Commentary

Why It's Time To Rebrand 'Augmented Reality'

Have you ever taken a moment to consider how inaccurate certain phrases can be? Pencils have been made with graphite for years, and yet we still insist on calling it “pencil lead.” Aluminum foil is sometimes called “tinfoil,” and a “jellyfish” isn't even a fish at all.

It's probably too late to stop using words like “jellyfish.” They are so engrained in our vernacular that the change would warrant a massive campaign, and the jellyfish themselves wouldn't know the difference. But it's not too late for “augmented reality” to rebrand itself -- and for marketers, content professionals and consumers, this semantic shift must happen quickly if we are to drive mainstream adoption.

A clunky, techy and meaningless phrase

It's my belief that the term “augmented reality” is not only something of a misnomer, but is potentially damaging the perception and adoption of what's really exciting. It needs an overhaul for three very important reasons: the term is clunky, techy and meaningless to the average user; it has become a catchall for wildly divergent technologies -- each with their own powerful applications and behavioral implications; and lastly, in order to promote its usage, we should be describing the new behavior we are creating as well as the value it offers consumers.

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Let's be honest -- the phrase just sounds nerdy. We don't want millions of consumers to envision computer programmers coding away in isolation when they think about AR -- we want them to conjure up the experience of unlocking breathtaking visuals and stunning or valuable new information as they immerse themselves in a magical world of instantaneous discovery -- but we can only achieve that vision by utilizing a completely different term.

A catchall term for wildly different technologies

Furthermore, what augmented reality used to describe and what it currently describes are two different things. Originally, AR referred to geofenced bubbles hovering in the air, directing people toward the nearest ‘x’. Today, the term is bandied about for everything under the sun, from Google Glass to in-desktop cameras and image-recognition technologies -- all of which are completely different from the geo-AR days and from each other.

Any technology that harnesses the camera of the device and appears to "hover" content over real objects has been referred to as “augmented reality,” but this nebulous term frequently misses the mark. It's not the method of how content is delivered that's important -- it's the fact that this technology is enabling the digitization of the 99.9% of the physical world around us that is static and not connected. 

What's important is that objects on walls, street corners, in stores, on tables, in print, in cupboards, worn or tattooed on our person even -- can all now be converted into instantaneous portals to an interactive content experience. Once that is appreciated, it simply becomes a question of what the content experience is, not how it was triggered -- that doesn't have to be "augmented."  A simple discount coupon, a PDF of the first 10 pages of a book, an exclusive video, weblink or game may be more engaging to a user than a 3D dinosaur jumping out of the wall.

Describe the behavior, not the technology

When you google something, you type words into a search engine and receive powerful results. Similarly, when you tweet, you send out a succinct message to your online followers. Both of these terms describe the action or behavior -- not the behind-the-scenes technology that powers them.

When it comes to a device as personal, loved and ubiquitous as the smartphone, it’s important to build out new behaviors that are actively sought out and driven by the user. One fascinating trend is the evolution of the phone as a wand that can activate and unlock the world around us -- an extension of our physical senses, in many ways. Shazam has become the “ear” of the phone (and now a verb in its own right), as it listens and detects songs and music from TV commercials in seconds; NFC (near field communication) technologies emulate touch as a means to make payments and relay information from one device to another.

The last piece of the puzzle is building out the “eye.” With this sense, the smartphone has experienced a steady progression -- from built-in cameras to a stepping-stone myriad of "reading" technologies: QR codes, barcodes and Mtags to SnapTags and digital watermarking. But it's only now that the technology has evolved to a point at which no codes or physical print process are required and that “visual discovery” is poised to become the most powerful iteration of the way we unlock the static, physical world around us.

The visual discovery revolution

Let's preempt consumer confusion by ditching the term “augmented reality” before it's too late. It's time to start capturing the imaginations of millions of potential users with a stronger term -- one that focuses on the magic and spontaneity of the actions we want the consumer to take, and is used in conjunction with verbs stressing the benefit of the action, such as “buy,” “play,” “win,” and more.

To our colleagues across the industry, it's time to champion the visual discovery revolution. (It has not escaped my attention that "Visual Discovery," shortened to its initials, does not make for the most compelling of acronyms. I welcome further suggestions for better terms from readers!). Are you with us?

3 comments about "Why It's Time To Rebrand 'Augmented Reality'".
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  1. Rich Whitley from Navigation Management, July 26, 2013 at 12:45 p.m.

    AMEN! "Augmented Reality" sound more like a digital movie feature from Disney animation. As a mobile marketing concept that is a location based information pipeline it offers virtually (no pun intended) limitless capabilities.

  2. Francis OcaƱa from Creative Art & Design Studio, July 28, 2013 at 6:03 a.m.

    I couldn't agree more with you, such a long and vague name makes it very hard to explain to potential investors and even final customers that are not necessarily aware of every new tech dev that comes around, and now with Google Glass, they are even more confused as they espect all AR apps to work around a thing right on their eyeball. We ugently need a name for this communication technology that explains itself what is all about, easier said than done.
    Regards from Spain.

  3. Ori Inbar from AugmentedReality.Org, July 29, 2013 at 7:27 a.m.

    Jess - you bring up a great point. Augmented Reality is indeed an awkward "techy" sounding term.

    The thing is that because it has been around for over 20 years - multiple attempts to find a better term didn't last for long.

    I believe that in a few years, when this new way of interacting with the physical world will become part of every day life and work, the term will be abandoned and completely absorbed into other terms that'd describe the new ways AR enhances the way we do things.
    For example Visual Discovery is a fantastic term for use of AR in advertising (and nobody cares it's using AR to achieve that goal.) On the other hand - you could argue AR can be used to enhance the use of a product on a day to day basis - beyond the discovery phase. Moreover - soon, marketers will use other senses (sound, smell, EEG) for discovery beyond sight, and new terms will be invented to describe these new experiences, and so on and so forth...

    I can't guess what these new terms will be - innovators in various verticals (like yourself in marketing) will have to tackle the challenging task.

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