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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