In the world of digital advertising, augmented reality was this year’s favourite new toy. Wikipedia explains it rather succinctly as “a live direct or indirect view of a physical real-world environment whose elements are merged with (or augmented by) virtual computer-generated imagery”. Got that?
In advertising, AR typically involved requests for users to download a software application, print off a special graphic symbol and then hold the print-out in front of their webcam. The camera picks up on the printed graphic device and the ar content (usually a 3d model or animation) appears to hover above or sit on said graphic device as it is viewed on screen. Tilting or rotating the paper enables users to interact with and further examine the virtual object.
Which all seems somewhat complicated and, once you’ve done it several times, more than a little tedious. “Brands today rarely use AR in innovative ways,” says Sam Ball of digital agency Lean Mean Fighting Machine. “The delight of seeing something pop up in front of your screen has worn off, yet many brands still use AR in these gimmicky ways. They are rarely persuasive and generally bereft of an idea. Why do I need to hold a piece of paper up to a webcam to see a 3D image of a kettle? Just show me a kettle on the screen.”
Flo Heiss of digital agency Dare points out that ar is by no means a mature medium, suggesting cynics shouldn’t leap to write it off just yet. “Augmented reality is going to be huge, trust me,” he tells us. “What we see now is just the start.”
“I think people are more excited about the potential of ar as opposed to its current applications,” agrees Ball. “What we are seeing now is the genesis of the technology. Its future isn’t in front of the computer screen but all around us. AR will be ubiquitous and the devices we use to access it invisible.”
And ar isn’t, of course, just a tool for brand messages. Perhaps our favourite ar project this year was a non-commercial one – artist Chris O’Shea’s Hand From Above installation which first ran in Liverpool in September, then in Cardiff in October. The project runs on BBC Big Screens situated in city centres. The screen is fitted with a cctv camera that films passers-by in the concourse below. Specially written software recognises individual human forms moving around in the live footage and a huge virtual hand interacts with people at random on screen, either tickling, stretching or flicking them – sometimes even picking them up and removing them entirely from the framer in real time. No print-outs to hold up. No sitting in front of a computer.
“Augmented Reality is just one of many new tools to play with,” says Tony Högqvist of Perfect Fools. “It’s been around now for a few years and every day people will find new innovative ways to integrate it into a bigger experience. We say use it smart and not just for the sake of it.”