled utility.

Jamais Cascio, the popular ethical futurist that regularly writes for Fast Company and other publications, dovetails the notions of prethinking combined with AR in his notion of “focus assistants,” or filtering tools that screen content you don’t want to receive. In his article for the Atlantic, “Get Smarter,” he notes that, “as our capacity to provide that filter gets faster and richer, it increasingly becomes something akin to collaborative intuition — in which everyone is effectively augmenting everyone else.

This process of collective intuition is amplified by AR applications like Pelago’s visual storytelling tool, Whrrl. The service, according to CEO Jeff Holden, is a “real-time storytelling product for people’s daily lives,” which aggregates multiple tweets, posts, and updates to form a kind of visual Twitter. These communal events are also shared to the larger community, which can comment while stories take place. This process creates a form of public prethinking known as group awareness. And it’s the data culled from these multiple communal stories that will form the basis of future interactions in commerce and culture at large.

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Conclusion
Augmented reality offers multiple touchpoints to interact with consumers in an intimate and impactful virtual landscape. When commercial experiences in the outernet honor consumer privacy, are relevant to location, and embrace communal group experience, marketers will benefit. But like GPS and our Xbox family demonstrated, AR is just a few steps away from being invisible. No experience is required and prethinking will become a habit without our realizing its taken place.

Just remember that, like the mom at the end of the video, you can always turn the AR technology off. And unless marketers collaborate with consumers on their virtual sojourns, they’re likely to do the same to us.

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