Augmented Reality

Augmented reality (AR) is a variation of virtual reality. Rather than immersing the user in a virtual world, however, AR takes computer graphics and superimposes them into “reality”—the physical space around the person operating an AR device. These graphics can be 3D images or simply information tags about a location.

While AR devices are relatively new, they do have a history outside their use in mobile phones. They can and have been used in medicine (superimposing surgical information onto a patient’s body), in architecture (superimposing virtual buildings into a space where they are yet to be built), or for cross-continental collaboration where participants can’t be in the same room.

Ronald Azuma defines AR as involving three characteristics:

• It combines the real and virtual.
• It is interactive in real time.
• It is registered in 3D.

Technical components generally necessary for AR include a CPU (central processing unit), a camera, and accelerometer and GPS (global positioning system)—all things that are present in the conveniently sized mobile phone (especially smart phones). It’s no wonder that AR through mobile phones presents such exciting possibilities for communicating with people. 

Augmented Reality in Brand Communications

The first use of AR in advertising was by HIT Lab NZ and Saatchi & Saatchi in 2007 for an application for the Wellington Zoo, which allowed users to view virtual animals by pointing their phone cameras at printed bar codes.

At present, applications have been interesting but often more gimmicky than useful. Some of the examples include an Ikea campaign that allowed people to view virtual versions of their furniture in their homes through their phone cameras.

Various applications suggest other uses, though. Tweetmondo is an application that lets you see what Twitter “tweets” have been sent from the area you are in at any given time. In Japan, users of the Sekai mobile application can leave messages about particular locations for other users to view when they arrive in the same location.

The Future of Augmented Reality

AR is quite new and still has a long way to go. Barriers like costs in development have held it back, but with smartphones becoming more common, potential for AR applications is increasing as well. There has been discussion, for example, of the possibility that AR applications could not only superimpose graphics but also perhaps remove real objects from view through mobile cameras (by recreating a background out of the colors surrounding a desk lamp, for example, and then covering the lamp).

Going forward, there are a number of challenges AR faces, investment in development and the potential for serous privacy concerns being the most notable. The images below illustrate what is possible when the realms of social media, identity recognition, and geographical location are combined—both exciting and scary stuff.

As a mobile marketing channel, the possibilities of AR are so significant that they should really be explored by any marketer hoping to make an impression, provided that their target market can afford smartphones, that is.


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