AR Apps Are The New QR Codes

Last holiday season, QR codes, those pixilated packets of information, were everywhere. This season, they’re being out-shined by augmented reality (AR). AR is finally going mainstream, but is it ready for the public? And are we ready for it?? Augmented reality consumer applications have been around for a while— about as long as QR codes — and now that a majority of Americans have smartphones to access the technology, it has the potential to take off. Notice we say “potential.”

Millennials are the tech-savviest generation yet, and even they are struggling with these new-fangled consumer enticements. There’s a learning curve. In the case of both QR codes and AR, the user needs to first download an app to their phone to read the images. Once they have figured that out, they need to activate the app, focus on the particular image, and, in the case of AR, the app will generate an overlay presenting information or entertainment over the phone’s camera image.

For example, this season Starbucks has winter images on its cups, and, using its AR app, coffee drinkers can bring the characters on the cup to life. Users can play with a friendly fox and watch ice skaters glide around their screens. It all sounds pretty cool, right? But AR apps and QR codes aren’t winning over consumers, though they are getting plenty of media attention.

In both cases, the technology can be a barrier. Even when Millennials realize they need to have an app to access AR features, they don’t always want to take the time to find the app and download it to their phone unless they know the payoff will be worth it. If they do download it and it doesn’t work as expected, their frustration mounts and they may avoid AR in the future.

I’ve had issues with Starbucks’ app — it tells me to hold the phone steadier (after drinking strong coffee!) or to place the cup in brighter lighting — all just to see an animated critter romp around my screen. I finally gave up after spending far too much time fiddling with it. As a novelty, AR works to get customers interested (I don’t usually go to Starbucks, but wanted to test out the app), but there’s a danger that the user experience will fall flat and fail to improve one’s impression of the brand in the end.

It will take more than novelty for Millennials to bother to use AR on a regular basis.

Some companies are making strides in the right direction. Macy’s, which has also made extensive use of QR codes, launched an AR program this year tied to the popular holiday newspaper editorial, “Yes, Virginia.” When shoppers are in the store, they can use the app to let kids interact with animated characters from the story. But Macy’s took it a step further, building in a mechanism to let the users snap photos of the kids with Virginia, not only to have a memento of the experience but also to then send the pictures as a holiday e-card to family and friends.

Chobani yogurt launched an AR app at the same time it introduced its new kid-oriented line, Chobani Champions. Using the Champlify app, the product lid activates special AR games. But it’s not a one-off experience; kids can play the AR games to earn points and trophies, and the app has other fun activities that take advantage of smartphone technology that kids can do without needing a yogurt lid or AR, which means they can play anytime. It’s that sort of thoughtfully planned app that users will keep on their phones and come back to, rather than deleting it once the novelty has worn off.

When Millennials adopt new technology, they need to see how it fits in to their lives to make things more convenient or more fun. Social media made it easier to connect with friends, streaming video lets them enjoy entertainment on their own schedules, but in most instances, AR has yet to prove its usefulness. Apps like LocalScope and Layar that are designed to help users find nearby points of interest are more difficult to use than Yelp. Most AR apps designed for entertainment are, so far, very limited, and nowhere near as fun as the regular games and videos available for smartphones.

AR will draw Millennials’ attention based on the curiosity factor alone and can help build brand awareness, but brands need to put AR to work more wisely if they want deeper, more enduring engagement with customers.

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