Augmented reality (AR) might seem like a dream come true, but as a means of engaging consumers it couldn’t be more real. It comes as no surprise that 2012 promises to bring memorable digital and technology trends, and AR is predicted to be one of the big ones. According to Visiongain, in 2012, 25% of mobile apps will feature augmented reality. The popularity of camera-ready 3G and 4G smartphones will let marketers adopt mobile augmented reality as a feature of new and innovative mobile apps. It has been used by many brands in various ways such as on business cards, in fashion shows, product catalogues and product simulations. This feature has created new, outstanding ways to make retail and commerce more exciting and more powerful than people have ever seen before.

While the term itself may be daunting, augmented reality is simply the use of software to interpose virtual objects onto images obtained from the mobile phone’s camera. That is, the screen shows you what the phone is ‘seeing’, plus some additional objects created by the program. This lends itself to many uses, from heads up displays that provide location information of the nearest supermarket, to games that let the user shoot down spacecraft hovering above and around their usual suspects.

AR lets marketers create more powerful and relevant content since it layers on top of the user’s immediate surroundings. AR combines the power of advertising and digital technology to deliver information in a more engaging fashion. It is at once immediate and appealing to consumers and adds an element of play to otherwise mundane activity. It certainly offers the opportunity for consumers to gain a more in-depth understanding of products and other details.

The changing brand approach from representing functional value to more emotional value has impacted on marketing efforts. In modern times, brands are no longer merely tangible products. They have gone beyond, offering emotional experiences alongside functions. Brands embody promises for consumers. With camera-based features, augmented reality has been discovered to highly enhance emotional experience by allowing users to virtually try and see products via their mobile devices. Visualisation and animation are implemented to reflect the brand promises so that consumers are able to explore the value of brands via their smartphones. For example, using AR, consumers can ‘try on’ different pairs of sunglasses by having them superimposed in real time over their own image.

This may be the most powerful way that mobile devices are making a difference to the way people interact with brands. What in the past may have required a super-powerful computer can now be done in the brain of the device in your hand. The process of converting data into images, video, and animation is easy and simple enough. Consumers can just point their smartphones at images or ads and AR will immediately reveal rich information and powerful content through moving images, video and animation that seem to be real. AR is a means of engaging customers in technologically innovative ways, but beyond the technology itself, AR lets marketers find ways to write the consumer into the brand story, letting them participate and interact with the brand and its products in a new and perhaps memorable way.

Today’s marketing is about engaging the consumer’s imagination, about creating emotional connections and, in turn, integrating those into brand values. The playful, fantastic nature of augmented reality lends itself perfectly to that job. A notable Japanese example, iButterfly, turns users’ phones into virtual butterfly nets, letting them catch butterflies that only appear in the augmented reality of the screen. Aside from the collector value of the butterflies (there are several different types), the butterflies themselves functioned as coupons that could be exchanged for discounts or other special offers. The designs of the butterflies also reflected the brand identity of the sponsoring brand. To make things more interesting, different butterflies were available in different locations, so even acquiring the different coupons became part of the game.

Used in the right way, AR offers the possibility of quite transcendent user experiences. Fantasies, perhaps, but ones that send the right marketing messages and create happy consumers.

Rohit Dadwal
BY Rohit Dadwal ON 12 January 2012
Managing Director, Mobile Marketing Association Asia Pacific Limited