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AR: A new dimension for brand engagement

The new devices announced by Apple recently were not ‘meh’ if you work in the media and marketing industry. The impact of Augmented Reality (AR) on media, society and daily life will be equivalent to the smartphone, if not bigger.

iOS11 works with Apple’s ARKit, which is described as “a framework that allows you to easily create unparalleled augmented reality experiences”, and “an environment that takes apps beyond the screen, freeing them to interact with the real world in entirely new ways”.

Augmented Reality is quite literally a new dimension for media and for brands. It will enable completely new forms of audience engagement and redefine the concept of Place within classical marketing theory. It establishes a ubiquitous virtual layer that links the physical and the digital world. It will enable new forms of branded utility, entertainment and personalisation.

Working within the AR layer we have the power to transform any object, surface or location into interactive and personalised content or game and attach messages to physical objects and locations in the real world. To help prioritise and guide AR strategies, brands should assess the opportunities they have to engage audiences within this new environment working within three categories of branded AR.

Digital layers that enhance physical objects in the real world
Already popularised by Snapchat and more recently Instagram and Facebook through lenses and filters. Apple’s ARKit includes face tracking technology, which maps virtual content to the unique characteristics of your face to deliver a more responsive and realistic experience.

Augmenting objects in the physical world
A layer of virtual content that adds information to objects in the physical world. Applications include virtual restaurant reviews, navigation aids and AR signage, as well as augmented products, packaging and even employees. Manufacturers are already using AR glasses in factories to give workers step-by-step instructions on how to assemble components.

Layering new virtual objects on reality
From AR menus in restaurants that allow you to browse 3D renders of your food options to apps that place new items of furniture in your home, this category of AR will re-define the way that we consider, sample and trial physical goods.

The opportunities for brands are limitless. The key will be to develop a coherent and measured AR strategy for each brand that supports always on (utility) and campaign (entertainment, news) outcomes.

The AR landscape will be highly fragmented. Brands will need to place a strategic bet on the prospects for the various platforms. Discoverability will also be key. There will be a lot of one hit wonders as brands rush into the space with gimmicks and experiments that fall short of audience expectations and needs.

Augmented Reality will present brand risk too. The creative and immersive capabilities of AR will be available to disaffected customers, activists and pressure groups. All the exciting opportunities to engage and entertain consumers will be matched (and probably surpassed) by the prospects for malicious and nefarious virtual content from detractors and opponents. The challenges of policing this layer of virtual graffiti AR will be immense and is likely to spawn a new generation of monitoring tools and technologies.

Apple isn’t the only tech giant to have a placed a big bet on AR. Facebook, Google, Amazon, Microsoft and others each have their own development platforms and AR apps have been a reality on Android for a few years.

Apple’s dominant position in the smartphone category gives it a unique capacity to transform unproven technologies into services that come part of daily life for millions of people. NFC chip technology had potential but no serious scale before 2014. PayPal’s CEO at the time referred to it as ‘not for commerce’ and then along came Apple Pay.

Microsoft has made big strides in mixed reality (AR and Virtual Reality) with HoloLens. This is the first self-contained, holographic computer that enables you to engage with your digital content and interact with holograms in the word around you.

For now, AR is reliant on the phone or hardware like HoloLens, but longer term the hope is that the mix of sensors and computing power need to run AR can be shrunk to the point where in the words of Mark Zuckerberg “we’re going to have what look like normal-looking glasses that can do both virtual and augmented reality”.

Perhaps then the most surprising and ironic aspect of the AR revolution announced by Apple is that it could result in the demise of the smartphone itself. What purpose does a handheld smartphone serve when you can summon a virtual touchscreen at will?

Dan Young

Dan Young is the Digital and Social Strategy Director at Ogilvy PR.