Augmented reality bites
Is augmented reality the missing link for publishers? Connecting printed magazines and newspapers to their digital equivalents - be they apps or websites - is a problem that has vexed the print world for more than a decade, but we may be at the door of seeing them joined together if augmented reality flourishes.
We've all seen digital 'flipper' magazines that unconvincingly ape their paper-based brethren, but how about a smartphone or tablet app that adds a layer of video, audio or even simple online 'extras' to a magazine you've just bought?
These apps rely on a smartphone's built-in camera 'seeing' certain triggers, such as magazine articles, adverts, products and places. Augmented reality - known as AR - is not new. Wave a smartphone in front of the pyramids at Giza and apps such as Layar will use both image recognition and your global positioning system (GPS) data to overlay some tour guide-style information.
Point your phone at Victoria Harbour and the Discover Hong Kong app overlays some history as well as pointing you in the direction of a restaurant, shops and other attractions. It's the digital equivalent of the hotel reception desk's free map. 'Every major city in the world should have one to welcome their visitors,' says Maani Safa, product director of global mobile marketing company Somo, adding that China is ripe for an AR future.
'China's huge population means that even though iPhones are concentrated in major cities, device activation has now overtaken the US,' says Safa. 'Across the area, there is increasing smartphone penetration and a growing middle class, with young and tech-savvy populations, which mean more testing and experimentation.'
Digital linking technology is encroaching on our daily lives. Already on sale are clothes, toys and custom-made greetings cards, which, when scanned by a smartphone, play an in-app video recorded by the sender.
Next up for TV watchers is 'audio watermarking', which will 'tie' an iPad to a particular show and provide a second screen of exclusive content, close-ups, alternate camera angles - effectively offering an experience that's closer to active gaming than to passive viewing.
Where will it lead? It's no surprise the marketing world is hoping for a boost from AR, with campaigns by the likes of Nike, Audi and Red Bull. 'Every poster and piece of packaging can give further information using AR,' says Safa. 'Bringing billboards to life is surely the dream of any advertiser looking to measure direct response to what up to now has been a largely immeasurable form of advertising.'
When pointed at a bottle of Heinz ketchup, AR app Blippar 'blipps' a 3-D book that appears to open out of the label and includes free recipes and competitions.
Jessica Butcher, co-founder and head of marketing at Blippar, believes AR works only when it's functional or educational, entertaining and offers money-off, or free content. 'If it's only used for novelty value, it will not work,' she says.
AR is also a do-it-yourself technology. Aurasma's iPhone app allows anyone to assign a specific digital image called an 'aura' to something specific seen through the iPhone's camera. As well as using this technology in museums to bring exhibits to life, AR can be used to play movie trailers when a phone is pointed at a poster, enliven textbooks, unlock exclusive content in products (Marvel's new AR app does exactly that for its comics), or play personal video greetings or messages left as 'location auras' that are triggered by a smartphone's GPS. The treasure hunt is on.
Is AR the future of entertainment or the latest fad? 'Most AR has been more about the sensation of AR rather than the usefulness. Partly, this has to do with hardware limitations,' says Tom Gray, senior creative strategist at marketing firm Imagination, which has just completed a racing simulation AR app for Ford. Gray thinks we'll see more AR apps that overlay directions on the real world, with a social side to AR - such as embedded links to Twitter and Facebook - almost inevitable.
However, it's the publishing world that AR could affect soonest. 'The printed formats will stand to benefit most from AR,' says Butcher. 'They are, by their nature, 'old' by the time they hit the street, and this technology enables them to be 'unlocked' with up-to-date information and interactive experiences in real time.'
The idea of AR becoming an everyday technology was given a boost recently by Google's unveiling of Project Glass. Letting users take pictures, browse information, make video calls and overlay directions, these GPS-powered glasses are always online and show what AR at its best can achieve - a hassle-free way of interacting with technology without the need for umpteen devices and gadgets.
'When the likes of Google reaffirms its commitment to creating an augmented world, you can be sure it's a serious proposition,' says Safa. The big AR developers, he adds, are trying to create a global standard to educate consumers and increase its use.
At its core, Safa says, AR is about creating a 'visual browser' that takes away the bother of having to type in search terms into a computer or smartphone. 'We believe that search should and will be as seamless and easy as thinking. With AR, it is moving much closer to that.'