Virtual Reality vs Augmented Reality
Remember the iconic (but now dated) images of bright, fluorescent line shapes on black backgrounds? The awkward, impractical yet improbably-expensive visors and headsets that made you look like an unwanted extra from Tron (the original one)? The developer pipe dreams of eventually being able to create holograms like those on the USS Enterprise? Yes, nostalgic nausea of the short-lived virtual reality phenomenon. The most significant verdict on the technology was the epic failure of do-no-wrong Nintendo’s much-hyped Virtual Boy – the Game Boy for the VR generation. But everything conspired to doom the device to infamy and remains the only blemish on the Japanese company’s perfect record. Certainly, VR has not been completely abandoned as a technology – it still has considerable uses in the medical and design worlds. But its shelf-life as a consumer interface has long expired and most companies have decided to cut their losses with regards to it.
So isn’t the half-virtual, half-reality combination into augmented reality a step back? Is that not technically half a technology that has failed miserably in the past? Technically, it could be seen as such. But the actual application of AR is far more practical and grounded than VR ever promised to be. It is almost as if technology tried to fly before it could walk when they ventured into virtual reality. Developers were seeing holodecks before they even properly designed the headsets. It was a case of plans well made but well before its time. Computer science and technology was just not advanced enough to make VR a worthy development in the field of complete user interaction. Consumer VR can be seen as the zit-faced wonderkid investment graduate keen to take on the world but then crashed because he got too far ahead of himself, got greedy and almost (or did, in some cases) brought banks down with him. For banks, read hardware and software developers. The embarrassment of VR could have had a similar effect as a Barings or a Lehmans in the tech world.
So enough about the crimes of VR and onto the merits of AR. The now world-wise and more cautious whizzkid sees the error of his ways and decides that a soft approach to advancement would be better all round. Virtual is not a bad thing but only in baby spoonfuls. And so the world heralds the second coming. But in truth, the technology has already been subtly sneaked into our lives for quite a while now. Where, you ask?
Do you think a man with a bucket of magic yellow paint runs on the American football field after every break in play to paint the line of scrimmage? Is there a man with a laser pen who sits at the side of an ice hockey rink and follows the puck with it to create the red trail? Without patronising you – of course not. These are examples of augmented reality at work in our everyday experiences. Augmenting computer-generated graphics and material into our real-world environment.
And more recently, it’s not just on television that we see AR make a difference to our lives. Luxury cars (mostly German at the moment) give their customers a hi-tech heads-up display on windscreens to show off to their friends. At the 2008 Los Angeles Auto Show, Nissan introduced the Cube with AR, encouraging people to customise the car with an AR interface. Ogilvy and Mather ran a whole advertising campaign for Ford by using an AR display to let prospects interact with a graphical model of a new car. And iTunes is packed full of apps which make use of the technology – Starwalk and Skyview are two viewing apps for space enthusiasts and there is even a simple AR Soccer game where the player plays keepy-uppy with an AR-generated football through the iPhone screen.
So what’s different now then?
Looking back to before augmented reality technology was introduced into devices and environments where user interaction was stimulated; we simply watched it in action without knowing it. We never knew that the line moving across the swimming pool (to represent the world record mark) on our televisions during swimming championships was called augmented reality. We simply took it as something which our innovative television companies gave us to impress us and nothing more.
But now, with devices coming with in-built cameras, 3D displays, accelerometers, global positions satellite systems and solid state compasses as standard, AR implementation has been taken to a new level. The hardware is there to complement the software ideas of developers. It is there to facilitate the imagination and innovation of people who want to improve the way in which we go about our daily routines.
Aside from smartphones – with Apple’s iPhone representing the greatest example – handheld devices come packaged and mission-ready for AR application. The Nintendo 3DS is the most recent introduction. As if to continue their reparation for their Virtual Boy abomination, the 3DS bundle comes with a series of AR game cards. These game cards use the console’s camera to create a three-dimensional interactive experience for the player. The question-mark block card (looks as it sounds) gives the player a shoot ’em-up mini game to sample the device’s various pieces of ingenious hardware all at once – you aim at the targets which are created on-screen and shoot them, moving around the targets along real-life dimensions to reach hidden objects. You can only imagine the type of games which will be produced by game developers as they begin to unveil more and more capabilities and unleash the hardware’s full potential. Psychologists and computer scientists refer to this type of discovery and growth as emergent behaviour – whereby a series of algorithms are programmed into a computer program consisting of individual elements. The algorithms determine movement patterns of each element, telling them how to move in relation to nearby elements. As the simulation progresses, the elements begin to flock together, which is a feature which was not explicitly programmed into the algorithms but has emerged as behaviour of the functions, hence the name. And it is this potential for conceivable exponential evolution of the technology which makes augmented reality a possible area of growth for marketing and advertising.
Furthermore, it has been predicted that almost half of all mobile phone users will be using a smartphone. With the apparent importance of handheld devices in the future of AR, this opens up a massive potential target market.
How so? What use would AR be for marketers and advertisers?
Actually, the technology is already beginning to gain recognition in the business world. As mentioned before, car makers Nissan and the advertising agency Ogilvy and Mather have made the most notable uses of AR so far. And the key point of interest for businesses is the potential for user interaction.
In a world where the consumer has begun to tire of interruptive/intrusive marketing techniques – such as the regular television commercial, print advertising and other types of media where the innovator makes the move to approach the consumer – the way forward must surely be to gives the consumer a reason to engage with marketing and advertising. As well as AR being a relative novelty, the interactive facet of the technology ensures that there is an attraction for the consumer to get what they want to get out of the process. If they don’t want to be in contact with a certain piece of communication, it is entirely their own choice. But should they choose to participate, they can determine their own degree of participation. The interactivity aspect gives the consumer a feeling of being in control of the whole experience. Interruption and intrusion has been removed from the equation and they can gain much more out of an activity in which the campaign responds to their own needs and desires. It is almost tailored to their emotions.
To put it crudely, the campaigner can give the consumer the illusion (without any underhand insinuation intended in this analogy) of taking what they wish to take out of the exchange. And this is where AR can be most beneficial to the innovator or the campaigner as well. Despite the interaction being seemingly controlled by the consumer, it is the designer of the campaign who decides what goes into the interface. So regardless of how much or how little the user wishes to indulge, it is ultimately the marketer who decides what aggregate information there is to be indulged in the first place. Once again, emphasis must be placed on the fact that there are no sinister implications in this process – at least, no more sinister than the messages put across in a powerful television commercial.
So what is the need that AR can fill?
Building on the concept of interaction, AR is an ideal tool for businesses to create and maintain a relationship with their prospect. Consumers are much more conscious of their importance in the capitalist market than ever before and will play this role to their advantage. They will ask for personal attention, top-class service and will not tolerate anything less. Allowing the consumer to be in measurable control over the interaction process invariably leads to an idea of marketing for a personal experience.
The personal experience procedure is already being used by major companies. Tesco use their Clubcard system to monitor shopping patterns and tailor offers and deals to customers at appropriate times while balancing that with their own profit strategies. Facebook Deals encourages users to combine their social networking with their consumer habits, accessing Facebook for special offers in nearby businesses and increasing prominence and use of the network in the process. Both of these uses are excellent for generating repeat custom and brand loyalty, enabling consumers to identify with the brand or company while also fulfilling the consumer’s relatively-new need for a personalised experience and social interaction. Augmented reality applications can provide the natural step up in the development of these systems.
Valpak, an American website which offers coupons for special deals, have already taken up the baton in this area. Users of the Valpak app simply have to aim their camera in a particular direction and the app identifies nearby businesses which are offering special deals (and affiliated to Valpak) within a 20 mile radius. Through the camera, the screen will show the streets and buildings then create graphic labels over the shopfronts specifying the deals. This not only continues the trends of giving the consumer an interactive exchange, there is a degree of personalisation in the whole process, using the deals that suit them most. AR can give the sense of being part of the whole process and being a vital component in the experience. Furthermore, this point-and-play aspect is set to be a common component of AR applications. Unlike text message and email marketing, or even Facebook spam (all of which causes much consternation for users through its intrusive qualities), AR usage is controlled by the consumer. It satisfies all the needs, wants and desired not-wants of modern consumer behaviour: point your camera if it interests you, walk on if it doesn’t. The consumer initiates the converse.
But if the consumer doesn’t use it, then is it not wasteful marketing?
No forms of marketing have a 100% hit rate. No advertising campaign will have a unit-for-unit return of investment. To justify the use of the likes of augmented reality marketing, waste should not solely be viewed in terms of investment and financial figures.
For the more intrusive forms of marketing and advertising, consumers who do not need the product or service in the campaign but cannot avoid the encounter (because the commercial is constantly repeated on television or the emails just keep on coming) will more than likely develop adverse feelings and emotions towards the business or company. Consider how you felt that last time you read another piece of junk mail plugging Viagra or cosmetic surgery, or how quickly you slammed the phone down on yet another automated marketing message.
With AR, as long as the campaign has been planned and designed tastefully and considerately, then the dissatisfaction is unlikely to occur. The consumer would actively seek out the marketing during their own routine, such as a shopping trip. As mentioned before, if the consumer doesn’t want or need it, then they don’t activate it.
With this in mind, marketing and advertising can be much more focussed and accurately directed at the appropriate audience. Companies producing sports apparel could place their interactive campaigns in places which would be more likely to be populated by people who are interested in their products, such as sports halls. Surely, this would result in less wastage as opposed to more redundant use of marketing budgets.
That sounds great! What are we waiting for then?
Although the potential is massive in terms of the types of application which can be achieved through augmented reality, there needs to be in-depth research into the hardware, the software and optimised usage. To leap straight in and use the technology that is available at present would be akin to Nintendo’s Virtual Boy disaster or the spotty investment banker. The fear would be to move too fast without fully investigating the best use of the technology. And that would be followed up by rivals being able to learn from your mistakes and implement their campaigns far better.
Handheld implementation is currently the fad, with more and more AR-related apps going mainstream. However, once that market is saturated, there will be calls for the currently lesser-explored but larger scale applications. And it is then, that the AR battle may truly commence and the prize, as always, is consumer market domination. And the losers? May not have a second chance to redeem themselves like Nick Leeson or Nintendo.