The Future of Augmented Reality

When film pioneers Auguste and Louis Lumiere exhibited a 50 second long silent movie of a train coming into a station, audiences at the time were astonished. In fact, legend has it, some people fled the theater because the locomotive seemed so real to them. Today, for some users, augmented reality (AR) is as new and surprising as were moving images in the late 19th century.

For the uninitiated, AR refers to content, be it an image, video or text, overlaid onto a view of a real-world environment.  Many users are impressed just by the futuristic nature of the concept.

However, for anyone who keeps an eye on marketing trends, AR has started to sound like a tiresome buzzword. It seems like every company and advertising agency has hopped onto the AR bandwagon. The days of AR being used solely to “wow” the user are coming to an end.

A shift is underway towards more useful implementations of AR, because that “wow” effect is wearing off quickly. Part of the shift is due to the fact that tools like Tag What and Aurasma are making user-generated AR content easier to create. Meanwhile, another AR focused company, Metaio, has created a service called Ad Inject that inserts non-invasive, geo-relevant, context-aware ads into AR content. Services like this are a major part of the future of AR advertising–think of it as Google Adwords for AR.

Hyper-local ads within an AR experience will also increasingly be a way of driving foot traffic to retail establishments. Says Andy Gstoll, CMO of popular AR browser, Wikitude, “We’re focused on generating sales for companies that have a door that you can walk through.”

Implementing standards

These changes are underway, but in order for AR to reach its full potential, standardization needs to take place. The problem is that, today, to experience everything AR has to offer, users need to download countless different apps.

AR browsers like Junaio, Wikitude and Layar are making it easier for users to navigate the jumble. Within the browser, users can explore different AR experiences or layers. For example, within an AR browser, if you are looking for sushi restaurants, you might type in “sushi”, hold up your phone or tablet, and see info on all the sushi restaurants overlaid onto your street-view. Or you might opt to see geo-located tweets or Groupon deals nearby. Maybe you want to see available office-space—there’s a layer for that, too.

But while browsers are helping, there’s still a long way to go before we see true standardization. “We’re still in the CompuServe and AOL days of AR, where different content is available through different access points. Nothing exists right now that would let you switch between all the separate augmented worlds, or cycle through content available on different apps,” says Trak Lord, social marketing manager for Metaio.

The effort to standardize AR is inspired by the transformation of the internet from hobbyist pursuit into the ubiquitous part of our lives that it is today. In the early 1990s, programmers created Hyper-Text Mark-Up Language (HTML), which all web browsers now use to interpret text and images. Today, top industry players are discussing the creation of an Augmented-Reality Mark-Up Language (ARML) so that one day all the top AR browsers could access and read the same content.

This could be a long time coming. Gstoll says, “There may be a standardized augmented world at a later stage—we know things are headed in that direction. But not any time soon.” The problem is that each browser is a proprietary system and, since each of the companies behind the browsers has invested a lot of time and money into their own technology, they aren’t keen on starting from scratch.

The bottom line for marketers who want to advertise using AR is that, to reach a wide range of consumers, they need to place ads with all of the top browsers. And when creating their own content, developers should try their best to create a similar experience for each browser so as to ensure that no user is missing out. The key should be making it as easy as possible for the user to find your content and not require them to download a dozen different apps.

What’s Coming

Hype aside, there are some trends we can anticipate. Traditionally, AR experiences have been divided into marker-less content, triggered by GPS, or marker-based content, triggered by image recognition. Look for those divisions to blur–the next generation of AR browser will be able to handle either type of content. In fact, Layar recently announced a new version of their browser with image recognition built-in.

The combination of geolocation and image recognition will redefine the way we search. Microsoft and Google are both continuing to refine their visual search technology. At the same time, many apps, such as Yelp and Bing’s What’s Near By, allow the user to search by location. When these tools are combined, users will be able to search more efficiently than ever before. “Just as you navigated the text web using words entered into a search box, the spatial web will be navigated using the most logical form – namely your physical location, what you see, and what you intend to do in the real world,” says Stefan Weitz, director of influentials for Microsoft.

Also, look for image recognition to improve rapidly, particularly facial recognition. It’s happening even faster than you may think–Apple recently announced that the new version of iOS will include advanced facial recognition capabilities. This new technology will allow for a much more social AR experience.  For example, imagine getting someone’s business card by holding your phone up to their face, or scanning a room to see who might like to play a game of Words with Friends.

Just as the late 19th century was an experimental and exciting period in the history of cinema, so too is the current era of AR. Be prepared—the train is finally leaving the station.

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