on the shore of the ultimate sea

Augmented Reality: More than a Fad

As we approached our CaT: Creativity and Technology event last week (which went swimmingly, thanks for asking) I began to think more and more about the prevalance of augmented reality in the panels and presentations that we were putting on. AR, along with data visualization, was one of the day’s most discussed topics; at least four of the presenters on the agenda spoke of the technique.

We had a few practitioners together, so I wanted to ask them what I’m sure many attendees were thinking: Is this a fad, or what? I’ve seen the rumblings and mutterings to the same effect, and a post today by Iain at Crackunit is prompting even more debate.

While I’m in general tilting toward the cynical side when I see a tool get hyped quickly, I’m pretty confident as we extend the size and strength of mobile data networks, get larger screens at home and become more comfortable interacting with webcams that we’ll see applications of Augmented Reality move away from cool visuals and into a realm of great utility. Already, mobile apps like Wikitude are making use of the technology but once data streams there get larger expect even better stuff. (Tangentially, I talked with the creators of a bunch of apps for a recent Creativity story.)

Obviously, as in everything, advertising professionals stand a good chance of ravaging the practice, but I don’t think that’ll matter. Even if they do, useful, interesting applications stand stock apart from tawdry gags. The USPS box simulator Tait mentions from AKQA is a good example of this and the Ikea example below it is great and traditional as well.

My.IKEA from Robin Westergren on Vimeo.

But what are they keys to deeply significant AR projects, other than a growing infrastructure of fast mobile connectivity, increase in display size and webcam adoption?

  • Coordination with product/package design across multiple areas to create unique activators: Consider being able to pullall the Kraft products from your cupboard, place them with their tags facing the webcam and then seeing the different hot meals you could combine them to make. The sort of heavy interplay across multiple product lines that’s necessary for this to be good won’t come from a one-off project, though.
  • Dynamic, rapid interplay with other backend parts on the visualization tip: Wieden + Kennedy did a virtual Easter Egg hunt in its office with Photosynth and Google Street View’s just introduced Smart Navigation. Both services are good at imitating 3D-like experiences from flat images. I can’t imagine we’re far from finding a bridge. Imagine going to Disneyland or a National Park and being able to bring your trail map to a viewer location and pop out an AR map to note landmarks and see what you’re in for. This won’t work, though, unless the stuff in back comes together seamlessly.
  • Useful and compelling content and interactions: This last one may be the most obvious but it’s also the most important. Any Crystal Pepsi/Pet Rock scenario begins with people thinking of the AR applications as tired and a waste of time, developing a resistance to the technology and ignoring it. There are already a few barriers to engagement, namely the amount of time and technology it takes to fire up the interaction. As those come down, you’ve got to make sure what’s on the other end counts.

Wikipedia has an exciting list of potential AR stuff (such as, when projectors get really cheap, you can do cool stuff like this: “Any physical device currently produced to assist in data-oriented tasks (such as the clock, radio, PC, arrival/departure board at an airport, stock ticker, PDA, PMP, informational posters/fliers/billboards, in-car navigation systems, etc. could be replaced by virtual devices that cost nothing to produce aside from the cost of writing the software.”)

Thinking AR stuff will quickly go away or decline in quality is a normal cynical reaction (and one I had at first), but it doesn’t seem like, in this case, it will. Advertisers will certainly make thorough use of the novelty and entertainment aspects, but the rate of innovation inside the AR community will allow more and more meaningful interactions should brands choose to dedicate resources to well-thought-out projects.

Written by Nick

June 12th, 2009 at 12:41 pm

What do you think?