Google Trends shows the growth curve for augmented reality, first appearing in the United States in November 2008, and then picking up more steam in March and June of this year. Putting it in perspective though, over the past 12 months, there were 16 times as many searches for "widgets" and nearly 26 times as many searches for "Second Life." It has some catching up to do with the emerging trends of yesteryear.
So what is augmented reality (often abbreviated as AR)? Here's the simplest definition I can muster: augmented reality provides a layer of digital content over real-world experiences. Vague? Perhaps. But it covers the main ways augmented reality is used today.
The first, the best known, and the most gimmicky is when you print out an image, hold it up to a webcam, and a 3D effect appears on the screen. GE was one of the first brands to do this, using augmented reality to create digital holograms to promote its Smart Grid technology; Popular Science then printed the image on its July magazine cover. Topps uses augmented reality to offer 3D games with its baseball cards, eliminating the need to print out anything else. Doritos turned bags for its Late Night chips into an augmented reality campaign, giving consumers access to online concerts from Blink-182 and Big Boi; fans who made a lot of noise after could get the band to do an encore performance faster. All of this is first-generation, so expect a marketing arms race to fuel more buzz.
Far more interesting potential for augmented reality comes from mobile applications. Instead of webcams, the mobile version relies on camera phones. Consumers can view their surroundings through the camera lens and find location-based information appearing on the handset screen.
Several such applications have been made available for Google Android, and last week word leaked that Yelp was the first to offer augmented reality on the iPhone via an Easter egg (or hidden feature) in its app; you can view my screen shots on Flickr. The feature, dubbed "Monocle," activates your camera so, as you pan around your environment, business listings pop up in the direction you're looking, all with links to iPhone-optimized Yelp profiles. This is the first of its kind for the iPhone, and it's still buggy; most places that came up for me in Manhattan and Brooklyn were close by, but not in the direction I was looking. Still, I was able to get useful input from Monocle. Thanks to reviews appearing on Monocle, I even bought a chocolate chip cookie at Ashby's, a lunch spot near the office (and yes, the reviews were spot-on).
The reviews also hint at the potential for where social media fits. I'd expect that most of the real-world information used for mobile augmented reality applications will be user-generated in some way, but curated. This could be through a system like Yelp, where it hosts and organizes the reviews that its users submit. Another version of this is Wikitude's augmented reality browser, now on Android and soon on the iPhone, where the initial concept is to overlay Wikipedia information on the screen.
The possibilities are infinite, but they all center on content anchored to a specific location. Some of this doesn't need to be user-generated at all, like addresses or public transportation locations. But many other categories will be especially applicable:
This is just a sampling, and the marketing opportunities are coming. If this catches on, consider paid AR listings in Yelp that are a bolder color or otherwise more prominent. Marketers will also have more to monitor, especially those brands with a physical presence or brands that are tied to real-world locations (such as a soda brand that's likely to be consumed at quick-service restaurants and movie theaters). Marketers will soon have to make choices on whether to pay attention to, encourage and potentially build these new applications, or hide from and fight them. My bias should be obvious, but new technologies always bring new fears.The hype is building, but the practical applications are coming. If you were turned off by augmented reality after spending an hour trying to get some black-and-white printout to trigger some action on a webcam, give it another look. Some of these applications will literally let you see the world in a new way.