Augmented Reality, and the Future of Digital Marketing

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Twenty or thirty years ago, the prevailing opinion was that the future of digital interfaces would look like the nebulous, slimy construct in Lawnmower Man, or the crisp ice sheets of cyberspace in Neuromancer. Early abortive attempts like Nintendo’s “Virtual Boy” console, which exploited visual parallax but was hardly immersive, or a number of virtual reality theme park rides, which promised much more than they delivered, showed us that virtual reality is nauseating, shallow, and unimmersive. Even modern efforts, like the HTC Vive or the Oculus Rift, are little more than augmented reality answers looking for questions, and they still haven’t solved the motion sickness problem.

I recently had cause to consider the nature of motion sickness during a family road trip. My young daughter asked why she had felt ill after reading in her car seat. Motion sickness, I explained, is an unfortunate side-effect of a legitimate evolutionary advantage. When our brains get conflicting information about our speed or position, like when our inner ear is sure that we’re in motion but our eyes are focused on a relatively stationary book and assure our brains that we are still, since both propositions are mutually exclusive, our brain concludes that we have been poisoned, thereby explaining the discrepancy. Assuming we’ve been poisoned, our brain wills our stomach to expel the culprit. For the past few million years of our evolution, this has been an incredibly helpful, life-saving reflex. Many toxins are mind altering, psilocybin or alcohol for instance, and dizziness, blurred or double vision, or a sense of inertia while stationary are all common warning signs of intoxication, and our brains and bodies are adept at recognizing the symptoms and acting to preserve our health. Drink too much, and you’ll see what I mean.

So, motion sickness is a variant of toxin-awareness. Our brains get conflicting information from multiple sensory systems, assume we’ve been poisoned, and make us vomit. In cars, though, we can always look out the window, even if only in our peripheral vision, and give our brains the perspective to see that the book is moving with us, and neither we nor the book is stationary. With virtual reality, that isn’t so. Our perspective shifts with the screen, but our bodies stay motionless on the couch, and our brains make the natural assumption.

Remember, our brains aren’t significantly different than human brains were thousands of years ago. The exact date is uncertain, but the important thing is that our technology has evolved way faster than our biology, and the brain’s hardwiring has been outpaced. Virtual reality is, essentially, a way of lying to the brain, but, until we can lie to the body equally well, resolving the discrepancy in sensory input, the whole endeavor is doomed to failure.

That’s where augmented reality comes into the picture. With augmented reality, you shift the object of the lie. You trick the eyes into seeing something in the world around it that isn’t really there, but you don’t get between the brain and body about the status of the self. Since it isn’t invasive, and it doesn’t produce conflicting sensory information about position and relative motion, there is no risk of motion sickness.

Augmented Reality is Already Here

If you are not yet familiar with the concept, augmented reality creates overlays or elements that seem to appear in the world around you. Take a look at some of these videos and you’ll get the general idea of what this technology can do.

In fact, we’ve already flirted with the concept with a few early, abortive technologies. Google Glass, for example, provides a transparent display over one eye to display simple content in front of the world around you. Imagine reading a text floating in the air, or seeing GPS directions. However, the technology lacked depth, was prone to glare, lacked a convenient interface, and required a tethered smartphone. While it was a compelling proof of concept, it failed to gain any commercial viability and is now widely regarded as a lemon.

Perhaps more famously, augmented reality has also crept into the mainstream with the rise of Pokémon GO, which superimposes wild Pokémon onto the real world by means of a smartphone’s camera. It’s not a perfect rendering, the Pokémon drift around wherever the camera points, rather than staying put. While it is possible to tie a smartphone’s accelerometer into the mix, to keep the augmented reality overlays consistent regardless of the phone’s orientation, as is being proposed for games like this one, it’s prohibitively processor-intensive for most users, and the payoff is minimal. Even a perfect system would still treat a smartphone screen like a window, keeping the augments and overlays firmly confined to the smartphone’s vantage point — hardly immersive.

Still, the technology is coming which will offer a truly seamless augmented reality experience. Writers including David Brin, Cory Doctorow, Ken MacLeod, and Hannu Rajaneimi all speculate about a near future in which augmented reality is as ubiquitous, as depended upon, and as subtle as electricity from a power outlet. Either by means of implants, lenses, or some other mechanism, people go about their lives constantly viewing the world around them filtered through a meta-reality, like a perpetually shared hallucination, in much the same way that we exist simultaneously in the physical world and connected to our social media profiles or our RSS feeds. We converse with friends over instant messaging, and then pick up the thread of the conversation in person without bothering to note the transition. Smartphones are already altering the fabric of our reality, and a fully immersive augmented reality with an all but invisible interface is not far behind.

It’s certainly true that smartphones have changed the way we work, live, and communicate, probably permanently. Everyone has that one friend without a cell phone, whom it’s almost impossible to meet up with. Sitcom tropes from the 80s and 90s, like being unable to contact someone with urgent information, are frustratingly unrelatable. Indeed, when The Office ran such an episode, it was made explicitly clear that the character in question had forgotten his cell phone at his desk — an arbitrary writer’s convenience that was required to explain or excuse what had once been considered so common an experience that it had once been a cliché.

Even so, the smartphone revolution is trivial compared to the paradigm shift that we can expect with the advent of functional augmented reality. Skipping over the details of the technological advances that stand between us and our impending future, imagine a world where augmented reality has become the norm. In this world, it is considered an especially gauche form of Luddism to refuse to participate in the new, shared perceptual reality around you. Refusing to augment your reality would cut you off from jobs (which might depend on tools or information that you wouldn’t have access to), social events (as though all your friends were dancing to music that you couldn’t hear), news and entertainment (which already presume that you’re plugged into Facebook, Twitter, and the web in general), and more. In this world, what it means to be a part of our culture will have firmly, and irreversibly shifted.

This shift, a shift in the way that people interact with the world and the content around them (and the distinction between “world” and “content” is rapidly evaporating) is coming. With that novus ordo seclorum will also come new tools and new challenges for digital marketers. It’s hard enough getting content in front of the eyes of potential customers and consumers as it is — a world saturated in virtual and perceptual augments will be a world similarly saturated in digital advertising content. That’s one of the fundamental realities of modern society. If it exists, there is a way to commodify it. If a forum exists, it will eventually advertise something.

Augmented Reality and Digital Marketing

Prehistoric cave paintings show successful hunts. At Pompeii, advertisements for local shops and services are painted on walls and bulletin boards. Signs hang from medieval storefronts, printed books advertise their publishers, radio and television had commercials, YouTube has ads, sponsored content is the latest innovation, but certainly not the end of digital marketing. Imagine the possibilities, when augmented reality becomes the mainstream, or the default human perceptual reality.

Imagine billboards, of any size, targeted to a specific consumer, with content exactly tailored to his particular status, habits, preferences, or interests. It would be similar to ads targeted to certain cookies in a web browser. A person’s history and record of previous engagement could inform a billboard or a placard, or even a translucent card, each of which could be placed, anywhere and at any size, in the fields of view of multiple users simultaneously. Billboards that were unique to each person who looked at them, or which changed at different times of day, or which rewrote themselves dynamically in response to news or real-world events would all be possible. Imagine ads that responded dynamically to all the relevant factors and contexts of their placement, environment, and observation. These are a natural extension of Google’s AdWords ads, which already depend on user history, browser cookies and so on, as well as the facial recognition technology already being deployed for advertisements, and a variety of other purposes, around the world.

Or, flipping the model, imagine ads that target a specific user, but change depending on that user’s real-world context. Just like ads that make use of a phone’s “location services” or built in GPS, which track movements or location and target specific offers about relevant local places or services, ads or marketing messages could be made to appear in storefronts and windows, on signs and awnings, or as abstract floating arrows pointing a user to a specific restaurant, for example. All the technology and algorithms exist today — marketers are just waiting for the technology to display the ads in an augmented reality context, without expecting users to look at the world through a cell phone screen.

Those examples basically just transpose present day ad types (billboards, banner ads — images and text) into a new medium, but so long as we are imagining near future technology, we need not restrict ourselves to ads that match the current paradigm. We can go a step further, and think about types of marketing that would only be possible with technology yet to be developed.

Things like real-world space, perspective, and even walls don’t necessarily mean anything to what we can be made to see. Imagine a clothing store, modifying the perceptions of its customers. Stores already interface with cellphones through NFID chips, so it isn’t a stretch to assume that something similar would be developed as interfaces evolved. As a customer examines an article of clothing, for example, one wall might seem to melt away, revealing a runway model, complete with lights and music and a crowd, strutting a runway modeling the item from all angles. Since it would be computer-generated facsimile anyway, there need not be any limit to the extravagance and presentation. While people love to debate privacy issues, clothing stores today are already using that same facial recognition technology we discussed above, along with a complex set of cameras and sensors, to show customers images of themselves wearing different outfits. A view of themselves as runway models, in fully immersive three dimensions, would hardly be out of the question.

There is no reason to limit this to retail stores, either. The flash mob and the viral marketing stunt seem like a fad, but it was mostly the scale and the awkwardness factor that was their undoing. The basic principle of involving a potential consumer in a diorama is a sound marketing technique, and these technologies would make that approach much more feasible. Maybe an insurance company or a law firm creates a graphic (again — to be perceived as though it were in three dimensions, as if it were a part of reality) of a car accident, so the would-be customer can watch the scene unfold and see a driver asking all the right questions and casually discussing his legal options. An animal shelter could create a digitally rendered rabbit to hop along a sidewalk, conversing about adoptions and animal care. Just because a graphic appears to be a part of reality doesn’t restrict it to obeying physical or natural laws. Anything that can be imagined can be shown, with the right combination of creativity and technology.

So long as we’re considering interactive marketing, picture something like a market stall, complete with a vendor and a table of wares. It need not physically exist. With augmented reality, it might appear, as though it had depth, inside a solid wall, or literally hanging in the air. A digital vendor could talk about his wares, make a sale, charge a bank account, and ship a product to an address, all without the need for a physical presence. The wares could change dynamically too, from, say, wristwatches to camping equipment, varying size or position for optimal presentation. Picture one on one sales service from Amazon, in what pretends to be a real, physical market stall, and the possibilities are almost limitless.

Now, that’s all well and good for displaying content, products, services and so on, and certainly getting content in front of the eyes of consumers effectively is a big part of digital marketing, but there’s more to the job. We haven’t yet talked about data collection.

Let’s return to our hypothetical market stall example. Any augmented reality technology must also be calibrated to track the user’s eye movements, retinal focus, pupil dilation, and so on. Eye tracking technology is already in our smartphones, and augmented reality would depend on perfect real-time tracking in order to keep the illusion of depth and to keep graphics and modifications in place relative to the user (which would be crucial to the sense of immersion). In much the same way that we track the pages a user views, ad impressions, time spent on page, bounce rate, and so on, our market stall could track and record, in real time, exactly how long a customer’s eye lingers on a particular product. Maybe a certain product tends to be more eye-catching on the wall rather than on the table, or only at a certain size. It’s long been known that one’s pupils dilate when one is interested or emotionally stimulated — a retailer could know which products are provoking which reactions, in real-time, and subtly rearrange or recalibrate the shop display accordingly. The kind of information would be invaluable to digital marketers, and augmented reality technology would not only make it accessible, it would be required to be collected in order to provide a proper digital experience.

Over the course of this piece, I’ve offered a few ideas of my own, each built on existing marketing technologies, but my list is far from exhaustive. The most important thing to remember for any digital marketer, today or in an augmented future, is to be creative, innovative, and unique. No matter how creative, consumers learn to avoid or ignore ads as their formats become ubiquitous. YouTube ads are reflexively skipped by iPad savvy toddlers. Sponsored content is routinely ignored. Augmented reality or present day, if all you’re offering is a marketing gimmick, you will lose the trust and attention of your consumer base. As with all digital marketing platforms, augmented reality technology will become a tool, but not a message in and of itself. The key to any good marketing — digital, augmented reality, or any other form — is to offer something of genuine value. As augmented reality technology develops, the forms that valuable content might take will evolve alongside, and it will be up to digital marketers to master those tools like a sculptor so that they may craft intriguing, innovative, compelling, and captivating content.

This post was originally written and posted by Andrew McLoughlin. It is republished here on on behalf of Colibri Digital Marketing. Thanks, Andrew, for a great read!

I work to make the web a more beautiful, accessible, and functional place. I use dreams as a form of planning. And I play because it’s fun.

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