A mention of ‘augmented reality’ may conjure 1980’s style sci-fi images to an average layperson.  However, augmented reality has today become a practical and usable technology which delivers a real-time, interactive interface with the immediate environment.  This is no longer a new technology, it has already been implemented to great success in a range of applications including destination navigationinteractive marketing and interactive online shopping.  Therefore, why is there still a relatively slow uptake and a lot of scepticism on the potential ROI from augmented reality?  Lynsey Abernethy, a Senior Consultant in our UK Marketing, Sales and Service practice explores today how B2C businesses can capitalise on this growing technology. 

According to the FT’s definition, augmented reality is “a real-time view of one’s immediate surroundings altered or enhanced by computer generated information”.  In fact, as a concept, augmented reality was first coined in 1990.  It is the more recent penetration of smart mobile devices and integrated webcams that has enabled marketers to truly exploit its capabilities for commercial benefit, bringing augmented reality to a mass audience around 2008.  One of my favourite definitions uncovered during the research is from prominent augmented reality blog, Augmentation: “It is about wearable and ubiquitous computing”

As a tool, augmented reality delivers the ability to superimpose 3D video and images onto a real-life view using a range of visual cues, e.g. billboards, codes, logos etc, thus providing a range of opportunities for commercial organisations:

  • An interactive marketing tool: Ability to customise marketing images / messages via a camera device either to bring static content to life, or customise for a particular audience – micro marketing at its most finite level – new movie “The Green Lantern” has utilised this technology by launching a mobile app which interacts with movie posters and brings them to life – a great and engaging experience for an avid fan.
  • An information enhancer: Many companies are providing live, navigational content via an augmented reality application to enhance mapping and destination planning – RTP was originally a technology company supporting ski resorts with new RFID enabled lift passes, for example –  an augmented reality adoption to help navigate around the ski resort has demonstrated the information provision AR benefits and allowed RTP to extend their reach into other destinations, such as the Las Vegas Strip – although not directly revenue generating, this can help point customers to particular services or promote offers.
  • A virtual fitting room: Some retailers are adopting AR technology to allows users to superimpose apparel products onto their face or body to virtually ‘try on’ – enhancing particularly the eCommerce experience to bring it closer to real life, see the earlier Tobi example above or Ray-Ban’s Italian window where customers can ‘try-on’ their sunglasses

Developers are becoming increasingly creative with the technology, one example is the integration with facial recognition software to produce a live, interactivity with a person simply by directing a camera onto their face, which has been pre-identified and tagged with personal content.  Imagine the possibility for networking events, a simple scan of your camera around the room could provide enough profile information to target the people you want to talk to, or imagine even in a dating context!

In spite of its well-received entry to the market, augmented reality remains an exceptional marketing tool.  A 2010 Forrester study demonstrated that only 8% of US companies have experimented with augmented reality and only 18% have a current intention to do so, yet also state that where today it is simply providing a ‘wow’ factor for brands, in years to come it will be a disruptive technology that changes how we interact with the environment around us.

There some constraints that are restricting current impact, and with time it is apparent that these barriers will be lessened: slow connectivity, particularly on the move – faster wifi and 4G will tackle this barrier; inconvenience to access;  health and safety concerns of navigating an environment with a smart device in front of your nose; and lack of tangible commercial case studies as yet providing a riskier strategy at this stage.

With a fast-increasing rate of digital adoption, the window of opportunity to be an innovator with augmented reality is shrinking.  What was for the past couple of years a very new and niche technology is now becoming more mainstream as organisations like Disney, Best Buy, Sony and Red Bull have jumped on the augmented reality bandwagon.

Therefore, in order to encourage participation, a marketer should evaluate the proposition that augmented reality can provide to his or her organisation, suitably challenge and test, then launch to our innovation hungry marketplace.

This still begs the question of the link to ROI.  In my view there is a connection, albeit indirect – increased customer engagement, better awareness of customer behaviours, opportunities to collect more customer data (through registered downloads / sign up for interactive apps) and an enhanced online trial leading to an increase in sales will impact the ROI.  As a new tool, the early adopters will need to lead the field and test the impacts.  This blogger will be watching closely…

Do you think that augmented reality can provide ROI?