Published: June 16, 2015

Understanding the power and the flaws of augmented reality will revolutionise your build.

With Apple’s recent purchase of Metaio, augmented reality has again hit news. Pundits everywhere are breathlessly trying to figure out what the purchase means, how Apple will integrate it and most importantly when. While the US powerhouses make exciting investments in Magic Leap et al and Microsoft’s Hololens, they’re some way off going public both in terms of tech and also social acceptance. In one hit Apple entered the market for augmented reality working on existing mobile devices and it’s got a lot of people talking about the potential prior to wearable revolution. Smart phones are everywhere, in everyone’s pocket, and capable of generating rich AR experiences given the right set up. What is not to like?

Having built augmented reality on mobile applications through our MobileAR platform for BBC, 20th Century Fox, GE, Guinness World Records and more over the past four years we’ve experienced a lot of the issues commonly faced by both the client and the creator of the application. Any new technology faces an uphill struggle to acceptance by the mainstream and mobile augmented reality is no exception. The general public’s understanding of AR is low, not helped by a slew of gimmick-led apps that did little more than unlock e-coupons or offers that could have easily been delivered in simpler ways. Many do not even understand the concept of pointing their device at a print material and unlocking 3D content - for every one person who considers it magic, the next considers it borderline witchcraft. Education is still a huge part of the sell.

Our experience has shown that, as ever, the advertising industry is quick to adopt and try new technologies in search of a “wow” factor to sell more product. Unfortunately, the industry is often very weak in exploring the technology beyond its initial usage as a showstopper. Many advertising related applications have actually muddied the waters for the industry because they failed to ensure that they had a reason to be and secondly delivered a low quality 3d experience that stopped user take-up or worse simply didn’t work at all because no one told the user they needed an internet connection!

Mobile augmented reality has huge potential in a wide range of industries but it’s important to understand the basics. Here’s 5 key points to consider when entering the augmented reality market on mobile before you make the leap:

Why does it exist?

In the rush to adopt new technology into the mix people often forget to ask the basic questions about what they are actually in it for. Augmented reality has succumb to that phenomenon in a particularly brutal way over the past few years with a lot of failures for both small and large businesses. The majority of the failures were simply because people often didn’t analyse why they were even using AR in the first place. 

AR on mobile is a powerful way of unlocking experiences and information from locations, print and more but it is long past the point of being a technology that simply impresses by default. Ask yourself what are you trying to communicate, and to whom, and then find the simplest way possible to achieve that. There’s a good chance that a low budget, lightweight AR experience on a mobile phone is not the answer to your current dilemma about how to promote a product or and edu experience. Beyond the initial show, what are you trying to say? There’s also a good chance that AR is the answer to another question within your business and it has much more potential long term impact on product side, customer training, education and more….

Three C’s: Content, Content, Content

The great AR experiences on mobile devices are dependent on a rich layer of beautifully designed 2D or 3D content delivered and designed specifically for the medium it is delivered within. They are custom designed in the same way that people design their promotional materials, museums design their exhibits or photographers take great photographs. People relate to intuitive design and once in a lifetime experience, so it’s important to frame your mobile build in the same way. If you’re looking to educate children about the perils of rhino extinction in Africa you have to let them meet, greet, “touch” the animal in question to keep them there long enough to learn the message - don’t play them a video in an “AR environment”. 3D design at its best is close to photo-real, and in an augmented reality setting that’s the next best thing to being there. Skimping on low quality content will ensure that your application does not have the effect you desire.

What does it track and how?

It’s so important to consider how your content will be “unlocked” by the device. AR applications have traditionally used a marker to unlock the content, i.e you point the device’s camera at a print material and the content appears on top. But what if you don’t have print materials but want to convey your content anyway? Augmented reality applications can unlock content by iBeacon, by sound recognition, by GPS location and even by object recognition. Understanding the different approaches to unlocking content is essential to ensure your application does what it’s supposed to do. If you own an art gallery and want people to be able to learn more about each artist’s history and more then why not allow the device to recognise each artwork individually and then receive a guided tour by the artist themselves? 

Play the Game

Millennials love interactivity, in fact they demand it. Their lives are built around two way communication. They are not broadcast to, they control the broadcast and then probably rebroadcast themselves. They demand the same from their marketing as they do from their learning experiences. Mobile augmented reality offers them the chance to trigger 3D content and adapt, manipulate and adjust it in real time. Straight from their phone while offering instant immersion. When exploring how you’ll create a mobile application with AR inside, make sure that the experience is designed to ask questions of the user, forcing them to decide and participate. Gamify. 

Long Term Benefits

If you have been fortunate enough to design a mobile AR application that people have warmed to and downloaded it’s essential to consider how you extend that experience both in terms of time but also in terms of scope of experience. With so many possible trigger points available you can extend the life of an application long beyond the confines of a museum space or an advertising campaign. The same application can receive content updates and additional marker tracks almost instantly, which allows people to enjoy your experience at home, on the street, or even in the office. In fact if all the other points above are considered, the application can actually be used over many years to deliver a brand experience or a museum experience that outlasts many rivals.