that augmented reality has established itself as the technology buzzword of the
year, what impact will it have on social media?
Google Trends shows
the growth curve for augmented reality, first appearing in the United
States in November 2008, and then picking up more steam in March and June of
this year. Putting it in perspective though, over the past 12 months, there
times as many searches for "widgets" and nearly 26 times as many
searches for "Second Life." It has some catching up to do with the
emerging trends of yesteryear.
So what is augmented reality (often abbreviated as AR)? Here's the
simplest definition I can muster: augmented reality provides a layer of digital
content over real-world experiences. Vague? Perhaps. But it covers the main
ways augmented reality is used today.
The first, the best known, and the most gimmicky is when you print out
an image, hold it up to a webcam, and a 3D effect appears on the screen. GE was
one of the first brands to do this, using augmented
reality to create digital holograms to promote its Smart Grid technology; Popular Science then printed the image on its July
magazine cover. Topps
uses augmented reality to offer 3D games with its baseball cards,
eliminating the need to print out anything else. Doritos turned
bags for its Late Night chips into an augmented reality campaign, giving
consumers access to online concerts from Blink-182 and Big Boi; fans who made a
lot of noise after could get the band to do an encore performance faster. All
of this is first-generation, so expect a marketing arms race to fuel more buzz.
Far more interesting potential for augmented reality comes from
mobile applications. Instead of webcams, the mobile version relies on camera
phones. Consumers can view their surroundings through the camera lens and
find location-based information appearing on the handset screen.
Several such applications have been made available for Google
Android, and last week word leaked that Yelp was the first to offer augmented
reality on the iPhone via an Easter egg (or hidden feature) in its app; you can
my screen shots on Flickr. The feature, dubbed "Monocle,"
activates your camera so, as you pan around your environment, business listings
pop up in the direction you're looking, all with links to iPhone-optimized Yelp
profiles. This is the first of its kind for the iPhone, and it's still buggy;
most places that came up for me in Manhattan and Brooklyn were close by, but
not in the direction I was looking. Still, I was able to get useful input from
Monocle. Thanks to reviews appearing on Monocle, I even bought a chocolate chip
cookie at Ashby's, a lunch spot near the office (and yes, the reviews were
The reviews also hint at the potential for where social media
fits. I'd expect that most of the real-world information used for mobile
augmented reality applications will be user-generated in some way, but curated.
This could be through a system like Yelp, where it hosts and organizes the
reviews that its users submit. Another version of this is Wikitude's
augmented reality browser, now on Android and soon on the iPhone, where the
initial concept is to overlay Wikipedia information on the screen.
The possibilities are infinite, but they all center on content
anchored to a specific location. Some of this doesn't need to be user-generated
at all, like addresses or public transportation locations. But many other
categories will be especially applicable:
Tweets, especially as Twitter rolls out location information for all
Facebook updates; as more come from mobile apps, location-based
information will be more central to their meaning.
Games, like new versions of geocaching, where it's possible to compete
with other players based on digital markers uncovered through AR applications.
Art, as in new forms of graffiti that can enhance environments and
provide everything from social commentary to territory marking, all without
defacing physical property.
Citizen journalism, as you'll someday see every tree that once had a cat
stuck in it and every block that had a crime committed on it based on people's
This is just a sampling, and the marketing opportunities are
coming. If this catches on, consider paid AR listings in Yelp that are a bolder
color or otherwise more prominent. Marketers will also have more to monitor,
especially those brands with a physical presence or brands that are tied to
real-world locations (such as a soda brand that's likely to be consumed at
quick-service restaurants and movie theaters). Marketers will soon have to make
choices on whether to pay attention to, encourage and potentially build these
new applications, or hide from and fight them. My bias should be obvious, but
new technologies always bring new fears.
The hype is building, but the practical applications are coming. If you
were turned off by augmented reality after spending an hour trying to get some
black-and-white printout to trigger some action on a webcam, give it another
look. Some of these applications will literally let you see the world in a new