Advertisers love the 2002 movie Minority Report for its vision of a fully interactive world of advertising surrounding the consumer. Augmented reality is a tantalyzing taste of this future. Who wouldn’t be in love with the idea of customizing and designing your own unique shoe, seeing how they would look on you, and placing the order without out having to do anything but rotate your phone?

AR as an idea is definitely not new–remember the “wearable computer” ARQuake game back in 2000?–but the execution in mobile is, and the excitement around this method of reaching consumers has reached a fever pitch. Juniper Research sees the market growing a hundredfold by 2015 to $1.5 billion in revenue, rivalling location-based services and apps.
But while AR in mobile has made great strides over the past 18 months, there are some major hurdles it will have to face before the hype matches the potential. Here are the five big ones:
1. Device: The gateway to the world of AR is the mobile device. The problem is AR needs a camera and the ability to run applications; in short, a smartphone or comparable device–a tablet with camera, for example. These limitations may not sound incredibly strict for what the end result will provide, but only 25 percent of U.S. phones are smartphones. The fragmentation of hardware and operating system hinders what marketers can do. The more intense and robust the experience, the more limited the audience. Tailoring an experience for different devices? Good luck with that. There are over 300 different Android devices alone. Of those, there are at least five different “flavors,” and each of those flavors is available on one to five versions of the Android operating system. These flavors force app developers to handle certain interaction elements, like touch, differently depending on their design. With the largest apps out there still struggling to support all of these variations effectively, it’s clear that the more intense the user experience is, the more issues the AR developper will face in trying to reach all audiences.
2. Process: Let’s say the target audience has the proper equipment, but will they know what to do next? Using AR for advertising can require multiple steps for a simple interaction with a brand. In one scenario the user already has the app. Using Yelp and Brightkite as examples, the app is something that the user may already have installed. In this case, AR is a feature of this app and not its sole purpose. In the other scenario, the user is prompted to download the app via an additional advertisement, whether being the actual source of the AR trigger or another component completely. Junaio and Layar are examples of apps like this, where AR is the main focus of the app. At its shortest, the path to viewing AR requires two steps: having the app and using the app at the point of activation. If you have to prompt the user to download the app, the process takes an additional step. That’s a lot to ask in today’s ADD-world of instant digital gratification.
3. Fragmentation: There are plenty of AR-focused apps out there and even more that have it as a feature. Unfortunately, at this point no device has the ability to display AR without an app. It’s very likely that in the near future this ability will be available through HTML5, but that still requires the user to update the device browser and to navigate to the web app. The options from a technological standpoint are to offer the experience through another already built solution like Junaio and Layar, or to build your own. Using a third-party solution means severely limiting the potential audience. After all, what if people use another platform? Few current AR experiences are enticing enough for them to take that additional step to download yet another app.  In this fragmented world, there’s no write once, run everywhere. Each AR platform has its own features. It’s unlikely that you can take your creative and spread it between all of them without having to rework it. Even if it’s just slight tweaking, that’s additional time spent for development and QA that eats into the final budget. Considering the small potential audiences, fragmentation can make mobile AR not worth the trouble.
4. Activation: Suppose the audience has the correct device and app. The question now becomes how to activate the experience. Any form of input could technically trigger the experience. Camera, microphone, touch, or even time-based so long as the app is active in some form. So far, no app offers all of these methods, a significant limitation. Take the Papa John’s Superbowl campaign, executed with Junaio, that had people scan an ad in USA Today to play an animation directly on the newspaper. That means people had to have both the Junaio app and a copy of USA Today from that day. Now, apps like Yelp provide an AR experience regardless of location, allowing for repeat value to the AR experience anywhere with connectivity. However, the focus of these apps is informational. They offer standard banner-like ads. While the contextual advertising is there, matching the content of the overlay to the banner advertisement, the depth of the AR experience for a brand is no greater than a text link on a map.
5. Confusion: AR is new. It will get better and more mainstream. But for now, the understanding among regular people of what it can offer and what it actually means isn’t always clear. An AR experience is just that, an augmented view of the real world. PepsiMax’s Superbowl-focused ad campaign using Junaio and USA Today is actually misrepresented as an AR experience when it’s actually a virtual or simulated-reality experience. Users who viewed the ad through the Junaio app were sent to a full-device takeover, allowing them to move their device all around them to virtually view the Cowboys Stadium. Nothing is augmented here at all. The point of activation for this specific ad is more closely related to a QR code than to AR.
The potential for AR to become a major tool in mobile advertising is definitely there. The excitement is, in many cases, warranted but probably needs to be tempered a bit. The executions are all branding so far, with little, if any, utility. While that’s definitely the first step towards making it viable, the amount of time and effort it takes to interact with the experience is fairly high for the average consumer. If location services that use AR, like Yelp and Brightkite, opened up their doors to advertisers looking to better represent their physical locations with an augmented experience, we would have experiences with high value and actual functionality. That’s when AR goes from a really cool novelty to an everyday method of how people and brands interact.
For more amazing examples of the potential that Mobile AR can offer, download the String showcase app for iOS.
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