How augmented reality apps can catch on

For mobile AR to gain mass appeal, it needs a platform or an engine.

Stella Artois, the Belgian beer with the fancy name, made a splash about a year ago with its Le Bar Guide app. The app’s hook is an augmented reality (AR) view that shows local bars and restaurants that serve the beer. Here’s a video of the app in action.

Screenshot from Stella Artois app videoWhen it launched, I thought the Stella app was a clever marketing tool that was a bit ahead of the AR curve. Yet, that positive first impression was fleeting. I didn’t think of the app again until it came up during a recent interview with Lynne d Johnson (@lynneluvah), senior vice president at the Advertising Research Foundation, at last month’s Web 2.0 Expo NY.

That’s the problem with app-based AR: even when the app is interesting and the implementation is notable, it’s hard to get people (like me) to use it consistently. AR ambivalence is also tied to the bigger issue of app inertia. A company that pours resources into a custom app doesn’t get much return if that app is rarely launched; the user doesn’t develop an affinity for the brand, and that same user certainly doesn’t buy associated products. The app and its AR just sit there, waiting to be uninstalled.

During my interview with Johnson, she said AR will realize its potential when use cases are clear and obvious: “People understand an augmented search application, like Google Goggles, or something where you scan a QR code or barcode. Those kind of things have a proven utility.”

Her point about practical application got me thinking. What would it take for consumers to use AR regularly? Speaking as one of those consumers, I see very little chance for AR to move beyond a novelty unless two scenarios play out. Either will work, but one of these has to happen:

1. A dominant mobile application — something like Facebook, Foursquare or a Google-driven web app — seamlessly incorporates AR into its mobile experience. In essence, AR becomes part of an established and popular platform. I may not remember to fire up that Stella Artois app when I’m out and about, but there’s a good chance I’ll use Facebook. And if Stella Artois happens to have an ad that pops up in Facebook’s AR tool, I might even see it.

Or …

2. An “AR engine” is built into mobile systems. Similar to embedded functions like GPS, cameras, and sensors, developers could use this engine to add AR hooks to their apps. This would allow AR to achieve some level of ubiquity. Users might even come to expect it within location apps.

An AR engine would also open the door to a mobile AR “ad” standard (at least within a specific device OS) that would make cross-application AR campaigns possible. Marketers could buy space on the big platforms — Facebook, Foursquare, etc. — while also placing AR ads on targeted apps that serve specific communities (e.g. an app that’s popular with beer drinkers). It would be iAd, but for AR — or maybe even iAd with AR.

O’Reilly author Alasdair Allan (@aallan), who knows far more about app-based AR than I do, had a similar thought when I ran this idea past him:

When you open up the camera view in your app you could choose to display Apple’s AR “advert layer” superimposed over the camera view in exactly the same way you choose to display an Apple iAd embedded in your UI. You could then get shared revenue for click-throughs from the advertisement layer, or perhaps just a flat payment for displaying it at all.

AR platforms and engines aren’t novel ideas. Layar is an AR platform of sorts, and Qualcomm appears headed in the right direction with its augmented reality SDK for Android. Still, neither of these projects feels like it’ll unlock AR in a mass-appeal sense. There’s more to be done here.

I also realize this whole line of thought is fraught with problems. For starters, the developers that own and run the most popular apps could set up proprietary roadblocks. This would force companies to create custom AR campaigns for specific apps: an AR campaign for Facebook, another for Foursquare, another for Google, etc. — all with different specs and implementations.

There’s also the mind-bending issue of “virtual air rights,” which Johnson brought up during our chat at Web 2.0:

… think about the possibilities if you’re in Google Maps and you get the Street View and then you see advertising. It’s digital advertising all over the place. But who pays for that? Who do they pay? All of that stuff has to be figured out …

And then there’s that pesky problem of getting mobile OS manufacturers to buy into the idea of an AR engine, and then implement it.

That said, difficult issues tend to get worked out when technologies show profit potential. If AR gets elevated to a prime position in a popular app, or it seeps into the underlying structure of mobile devices, I think we’ll get a sense of that potential.

On a related note, Johnson had a number of additional insights on AR and marketing. The full interview is embedded below:

Photo credit (at top): Screen from Stella Artois video.

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  • http://layar.com Raimo

    So what should we do more at Layar?

  • Mac Slocum

    @Raimo: That’s a very fair question. Here’s my attempt at a fair answer.

    I like Layar and I think it’s got a great implementation. But here’s what trips me up: Why would I consistently return to the app? (This is a question *all* app creators need to face …)

    With Facebook, I go back because my network of friends lures me in. I’m not much of a Foursquare user, but the game mechanics and prospect of finding tips and deals certainly encourages repeat use. Something like Google Maps brings me back whenever I need directions or want to see what’s in my vicinity. Yelp gives me reviews and information about local businesses. Even something like Google Goggles has a use case because it can answer the question: “What the heck is that [building / place / thing]?” If Layar’s functionality was included in those other apps, I would absolutely use it — and *remember* to use it.

    As it stands, the prospect of seeing the virtual world around me isn’t enough to inspire repeat use. (But maybe that’s just me.) That’s why I think AR could work well if it was integrated into a broader location-based experience.

    Or, it could work well if I could point my phone at various things — products, landmarks, maybe even people, and see their associated data. For example — and this is an extreme case, I know — let’s say I go to Fenway Park to see the Red Sox and I want to know more about Dustin Pedroia. I point my phone toward second base, get Dustin in view, and then see his stats, related links etc. His “data aura” is revealed. (The privacy issues around this are unreal. I get that.)

    There’s the other side of this, too. If I go to a mall or other physical location and I see via signage that there are possible discounts / specials / messages available via Layar, that’ll definitely get me to launch and use the app.

    Anyway … just a few thoughts. I appreciate you posing the question.

  • http://layar.com Raimo

    Hi Mac,

    Thanks for your feedback and sharing your POV. Let me ask you the following question:
    So what makes you watch YouTube videos? Do you watch them all on youtube.com? Which ones do you watch on youtube.com?

    It’s the attractive content right that in the end triggers you to click the play button, right?

    So this is what we are working on. Having great AR content available to our users that has the real world as it’s background.

    Our ecosystem is set up in such a way that hyperlinking layers from qr codes, urls, apps, websites, images, etc is easy. But basically not yet.

    Every layer has a unique link. Just like a Youtube video or an i-tunes link.

    We also launched the Layar Player. This makes it possible to incorporate(or embed) a layer in any iPhone App.

    We also have the most complete way of discovering AR content and we just started ;-)

    but….

    The most important thing is that our more than 5000 publishers, agencies, brands and developers together with us will understand what AR content exactly is and how it will structurally fit in the lives of people.

    In that sense it is like the beginning of TV. People did not know what TV programs to make. They made radio with a background. It took time before the “rules” of good TV content where created and TV has acquired it’s place. Same aplies for the web.

    So we don’t see AR as virtual Points of Interests around you. We see it as the most impactful mobile content out there. It intrinsically has all elements to touch people profoundly: 3D, contextually, multi sensory, rich media, narrative, etc.

    Again we are not trying to hyperlink to the web or become a utility for physical objects. We are new component in the vast world of content.

  • http://layar.com Raimo

    Mac,

    Reach out next time you write about Augmented Reality.

    We and other AR companies will have valuable insights to make your articles even better..

  • Mac Slocum

    To clarify: I’m talking about how AR could catch on in the short term with the pieces and content we currently have. I’ve lived through the web’s awkward puberty, so I’m well aware of the growing pains a nascent medium must go through before it realizes its potential. The AR we have now will likely pale when compared to the AR of the future, just as the web video we have now makes the circa-’99 stuff look prehistoric. It’s all very much a work in progress. I get that.

    Moreover, I admire the companies and people who are experimenting and shaping this technology. That’s why I take no issue with the *existence* of Layar or the Stella Artois app or anything else for that matter. It’s all important. You’re building something, and the people who build things get my utmost respect.

    But I also tend to look at things from a very pragmatic, consumer-oriented standpoint. And so when I see the Stella app or I play around with Layar, I can appreciate what those things are and what they can be, but I also question their utility in the present. (I should note here that I think Layar’s implementation is miles ahead of what we saw in the Stella Artois app — I can see how Layar could be put to use on a consistent basis. The Stella app? Not so much … and so I question its utility beyond marketing.)

    The big question I ask with any of this stuff is this: Would I use this? That’s my filter. If the answer is “yes,” that shapes my thinking in one way. If it’s “no,” I immediately wonder what it would take for me to adopt this technology (or app, or device, or anything else). Hence, this post.

    Incidentally, the Layar Player (http://www.layar.com/player/) sounds *very* promising. Thank you for pointing this out and my apologies for not finding it on my own.

    As for content — You’ll get no disagreement from me there! And that was one of the points I was trying to make in my initial comment. *If* the content available to me through Layar (or any app or service) is compelling or utilitarian or entertaining or it’ll benefit me in some distinct way, that’s all the reason I need to go back. But achieving that takes time and critical mass, and so the post I put together was built around how that critical mass could possibly be achieved. Again, I’m looking at this as a consumer in the present and my perspective can and will absolutely change as the apps and content change.

    Heck, look at the early days of Twitter: you’d sign in and wonder what you were doing there. But sometime later, after the network coalesced and people created value by adding content — the lifeblood of Twitter — the value proposition became clear. It is absolutely possible — and I hope this happens — that AR-based content will get to that point. It sounds like you and your team at Layar are making strides toward that, which is fantastic.

    As for reaching out, I’ll certainly do that. I appreciate your openness and availability.

  • http://urbeingrecorded.com/news chris arkenberg

    “So we don’t see AR as virtual Points of Interests around you. We see it as the most impactful mobile content out there.”

    I think this is a very important point that distinguishes Layar from some of the assumptions (mine included) about AR. I have generally approached AR as a way to interrogate objects/places and as an extension of the internet that draws data out onto the phenomenal world. Considering it simply as a dynamic mobile experience frees it up to be much more – and much less.

    FWIW my own inclination is to look for ways AR can act as a rendering layer for hidden civic & industrial chains rising off of embedded systems, eg utility workers being able to “see” HVAC systems behind the walls or heat envelopes in their buildings, or civil engineers visualizing traffic patterns and distribution maps from gps embeds & traffic sensors.

    Basically, anyone that figures out how to use AR as a real-time viz layer for something like IBM’s Smarter Planet would be golden in my book.

  • Mac Slocum

    @Chris: Thanks for bringing up that point. It sounds like Layar has its big hairy audacious goal. I applaud that. The world needs more BHAGs.

    That said, the real-time viz layer seems like such a huge opportunity. Earlier this year I interviewed a couple scientists who developed an AR technique for military maintenance repair. The applications in the educational and training spaces could be profound. Interview is here if you’re interested: http://oreil.ly/dkd7Pf

  • Dan

    Mac,

    I completely agree with your POV. Actually it also happened to me (and probably most other people) to wonder “Why would I use this app again?”

    I downloaded Layar some time ago and used it just once. I didn’t find any value that made me come back to it. Why would I use the camera and drain my battery while using the app in my living room? I can see the same information with a map! No need to see some icons floating around..

    The real value is using the sensory for something useful. Like you said, point to some picture and get some information like Goggles does. This is value!

    Otherwise, it just sounds like gimmicky and a fad..

  • http://layar.com Raimo

    @Chris

    It’s more and less at the same time indeed. To get to the point of AR that you describe we need to have an commercial engine to draw out the technology. We need market demand for better performance, better rendering, better mapping & tracking, etc. If we will not be able to drive demand on the short term it will end up as VR. By treating AR as content we are able to have AR integrated in the mobile internet domain. It has it’s place in a larger existing content world. It has firm ground. From that “place” AR can start tapping revenues that fuels further technological development.

    @Mac
    Great discussion! I believe the coming 12 months AR needs to show that it is a market(content & publishers). Otherwise it will be hard to fuel the tremendous technological investments that are needed to get AR to it’s full potential.