There is a bit of a buzz surrounding Augmented Reality at the moment, in the context of how brands can leverage this technology to engage consumers (real people like you and me).
The term Augmented Reality has been around for quite some time and it is used to describe an interaction through a digital device, like a cell phone or computer, to a real world object. The interaction can be either when a digital element is added/attached to a real world object, or when real world objects interact with digital content in a device. There is really only a subtle difference between the two.
Two examples of these types of interaction would be the EyeToy for Playstation and the new Lego Boxes coupled with an in-store installation. The EyeToy (see above) is where you use your hands (or other real world objects) to interact with digital objects and content (above left). The new Lego Box example is where you can hold up one of the new Lego Boxes to the in-store installation. When you do this, the screen on the device renders the final built Lego toy that is inside the box, on top of the box (above right). This is done by displaying a 3D render of the Lego toy on a the screen you hold the Lego box up to. The 3D shape then sticks to whatever orientation you hold the Lego box. See a video of this in action here. This would be an example of adding digital elements to a real world object. There really isn’t a huge difference between the two, other than how the digital content reacts on screen to the real world objects.
How it works
Technically, the way augmented reality works is by defining a “marker” in software. Then with image recognition technology, you attach something to that marker. So the marker can be anything (hands, face, Lego Box, building, GPS location, Barcode [within reason]). Then you attached any digital content/object to that marker, which can be anything (within the limitations of the hardware device you are deploying on, but an image, 3D object, 3D video is all in the realm of possibility).
This is where it should get a bit interesting, if you use a little imagination.
There are several technology platforms that facilitate augmented reality at the moment. So you don’t have to build all of this from scratch. There are also heaps of examples online of how other people have used Augmented Reality.
For flash there is a project called FLARToolKit, which provides a library of code and a community of people using it. The benefit FLARToolKit has is that because it leverages the flash plugin, it will work on any device with a flash plugin installed. Unfortunately this means 3D content isn’t going to be as good as you are going to get on a computer game.
For better 3D content there are proprietary products like Total Immersion and Metaio that use their own hardware/software configurations. The problem is the communities supporting these products are not as big as flash, and to develop on these systems you would need to learn a whole new system.
I haven’t touched on the iPhone and how that device forms part of the bigger picture, mainly because I don’t know the technicalities of image recognition on the iPhone. But there are examples and apps that are very clever.
Gimmick or Utility?
Technicalities aside, the main point I wanted to look at is whether Augmented Reality is a gimmick used by brands to make noise, or a utility that adds value and meaning to a person engaging with a brand.
Right now, although technically excellent, I feel a lot Augmented Reality examples are gimmicky. Things like Lift the (Virtual) FA Cup (sorry Matt) and We Are Autobots illustrate the power of Augmented reality, but when examples like these are directly translated into branded applications will fall short of being more than a gimmick, because things like this do not add any meaning, utility or learning experience.
Sometimes having a gimmick is not a bad thing, as it draws crowds and gets people talking amongst themselves, however without an underlying intrinsic value, gimmicks require a real effort to spread the word. And spreading the word is pretty important when building brands. So if you want a gimmicky Augmented Reality project to spread virally, a lot of effort is needed to streamline and promote the viral effect.
As the hardware we use to build and deploy these things on improves, and as our imaginations come up with more utilitarian solutions for uses of Augmented Reality, brands that use the technology will be able to transcend gimmicks and really leverage the technology to add value to how people interact with their brand. Hardware will also play a role in the adoption of alternate reality projects. Developing Augmented Reality software that is independent of hardware (to a degree at least) will allow people to experience the project on objects they already own, desire, or take out of their pockets every 2 minutes. Not just cherry picked locations.
Using Augmented Reality to add value and meaning brings brands to life, teach people something, will tend to make people tell someone about it and share it. This is good. Not just for the people engaging with the project, but good for the brand too.
All in all, while we wait for devices to grow up and evolve, as well as, the immanent convergence of digital devices, Augmented Reality just needs more people thinking about how to provide sustainability, utility and a ‘real’ interaction for the user through this exciting medium.