Villing & Company

Is Augmented Reality the Future of Marketing?

I'm hopeful that sometime in the future we'll all be able to get tiny contact lenses that have Internet access and incredibly powerful nanoprocessors. These lenses would superimpose information over the real world, augmenting reality with relevant data and facts as we lived out our day-to-day lives. In my opinion, this sort of future is all but inevitable. And we're a lot closer than you probably think.

"Augmented reality" (AR) typically occurs when your real-time view of the physical world is being enhanced by virtual images. The most common example of AR is the first down lines that are added to football broadcasts. Of course, this is just the tip of the iceberg. In the last couple years, smartphones that include a GPS, camera and 3G connection have made it possible to run AR applications that come much closer to the contact lenses I've described above. Here's a list of notable AR smartphone applications:

  • Yelp Monocle - This application places reviews of restaurants and businesses over the real world as you view it through the smartphone camera.
  • TwittARound - This application does the same thing with nearby tweets, showing you what people around you are tweeting.
  • AcrossAir Browser - This combines a lot of similar AR apps into a single interface, allowing you to display location-based information through your smartphone camera.

Augmented reality isn't limited to smartphone apps, however. Another popular AR technique requires a computer equipped with a webcam. Most of these webcam-based AR experiences interact with some sort of physical marker, which is held up to the webcam and can be easily recognized by the computer software. This marker is usually printed and is used by the software to provide a spatial reference point.

The first time I saw this was a demo created by GE, explaining the benefits of alternative energy. This demo is pretty cool, but I'm not sure that it serves much purpose other than attracting attention (nothing wrong with that). However, my head nearly exploded when I saw a couple videos of how Lego was using the same technology in some of their toy store displays. Check out the following video and some of the related videos that show up after it's finished:

This is a great example where AR is more than just a neat tech demo; it significantly improves the shopping experience!

The U.S. Postal service has also launched a virtual box simulator, which shows the size of shipping boxes using AR through your webcam. The system is still a little quirky, but the idea is great. You can actually place objects in a transparent box to see if they will fit.

This is all just the beginning. Soon, there will be ways to virtually try on clothes, create quick 3D models that allow virtual objects to interact realistically with the real world and view augmented reality instruction videos.

Still think my contact lenses are improbable? It's just a matter of time!

So, is augmented reality the future of marketing?

I think the answer is "yes". In fact, I think that augmented reality is the future of information in general. I'm not talking about the immediate future, but I don't think it's far off.

The move toward mobile computing has already started this trend, but our minds have been trained in the traditional computing environment. We still think in terms of apps, websites and specialized browsing devices rather than "views" or "experiences" or Internet-enabled products of any type. It's going to take innovators who were raised with the mobile Internet to break our minds out of these ruts and fully realize what it means to have ubiquitous access to the world's information. Some of the links I've included here provide hints of what's to come.

There may not be practical applications for your business today, but it's important to start thinking about what marketing looks like in a reality augmented by virtual objects, tools and information. Start working to remove your mental separation between the virtual world and the real world. It's likely that within a decade or two, they could be inseparable.

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