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Augmented reality, part two

I keep getting drawn back to the topic of augmented reality and how it might impact on marketing and communication. When I wrote my first post on the subject I was beginning to explore some examples of the technology. After a period of reflection, I’m left with two questions:

  1. How to describe it in layman’s terms
  2. What the applications to marketing/PR might be

For the first, I think I’m getting close. Get people to think about a physical object (reality) and data about it (or data about that data) that could exist online. These are the two core components.

Augmented reality is the technology that connects the two together. This technology has to do a number of things:

  • Provide the user with a way of capturing the object
  • Recognise the object
  • Search for the relevant data about the object
  • Display the data in a way that augments the physical representation

Let’s take the simple example of a painting in an art gallery:

  • User points device at painting
  • Software recognises the painting
  • Software searches for information about the painting or artist
  • Device displays data to user as an overlay on the image

So with description, let’s turn our attention to the applications for marketing and PR. The first question to ask is what the physical objects are. People, products, buildings, headlines, newspapers, etc. all spring immediately to mind. Now let’s think about the associated data. Profiles, reviews, comments, articles, sentiment, etc. all come into play. So augmented reality applications that can tell you whether a headline in a newspaper is positive or negative and what people are saying about it is not beyond the realms of possibility.

The key technology challenge is recognition, and this is where I expect to see developments in the future. I’m already imagining a world where every object – animate or inanimate – can be recognised (visually, aurally or otherwise) and given a unique identifier. If that happens, then the process of tagging information and looking it up becomes as straightforward as sending an email is today, opening up a whole new world of augmentation.

Augmented reality: the next killer marketing technology

Since becoming the proud owner of an iPhone 3GS I’ve annoyed family, friends and colleagues silly be flashing it around and telling them which direction North is. I’ve also been marveling at the ecosystem of third party applications available (which, apparently, would cost over $140,000 if you bought them all).

But the apps – as these programs are called – that currently exist only just scratch the surface of what is going to be possible now that the iPhone knows where it is and even which direction it is pointing.

Welcome to the world of augmented reality.

Whilst at the time of writing there are no true augmented reality applications available, there are a number in the pipeline – and their developers have not been slow to post videos showing what they can do online.

The first I came across is Nearest Tube, and app that will quite literally point you in the direction of the closest London Underground station when you hold up the iPhone. Watch the video below to see it in action.

Today I discover TwittARound (geddit), or at least a video of the first beta version. In the words of the developer, “it shows live tweets around your location on the horizon. Because of video see-through effect you see where the tweet comes from and how far it is away.” Again, seeing is believing:

So why I am suggesting that augmented reality is the next killer marketing technology? Quite simply because as these apps show, the physical and virtual worlds have just moved closer together as a result of devices like the iPhone 3GS and the ingenuity and creativity of application developers.

How long then before we have augmented reality apps that do things like:

  • Show messages left by others at the same location (in fact, there are map-based apps that already do this)
  • Display internet ratings or reviews (or alternatives) for products in shops
  • Call up news/opinion about a company when you pass by their premises
  • Provide interactivity to any outdoor ad by pointing the mobile device at it
  • Help you find the nearest outlet for a particular brand (in fact, ING Direct already did this on Google’s Android platform with their ATM Finder)

To paraphrase the ad, there’s bound to be an app for that soon.

I for one am going to be watching this space with interest over the coming months. If you have examples of companies using AR as part of their marketing or communications, please let me know.

Update: Just discovered that Apple has already filed a patent for something called ID App for identifying objects in the user’s surroundings. Mashable has more on this.