Augmented reality in action - advertising and retail

By 2015, global revenues from augmented reality applications and services are expected to reach $1.5 billion. That’s a lot of money for something often branded as a gimmick.

AR’s been around for over 20 years in one form or another but it took the rise of certain video site to bring this branch of technology, name and all, into the public eye and it was advertising that was largely responsible. The release of the open source ARToolKit meant that developers were using Adobe Flash to come up with all sorts of exciting augmented reality animations that would come alive on computer screens when a pattern or code in the real world was recognised by a webcam. We all know the trick by now. Of course, that only worked if you happened to have the Flash player plug-in installed and now that YouTube has turned up, almost everyone out there has.

If you haven’t experienced it yourself yet, then there’s enough video footage to show you what it’s all about. The corporate world has been all over AR to promote films, events, cars, food, watches and just about anything you can name. At its most straight forward, you might get something like the campaign for the first Michael Bay Transformers movie in 2007. The web app contains face recognition code and, when it’s got you in its sites, it augments the user’s real appearance with a mask to make you look like Optimus Prime.

Taken on a step further and you can get slightly more interactive. Burger King used AR to promote a $1 burger that the company was launching. When you held up the required piece of paper with the symbol for the application to recognise, it produced a virtual version of that sandwich in your hands. What’s more, when you rotate it about, the bun comes up to reveal the layers of what lies inside.

The clever part about this latter example is that not only has the advert created a fully-engaged, personal and captive audience but it allows you to handle the product. It’s a huge step more tactile than any billboard or television advertisement ever has been. With the burger in your hands, to your eyes and the human brain it’s so very nearly real. You’re far more likely to have an emotional and even physiological experience with it in the case of food. The advert is direct and suddenly oh-so-very tempting for the user to act upon and all of that is combined with the wow factor that AR brings in the first place but, once we’re all used to the eye candy, is there anything more to the technology of interest to brands out there? The answer already appears to be yes.

One of the most successful AR campaigns to date has that for Tissot watches. It’s the same premis as the others mentioned but the application is tailored for a better suited AR experience. The idea is that you put a dummy watch around your wrist, which in reality is simply a piece of thin card with a code on the face, but when you hold it in front of your webcam, the web app displays it on the screen as a virtual, 1:1 scale version of whichever one of the Tissot timepieces that you’ve chosen.

The idea, of course, is that you get to try them on to see which suits you best before you buy, and that is the key to the campaign and others as dreamed up by East London-based AR, 3D and other future technology creative agency Holition.

“When we approached AR in the market, all that was there was that you show something to a web camera and you get something back. It’s what we call the ‘monkey approach’,” explains brand manager at Holition, Lynne Murray.

“What we’re trying to do with the worn-on-the-body applications is enable a real business functionality for it. It engages consumers, it enables people to understand the product and therefore it enables them to take that step closer to purchasing the product as well.”

Even if you never make the purchase, the campaign has served it’s purpose.

“Tissot’s brand PR grew 600 per cent through the campaign compared the to 100 per cent growth that they usually expect to achieve. So, even as a communication tool, it’s a hugely engaging way for brands to have another and new point of contact with its audience.”

Although the idea of selling an expensive luxury watch using a piece of paper around the potential buyer’s wrist has been challenged as an uncomfortable juxtaposition, both the figures and feedback from Tissot speak for themselves. What’s more, the dummy watch, complete with branding and web address, acted as an advert unto itself when people trying the technology in-store at the brand’s concession in Selfridges took them home as a souvenir.

“What’s worked really nicely with this campaign was that it had all these points of contact working together. The paper watches were printed in GQ magazine, you could try it out in-store and you could print out in your own home as well.

“AR is a new way of communicating socially, a new way of getting people on board with the brand. Tissot wants people to talk about it. They want people to take photos and to paste them on Facebook - theirs and the customers’ pages - and have a dialogue about it, and people have.”

Of course, AR advertising doesn’t have to be about making your target navigate to a specific site and print out a physical code. Better still is to catch a passer by, and some of the best uses of augmented reality in advertising have been in making an ordinary, ignorable internet banners into something interactive and irresistible.

AT&T and Zugara came up with a superb example which it put on the ESPN website. It allowed the user to become a striker in a virtual football game scoring by nodding your head towards the goal as the computer controlled winger popped in crosses for you. Whether or not it made anyone go out and sign up for AT&T is another thing but what the company could be sure of was that people were spending a hell of a lot more time with their eyes on its branding.

Since the smartphone revolution, it’s also meant that companies can use the AR effect on its target audience out and about and away from the desktop as well. Mobile phones are equipped with the cameras, the processors and - in all but one case - a Flash-supporting browsing experience as well. Thankfully, for those looking to grab the lucrative iPhone owning market, there is hope from the likes of the Argon AR mobile browser as recently developed at Georgia Tech University by AR pioneer Blair McIntyre and the team in the Augmented Environments Lab, but you can read more about that when you have a moment.

Already many brands and their agencies have come up with some very compelling tricks to engage an audience on the hoof. One of the best, admittedly gimmicky but very amusing nonetheless, was around the World Cup in South Africa with a mobile app that allowed users play keepy uppies of a virtual ball using their real foot as seen through the mobile’s camera stream.

To take the idea one step further Georgia Tech’s McIntyre is using products in the real world to play games with and, in fact, on. One of the most intriguing ideas from his students has been a casual game which takes place on the side of a milk carton called Bug Juice. The idea is that the surface of the product becomes the AR environment and the board on which the virtual game can take place. The passer by in the supermarket can then use their mobile phone to play. Again, the exact effects of that on the wouldbe customer isn’t clear but a carton with a game on it is certainly more interesting than one without and, at the least, the consumer has spent that much more time exposed to the brand.

It goes without saying that all of these possibilites of AR on the smartphone has the eyes of the advertising industry wider than ever before, and with estimations of half the population of the world owning a mobile capable of such an experience by Christmas 2012, it’s a space that’s set to explode.

“Webcams offer an intimate retail experience but phone mobile phone apps, even more so,” describes Holition’s Murray.

“Instead of being stuck in front of your computer, you can move your body and your camera around in a much more natural way to see what something might look like on you.”

While the technology has been there for many people already, it’s one of the reasons why AR has been limited to the luxury brands until recently, seeing as it’s their target market who’re more likely to have the hardware powerful enough to run the graphics.

“We’re on a curve of early adopters both in the brands and the audiences that are using it,” says Murray.

“We have to go at the level of the consumer. It would be unwise to make too much of a jump. It needs to naturally evolve as the consumer evolves as well, but we’re approaching a point where it won’t just be the high level companies.”

Indeed, retail has already arrived on mobile AR with the launch of the Voucher Codes app showing how all ends of the market can get in on the act. The app takes the deals available on the company’s website and hangs the virtual deals in the real air on your smartphone’s display - as is the case with almost all mobile AR at the moment. However, as Murray points out, it’s all about combining the technology that we already have.

“It’s not much further for you to click on the tags to try the products on or get a better look at them before you even decided to walk up to the shop where the deal has been advertised.”

For a real glimpse of the future of AR in advertising, Murray took Pocket-lint down into the labs underneath Holition HQ where among 3D printers, demonstrations of the Ford AR shopping centre campaign and even haptic feedback touch-based AR was the first attempts at an in-store booth which analyses the consumer's physical form to create an entirely accurate virtual version of that person. The idea then is to be able to augment your image with whatever clothes you wish to try on without the hassle of actually having to do so.

In the future, it could even be an avatar that one could use at home for the purposes of online shopping decisions where there is no real opportunity to get hands on with the products.

“Women buying online often buy in three sizes and send the two that don’t fit back, and that’s at huge cost to the retailer. On top of that this system would offer very valuable information for the retailer as to which clothes are tried on but rarely bought. Perhaps, it’s something to do with the fit rather than the look of the garment.

"It also gives the company the opportunity to store all kinds of information on what you buy, what kinds of clothes you try on and what suits you best. Obviously, it’s early technology but, eventually, it might just be a case of walking past a mirror to see yourself in those clothes.

"Legality might well get in the way of a Minority Report-style experience where the mirror is an advert that automatically dresses you in its clothes as you walk past it but there’s no reason why we couldn’t have an AR portfolio built in the cloud, so that you can have a catalogue of what kind of products you want to try in an Amazon recommendations kind of way.”

Legality could also become an interesting issue when you get one shop advertising virtually on the physical walls of another. All the same, with the prices of good quality digital projectors, cameras, motion sensing equipment and tracking hardware dropping with each new home gadget launched, it’s easy to depict a not too distant future where all of these technologies become fully integrated into what Murray and Holition describe as “the next level of retail” altogether.

“There’s going to be a time when you’re on Kinect and you’re buying a pair of shoes because you’ve just tried them on. You’ve even walked down the street in the them because you’ve been able to do that virtually.

“If we really go into blue sky thinking, then there could be a very nice situation where you’ve tried on the product and then print it to purchase on your home 3D printer. That’s not an unachievable future.”

It’s a nice idea but perhaps the 3D printing of anything you want is a little too much of a stretch for a future even within the next 100 years or more. Printing in colour requires only a few different toner cartridges but just how many would you need to cover all the materials required to print out even something as specific as a shoe? But, then perhaps by that stage, the real won’t even matter any more.

“By the time we catch up to that space, the AR experience will be so seamless it will be like you’re looking in the mirror. It just becomes part of that way in which you adorn yourself and wear things. Maybe you don’t even ever have to own that Gucci handbag, you just wear it perfectly in the virtual sense wherever you go. It might even be more fashionable than the real thing.”

For more information on what Qualcomm is doing with Augmented Reality please click: http://www.qualcomm.co.uk/products/augmented-reality

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