Sponsor The Sandbox: AR As Personal Expression

I have to admit that I have found some of the early marketing applications of augmented reality more than a little cheesy. I mean, how compelling is it to pose with a Brooklyn Decker overlay at the newsstand of your nearest Barnes & Noble?

A couple of years ago, Esquire used this little stunt, combining geolocation, AR and its cover model. When you launched the Goldrun AR app in a B&N store at its newsstand a cutout of the model appeared in the camera view. I felt like an ass trying this one out. My wife refused to assist and just did the customary "I don't know him" trot in the opposite direction. It seemed reminiscent of low-end tourist traps -- posing with life-size standups of Ronald Reagan on Fisherman’s Wharf. And rather than make me feel more like that ideal Esquire metrosexual sophisticate, the exercise reduced me to a 15-year-old doofus appearing to shout out to his "buds," "hey look, dudes, me and Brooklyn Decker!" It made me want to join my wife trotting in the other direction.

The basic technology and overlay techniques of Goldrun's AR app remain basically the same, but the approach is a bit more sophisticated now, says Goldrun CEO Vivian Rosenthal. "We shifted focus and call ourselves a mobile engagement platform around connecting brands and consumers through photographs," she says. For instance, for the Super Bowl-winning New York Giants and partner Tiffany and Co., the team’s Facebook page invites fans to use the Goldrun app to put on their own virtual Super Bowl ring or pose with the Lombardy trophy.

“The photos are really ads posing as photos,” says Rosenthal. But rather than just being a mobilized version of the cheesy tourist photo, the program sparked fan creativity. People start playing with the overlay, often by posing with their own team jerseys or positioning the trophy to appear 20 feet tall, she says. “It becomes a creative form of expression.”

They saw a similar effect in a campaign with Fox around the recent "Ice Age" animated film release. The cartoon characters in the AR overlays became elements in a creative toolset, with families cuddling around them or reducing them to palm-sized creatures in unexpected ways. For the client, the program just feeds the always-hungry social media mill. “The brand gets this incredible library of content that reflects its users,” she says. The images are all watermarked with the brand so it creates a real impression wherever the user spreads it. And the images are geo-tagged. “You can see where in the country people are engaging and which social networks they are using. It is a real-time market research tool.”

Rosenthal says she is seeing brands like Kraft incorporating AR into the normal flow of social media and customer relations and offering regular calls to action around products. Clients are beginning to sign up for annual contracts so they can maintain a persistent dialogue using AR across Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest and elsewhere.

There is something to be said for the value of the virtual tchotchke. I am sure that I am not the right target for this sort of thing. But the basic model reminds us how valuable it is to give consumers the simplest of toys to let them make of it what they will. Engagement is not just a matter of enveloping the consumer in "experiences" with rich and overwrought UI. The best engagement is powered by the user, not the marketer. Toss them a toy with open-ended possibilities. Let them supply the imagination, the effort, the tone and the meaning. The silly virtual tchotchke can become an occasion not for you to "augment" reality so much as for the customer to augment your brand and apply his own overlay of personalization, meaning, even irony. Sponsor the sandbox.  


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