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What’s wrong with real reality?

You’ve seen versions of the augmented reality vision in movies, and you might have seen it demonstrated with ads and special offers popping up on an iPhone screen as someone walks around a shopping strip. As Josh Mehlman reports, the technology has much greater potential and a range of practical uses for smaller companies.

For a technology more than 50 years old, augmented reality is currently making a lot of noise as the next big thing. Many technology companies, including local ones, are showing off the whizz-bang and potential of their apps. But is the technology a geek plaything, a marketer’s wet dream or a practical tool that small businesses might actually use?

Augmented reality is a system of mixing a live view of a real-world environment with computer-generated imagery or information in context and in real time.

The first augmented reality applications were developed in the 1950s: the head-up displays of fighter aircraft that showed navigation and weapon aiming information in pilots’ fields of vision, so they could fly and aim without looking down at instruments.

Sports broadcasts have also used augmented reality techniques for many years, such as the moving world-record line in swimming races.

Everyone can be augmented

The combination of several recent technology developments has made augmented reality much easier to achieve and access. Portable, internet-connected mobile devices can determine where they are using the global positioning system (GPS) and download relevant information in real time. Smartphones and personal computers also have the processing power to recognise elements of video images and overlay new information.

Augmented reality applications are generally viewed through a PC or smartphone screen, where information from a camera is overlaid with computer-generated information. They can also be viewed through glasses or goggles, which project the images directly into the wearer’s field of vision.

Many augmented reality applications use location information, usually gathered from GPS devices and compasses built into smartphones, to determine where the user is standing and which direction he or she is facing. They can then display local information such as nearby shops, landmarks or public transport stops, much in the way mapping applications such as Google Maps do.

Imagine how much easier it would be to find the nearest bus stop just by following an icon on the screen as you walk around.

Other augmented reality applications use computer vision techniques to recognise features in the camera view, such as the locations of walls in a room or a person sitting in front of a laptop, and add images on top of them.

For example, Sydney band Lost Valentinos created an augmented reality video clip where fans could download and print out black and white square markers. The
application would recognise these markers when they were placed in sight of a webcam, and would overlay images of band members dancing and playing their instruments.

Where are you at? The case for location-based marketing

One application for augmented reality that has the marketing industry very excited is the ability to deliver location-based offers to customers. Let’s say you’re wandering down the street in an unfamiliar city and looking through your phone. As you point towards a nearby cafe, information pops up on your screen, as does a voucher for 20% off your next coffee purchase.

Sydney-based Insqribe is one company developing a platform that delivers augmented reality information to mobile phones: currently the iPhone, but with plans for Google Android and RIM BlackBerry devices.

“This gives small businesses the ability to share promotional offers or other types of information with customers,” says commercial director Nick Gonios. “If someone is walking down the street, retailers have the opportunity to present themselves to people going by. They could show special offers through overlaid augmented reality tags. Customers could put items on lay by on the go.

“The platform could also provide additional information, such as opening and closing times.”

One has to wonder if this use of augmented reality is any different from a range of location-based marketing concepts that marketers and technology companies have been pitching for the past decade. Would consumers react any better to location-based vouchers by augmented reality than by text message, or would they resent the intrusion?

“It’s a more natural user experience and you can present more information through camera view because of the way people see things,” says Gonios.

However, the information wouldn’t necessarily have to be commercial; for instance, tourism agencies could provide information for visitors in multiple languages. And it wouldn’t necessarily have to be provided by the shopkeepers themselves. Applications such as UrbanSpoon allow users to review and rate restaurants, and this information can be integrated into an augmented reality view. Diners in an unfamiliar area could pick the nearby restaurant with the highest rating, for example.

“Reviews and commentary are very valuable from a social point of view,” says Gonios.

Digging beneath the (shiny) surface

Daniel Bradby is co-founder of jTribe, a mobile apps development company for iPhone and Android. He is also excited about the prospects of augmented reality.

We’ve been looking at bringing static, physical geo-located information to life with augmented reality, such as animating a billboard,” he says. “Obviously, you can add things like a game or a giveaway, to get the user to engage in the product or brand itself, as opposed to a static piece of advertising that they just take in.”

He believes there are many interesting applications beyond marketing, though many of these fall into specific niches.

“I work with architects and urban planners and the Victorian Government is interested in getting their geographic system information onto the phone,” he says. “You could provide good information for architects and planners, to augment what they’re looking at with planning information on top, such as the zoning or heritage listing of a property.”

However, Apple’s restrictions on augmented reality applications on the iPhone are holding the technology back.

“The iPhone platform’s way of offering augmented reality is allowing you to overlay animation over the current video source,” he explains. “You can’t process that video that’s coming in and saying ‘I recognise that shape and I’m going to overlay information on that’.”

Imagining how products fit your life

The image recognition side of augmented reality has great potential for business use, according to Scott OBrien, marketing director at Explore Engage, a firm that develops augmented reality applications and devices.

“In online retail, the few main obstacles to buying are credit card security, logistics and not being able to get an idea of the product and how it would look and feel in its environment,” he says. “Augmented reality takes the mystery out of how this product would function in my environment.

“We’ve got apps for the fashion industry that show a 3D rendering to the fitting of clothes to the individual, using motion capture. They can also use social media to get peer approval: send it to their friends and say, ‘How does this look on me?’.

“Another example is product assembly: anything from kitchens to artificial limbs. For example, we’ve developed an application suitable for the likes of IKEA, where the customer unpacks their furniture from a box and the pieces are everywhere. We can identify each piece and tell them the order in which to put it together.”

Winning combination: offers plus interaction

Augmented reality applications are most popular when combined with social media and incentives, OBrien believes.

“It’s not only the excitement of the new technology, but also if it’s something worthy of sharing with friends and possibly incentivised by prizes or a greater intelligence at point of sale,” he says.
“We’re expecting in 12 to 24 months’ time, companies like Sony, NEC and Nokia will be experimenting with augmented reality glasses.

“We’re going down the same line, developing our own glasses, because we believe once people have them, it’ll be heads up and hands free. It’ll make the internet more accessible, friendly and easy to operate.”

Although much of the talk about augmented reality is hype or gimmickry, OBrien says augmented reality applications can be practical for small businesses, especially because they’re slightly addictive.

“You usually find on augmented reality campaigns, people will stay onsite for four or more minutes and over the first two weeks they learn about the AR application, they visit four or more times,” he says.

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Five augmented reality setbacks

In the blog ReadWriteWeb, Marshall Kirkpatrick writes that augmented reality technology faces five serious challenges.

  • Spam and security. If augmented reality applications were swamped with ads for porn or under-the-counter pharmaceuticals, users would quickly switch off. Even worse, your view of the world could be hacked and manipulated by unscrupulous people.
  • Technical challenges. Augmented reality would be most useful if people could experience it together and interact with each other in real time, but this would be technically very hard to achieve.
  • Etiquette. Many people think it rude when someone else sends a text or checks their email at the dinner table. Will it suddenly become acceptable to point your phone at someone you meet, to see if a link to their Twitter or Facebook profile appears above them? 
  • Interoperability. Most current augmented reality applications only show information from their own databases, but the power of the web is openness: any information accessible through any device. This will require cooperation and the development of open standards.
  • Openness. Augmented reality applications will be most powerful if they allow other people to contribute content, but then who will decide who gets to see what information? Will application developers or device manufacturers try to lock users into their preferred providers, sources or applications?

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