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A Crash Course in Augmented Reality

Posted on August 19, 2009 and read 7,605 times

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jorgen A Crash Course in Augmented RealityJorgen Stovne
Art Director 

What was one of the coolest things about the T-800, the ominous Arnold Schwartzenegger robot from The Terminator? His “terminator vision,” of course. In 1984 this was the sort of technology we could only dream of, but two decades later you can experience it on your smart phone.  Called “Augmented Reality”, it has the potential to change the way we perceive the world (as the internet did 15 years ago). Or not. This guide will allow you to be the judge, or at least pretend to be an expert at the water cooler.

“Researchers in the field define Augmented Reality or more informally, “AR”, as a technology which (1) combines real and virtual imagery, (2) is interactive in real time, and (3) registers the virtual imagery with the real world.”(Zhou, 2009)  In the marketing world, a more holistic view is popular, defining AR as digital information that enhances a real world experience, usually through superimposed graphics on live video.

You’ve probably seen its most basic form out there already. Lately, several companies have successfully executed AR in their marketing campaigns. These are largely dependent on a desktop computer with an equipped webcam. The campaigns require the user to print a special symbol (a “marker”) and connect via webcam to a special website. Connecting the web camera to the site and showing the print to the camera brings out three-dimensional imagery from the print. If you haven’t yet seen it, now is the time.

Here are some examples of the hottest AR campaigns and applications to come out this summer season. (click on the images provided to be taken to appropriate AR application)


For the launch of the latest Star Trek movie, Total Immersion (a world leader in AR development), created an experience where you could have the Enterprise come to life on your desk, complete with lasers and warp speed.

1st image trekmovie A Crash Course in Augmented Reality

Similarly for the summer’s big blockbuster, Transformers 2: Revenge of the Fallen,  a website was created that would literally transform users into Optimus Prime on-screen. To complete the experience, the website allows you to robotize your voice. “Go Autobots!”

2nd image iwatchstuff A Crash Course in Augmented Reality

Snack food favourite Doritos — no strangers to trying out new ways of marketing, as evident in their consumer generated Super Bowl spots — teamed up with the band Blink-182  to reach their customers in a very unique way. By printing AR markers within a limited number of Doritos bags, they could boast to present the world’s first “concert in a bag.” Yes, they did an encore if you applauded loud enough.

3rd image doritos blink 182 A Crash Course in Augmented Reality

All of the above campaigns use AR in a way that compliments the product it represents. Star Trek and Transformers, film universes overflowing with cutting edge technology, are natural fits, while Doritos is known for unusual consumer experiences. But what happens when the novelty wears off?  Marketers are questioning if these “webcam-gimmicks” will just be a fad, or if AR will have a place in marketing in the longer run.

It’s a technology begun by the “father of computer graphics”, Ivan Sutherland, in the late 1960’s.  At that time, the computer required to render primitive AR was the size of small cars. Beginning in the late 90’s, researchers at Columbia University developed the first “mobile augmented reality systems” (MARS). With a head-worn display, portable computer and a tracking system, they were able to give users an enhanced campus tour. Important building names and information were superimposed onto the real world in the head-worn display.

Today, all this computer power can fit within a smart phone. Apps that allow you to “geo-tag” locations with information or guide you in real time are a reality:

Layar, a company in The Netherlands, allows users to see a variety of information (sorted in layers, how clever) ranging from available apartments in a building to finding the nearest ATM.

4th image layar A Crash Course in Augmented Reality

Nearest Tube gives Londoners directions to nearby underground stations.

5th image nearest tube A Crash Course in Augmented Reality

Priceless Picks from MasterCard allows you to tag your favourite locations to shop and dine, and share them with the world.

6th image priceless picks A Crash Course in Augmented Reality

All of the information these applications provide is already available online. What these mobile AR apps allow you to do is point your phone in a specific direction and immediately know what’s nearby.

Then there are concepts like “Augmented ID” which “visualizes the digital identities of people you meet in real life”. With face recognition software, this application enables you to see selected information on people you meet.

7th image augmented id A Crash Course in Augmented Reality
TwittARound is an augmented reality Twitter viewer on the iPhone. It will show the location of nearby twitter users if you hold your phone up to the horizon. Make sure to watch the video to see it in action.

8th image twittaround A Crash Course in Augmented Reality
A prototype named “the Sixth Sense” from those esteemed brainiacs at MIT is able to recognize and identify packaged products, and immediately download information to display it onto the product.

9th image sixth sense A Crash Course in Augmented Reality

In other words, the information available on the web is being merged with the real world. Mobile AR has been named as one of the top 10 emerging technologies “most likely to alter industries, fields of research, and the way we live” by MIT.

AR is not entirely here yet, though. Superimposing data on live video feeds while using the GPS function and connecting to the internet quickly drains battery power on your smart phone. Accessibility is another issue; a smart phone only offers a small window into the world. Blair MacIntyre, one of the minds behind MARS, says mobile AR can only reach its full potential with constantly wearable head-worn displays. That relates to a third challenge: how can you convince people to adopt AR into their everyday routines? If the technology is marketed too soon and/or promises too much and does not live up to its expectations; it might end up in the trash bin next to the Segway and MiniDiscs. Though the future might seem uncertain, one thing is for sure: We as advertisers will still need to come up with creative solutions. With or without terminator-vision.

Want to know more?
• The Ultimate blog for all things Augmented Reality

A complete introduction to Augmented Reality by Thomas Purves. Recommended!

Don’t forget to visit Total Immersions site. They’ve been developing AR for ten years.

A list of campaigns where AR has been used as a tool to reach audiences

And no list of links is complete without a mobile AR Zombie game: “ARhrrrr!” With Skittles!

Jorgen Stovne, “Toronto’s most Norwegian Art Director”, is an AD intern at DDB Canada. This article is based on his Creative Advertising final thesis at Humber College. You can find him on ihaveanidea right here.




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