Augmented reality has been a factor in consumer consciousness for decades thanks to sci-fi classics like "Tron" and "Videodrome". Along with flying cars and cyborgs, the ability to see an alternate world superimposed over an often-dreary reality has long been envisioned as status quo in our future society.
Needless to say, we're still waiting on the flying cars and cyborgs are shaping up just a bit differently from how they were originally envisioned. But AR is finally poised to become front and center in our daily lives. Thanks to the recent debut of Google Glass and creative plans from device manufacturers like Nokia, an annotated world appears to be right around the corner.
The Augmented Reality Landscape
For those of you who haven't actually experienced AR first-hand just yet, think of it as being similar to the data overlays one sees in Google Street View; simple bits of useful information layered semi-transparently over a real world vista. Except in the case of AR, you're seeing the world and the informational overlay in real time, through a device viewfinder or some form of wearable technology such as Google Glass.
The information need not be limited to text. It can take the form of video or graphics as well – all designed to help you make a real-world decision like buy a product, find a destination, or simply learn more about your surroundings.
The history of AR actually stretches back long before mobile devices – or even personal PCs – were a common reality. It was frequently explored by writers in science fiction novels of the 1950s and '60s and it appears as a nascent concept in popular fiction as early as 1901 in the cult classic novel "The Master Key".
It began to take a more concrete shape in 1962 through the efforts of a man named Morton Heilig, an inventor obsessed with the concept of experiential theater. The prototype of his "Sensorama" was a kind of reverse augmented reality in which a machine layered real-world sensations over a fabricated reality by enabling theatergoers to experience motion, olfactory cues, and other physical sensations while engaged in watching a film.
Fast forward to the early '90s when engineers at Boeing began toying with AR as a tool to facilitate the manufacturing process and yet again to the early 2000s when scientists at university computing labs around the world began tinkering with it as an enhancement to video games.
The fact is, AR has been on our radar far longer than most of us realize – it's just that up until rather recently, it was relegated to the world of developers, gamers, and sci-fi enthusiasts. Like so many technologies before it (e.g., lasers, computers, and mobile phones) it has simple taken time for it to filter out to the general populace.
AR as we know it now, as a highly mobile and location oriented consumer tool, didn't creep into popular consciousness until much later with the first AR apps appearing in the iTunes marketplace around 2009.
AR apps like Layar, Junaio, and Wikitude started to surface around this time while popular brands like Yelp began adding AR functionality to their existing products. Some brands also started to experiment with desktop-based AR – the most notable example being GE's Windmills – but for the most part, the obvious action was happening via mobile.
The ability of mobile devices to trigger contextual and information-rich experiences in real world settings had brands salivating to turn AR into a marketing tool. The opportunities seemed both obvious and endless (e.g., leading customers to a store, alerting them to a sale, triggering real-time star ratings and reviews).
Yet to date, few brands have managed to leverage AR successfully. It's likely that this is largely due to slow user uptake since AR as it exists now is fragmented across myriad mobile applications.
For AR to be a truly useful tool for marketers, consumers need to be using it in high enough numbers for AR marketing programs to show significant results. But this may all change with the debut of Google Glass.
Google has (perhaps wisely, perhaps not) refrained from referring to Glass as an augmented reality device when in fact that's exactly what it is. Handset OEMs are also getting in on the game, with brands like Nokia and Apple patenting AR technology to embed into the operating systems of their devices, but it's Google that is the real catalyst for change.
Glass is still a technology in the hands of the very few but with Google's resources behind it, a massive audience of loyal users, and the Android platform it is just a matter of time before AR finally becomes a mainstream marketing tool.
Burgeoning Best Practices and the Elusive ROI of AR
Regardless of whether consumers are looking through the viewfinder of a mobile device or via the far more organic interface of a pair of glasses (or contacts, or retinal implants...) it's clear that augmented reality is poised to grow exponentially as a discovery channel. The unanswered question is what rules will govern it?
To fully understand the possible implications of an AR-enabled populace, you need to first understand the two basic forms of AR:
- Marker-based AR: A marker of some kind is needed to initiate the AR experience. The marker itself could be as simple as a small print image or as big and complex as the Empire State building and can be coupled with geo-location to further contextualize the experience it triggers.
- Markerless AR: The experience is triggered primarily by geo-location but can also be influenced and contextualized by some form of additional user input, such as a search query or personalization parameters (think Google Now).
There are obvious use cases for both forms of augmented reality. Marker-based AR will likely evolve as a go-to solution for upper funnel brand advertising efforts (e.g., a marker on a retail tag might trigger a time-sensitive special offer while viewing a new BMW seen on the street might trigger a demo video). Markerless, location-based AR on the other hand, is likely to see significant uptake from end-users as a proactive discovery channel and it's here where things begin to get complicated.
The current state of AR, as it stands now, is fairly simple. Consumers access AR functionality through third-party applications where the experience is either controlled directly by the brand (e.g., Yelp) or by an app in partnership with third party providers (e.g., Wikitude serves up third-party location-based results from Citysearch and Tupalo). However, Google entering the world of AR in a big way via Glass muddies the water considerably.
Your existing .com content is now likely to be crawled and indexed by Google and eventually other engines for AR-based delivery via visual search. Your digital content as well as your offline advertising, physical locations, and even your products and brand imagery are eventually going to be searchable through augmented reality whether you like it or not.
At present we can only hypothesize at how this algorithmic AR search will evolve. It's safe to say that a few basics will apply, albeit in a slightly modified fashion. For example:
- Local optimization: Since AR is inherently mobile and often location-based, optimization of Google+ Local listings will have obvious importance with an increased emphasis on local imagery and exact geo-coordinates.
- Local content: As local relevance becomes a more precious commodity, it's likely that a well-optimized Google+ Local listing won't be enough to tip the scales in your favor. Fresh, well-optimized content oriented towards your location/s is likely to have an increasing influence on your rank for AR search.
- Image optimization: While most marker based AR will be advertising-based initially, it's likely that it will become common practice to scan buildings, packaging, and all manner of physical objects to obtain information. Consequently, optimization of images will take on a whole new level of importance. Descriptive naming, alt-tagging, image dimensions and product angles, and image site maps will all become increasingly important to ensure accurate results for AR-based search.
Of course, that's the aspect of AR-based search that brands can control – but there's a whole other aspect yet to consider: user-generated AR.
It's inevitable that new applications will surface enabling consumers to "tag" physical locations in real time, leaving information for other users to find and taking the meaning of social engagement to a whole new level.
Imagine a prospective guest nearing the entrance of a hotel only to see, via her Glass interface, that the cleanliness of the rooms leave a lot to be desired. Or entering a restaurant and seeing recent negative reviews. Or looking at a children's toy on store shelf and seeing a stream of disparaging reviews about its quality.
All of this information is easily obtainable online with a certain amount of effort, but will be far more front and center with little or no user effort at all courtesy of AR technologies like Glass. It will become a lot easier for consumer to see and express negative sentiment and consequently, community management and handling/encouraging real-time consumer feedback will escalate in priority.
We're closing in on the inevitable – an always-on world, heavily annotated by brands and consumers alike. It's entirely fair to say it's the product of a self-fulfilling prophecy – an entire generation of die-hard sci-fi-loving engineers grew up with a vision of the future that didn't exist so they had to invent it. Now that it's here, search professionals are faced with the challenge of a search ecosystem that extends literally everywhere you look.
Image Credit: Nokia