Better than reality

Just back from holiday? Then I hope you also took an e-break. Or like my colleague Steven did: just leave that bloody smartphone at home. For him the only way to resist the temptation of tweets, Facebook updates and e-mails. Yet that smart little mobile phone can also prove to be quite handy while travelling. In New York, for example, an iPhone app can show you, on the basis of live camera images from your mobile phone, the path to the nearest subway station.
At the beginning of July, the Dutch Architecture Institute announced such an augmented reality (AR) app with which you receive extra information, photos, videos and 3D animations for a large number of buildings in Rotterdam. You point the camera of your phone at your environment, just as if you’re taking a photo, and an added layer of information tells you everything about the building. This way you can see what the new Central Station will look like or how these buildings used to look. Amsterdam, Utrecht and The Hague will follow at the end of this year.
The term “augmented reality” was coined in the early 1990’s by the aircraft manufacturer Boeing, but it is only in recent years that it has gained currency. Together with 3D it is one of the latest visual technologies which will dramatically change our environment in the coming years. AR works with a square code which consists of little contrasting black and white blocks. With the help of a webcam or your mobile phone camera, this code is transformed into a three-dimensional interactive world which makes the real life pictures of your physical environment merge with computer-generated data.
At the beginning of this millennium, AR was still applied primarily in computer games such as ARQuake, which converted your own street or house into the setting for a combat game. In the meantime, more and more marketers are embracing this technology. The first marketing applications still generally involved fiddling and went no further than a sponsored AR game. Think of Fanta’s virtual tennis game or the helicopter flight which Coke Zero‘s packaging offered when the film Avatar was launched. At the beginning of this year Adidas jumped on board very enthusiastically and brought out no fewer than five different sneaker models with an AR code integrated into the tongue of the sports shoes. If you hold them in front of your webcam, you find yourself in an exclusive virtual world where you control computer games through the movement of your shoes. Frankly, the point of that completely escaped me. Now that the game controller is disappearing as a result of the Wii and the Natal project of Xbox, I find gaming with shoes just a, uh, step too far. Moreover, sporting such a cubist AR code prominently on top of your sneakers doesn’t immediately convey a flair for fashion.

Fortunately, AR marketing applications appear to be outgrowing the gimmick status. Thanks to paper AR codes on IKEA flyers you can check at home in 3D whether that couch really fits in your living room, and which of the colours it comes in would be best for it. The Home Depot app makes it possible to visualise your walls at home in different colours, thus avoiding egregiously mistaken paint purchases. Cosmetics brand Shiseido put digital AR mirrors in department stores in Tokyo that give you perfect advice on which products best fit your skin type. Naturally, they also immediately display the results on your face. LEGO packages with an AR code already show in the store how the content will ultimately look in 3D – at least if dad makes the time to patiently assemble it together with his son.
Thus marketers should absolutely not look at AR as just another new medium, but rather as a new technology which enriches existing channels. The Italian women’s magazine Grazia used AR to allow cover act ‘Florence and the Machine’ to perform in 3D, right from a paper page.

The magazine GQ has already published interactive 3D ads from Calvin Klein and watchmaker Tissot. At the end of June, Forever 21, a huge competitor for H&M in the United States, used the technology at the opening of their new store on Times Square. A gigantic AR billboard picked up live pictures of the bystanders. From time to time the model on the billboard took one of them between her thumb and index finger and dropped them – virtually, not in reality – into a Forever21 bag, to the great hilarity of the public. The campaign runs with the trend that spectators themselves are becoming the new act. Think of that wildly enthusiastic young man at the show of the Editors at Rock Werchter in Belgium who, to the amusement of the public, was picked out by the cameras, and who in the meantime appears in the group’s new video clip. For this reason I am convinced that AR is here to stay in marketing. The technology makes it possible, via a simple paper code, to make the personal environment of your customers interactive with 3D projections, images and sound. It can give a new élan to direct marketing and conventional media. To your newspaper as well. And you don’t even need an iPad for it.

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