Beyond the hype and the novelty, the thing that’s always bugged me about virtual reality is its antisocial nature. It is fully immersive escapism, which is a key strength, but it's also an Achilles heel on the road to mass adoption.
Then there's the kit – a bulky headset, a handheld controller, and, for a high-quality experience, the need to be tethered to a powerful computer or gaming console. And for some people, it just makes them feel a bit ill.
I think this shows that VR is best suited to either being at home on your own, doing specialist tasks at work, or as part of an immersive event. In these scenarios VR can be exceptional, but it still feels like a fairly narrow spectrum of use cases. While it's likely that VR will still grow slowly, augmented reality, by contrast, is set to explode.
Rather than taking you to a separate world, AR delivers value by adding a virtual layer on top of the real world. This means that AR doesn't demand a specialist headset or hardware – it can function using our smartphones’ cameras and screens. This opens it up to more uses and, most importantly for brands, spontaneous usage.
Apple’s new iOS, due at the end of the summer, includes a feature called ARKit: a framework that allows developers to easily create rich AR experiences for iPhone and iPad. Craig Federighi, Apple's senior vice president of software engineering, has described ARKit as "the largest AR platform in the world".
Exaggeration? Nope – until now AR has largely been limited to niche apps powered by third parties such as Blippar, or specific corners of the internet such as Snapchat’s ‘World Lenses’. ARKit suddenly gives the power of AR to any app that runs on iOS and provides a simple framework for developers that makes AR cost-effective as well as having enormous reach.
What’s brilliant about AR on smartphones is that it is always available, immersive, fun and useful – it's a marketer’s dream waiting to be utilised. How could it work for your brand? So far, applications for AR seem to fall into one of three categories:
Being useful is an important way for brands to demonstrate their purpose and keep front of mind. While large-scale utilities such as AR mapping and navigation and real-time language translation are probably best left to the big guns, brands can use AR to solve customer problems. For example, a carpet brand could create a room measuring utility, or Stanley could create an AR measuring tape. AR could be used to offer product support (or product assembly) – perhaps Electrolux could utilise AR to help customers service their appliances? But maybe it’s best to forget the mushroom identification app concept.
2. Product previews
If your brand is selling a physical product then seeing it in situ can help close the sale and reduce costly returns. Try-before-you-buy AR is already being experimented with for beauty products, clothes, watches and glasses. Ikea has experimented with AR for yearsand is now said to be building an ARKit powered preview service, which might look a bit like this demo. Dulux is letting customers see what different paint colours will look like on their walls.
Of course, AR can also be incredibly fun, which is a big opportunity for brands. Gaming is an obvious option, as demonstrated by this fun Minecraft mock-up. But for brands the opportunity could be in linking print, TV and other collateral to in-app AR experiences. Printed material, packaging, ads and other in-store assets are all potential launch pads for AR experiences in your brand’s app. Charities we work with, such as the RSPB, could benefit by augmenting their reserves, enhancing the experience for visitors via prompts on signage. Bic has already added value to its print materials by using AR to create an interactive colouring book.
With AR set to become mainstream, now is the time to consider your brand’s strategy. As always there’s a risk of making something novel but useless, but as long as it fulfils your brand promise and is rooted in customer insight, it should be win-win.
It’s an exciting time for AR – we are on the verge of what could be an augmented revolution, and who knows where we’ll go once people start mashing AR with machine learning and other technologies? Perhaps the most surprising thing of all is that I managed to write this article without mentioning Pokémon Go. Now go forth and augment.
Want to have insights from Zone's thought leaders sent directly to your inbox every week? Sign up to our Digital Distractions email and you'll receive an inspiring dose of Mission Critical Digital thinking every Tuesday afternoon.