Someday all of our “realities” will be a hybrid of actual and non-actual experiences, but today’s advance­ments in aug­mented real­ity (AR) are already making serious strides toward making it very difficult to discern digital experiences from real experiences.  With augmented reality, information about the user’s real world becomes interactive and digitally manipulable through display techniques like head-mounted, handheld and spatial displays.

We hope you’ve been following our series of posts exploring how in 2012 we will witness a remarkable blurring of the offline-online barrier. Augmented reality, where artificial information about the environment and its objects can be overlaid on the real world, is a very tangible expression of that prediction with growing business and marketing implications.

You may be familiar with AR through gaming applications like Microsoft Kinect or the mobile-driven AR.Drone where objects in the real world can become part of a gaming system, or the yellow “first down” line in televised football games, but AR is proving an effective technique in business applications as well. Near field communication-enabled smartphones allow users to transact, share and connect by simply touching a phone to another phone; advertisers are creatively using AR to promote products through interactive applications; and Bing Visual Search, which will let users formulate and refine search queries through imagery, will soon be a standard smartphone feature.  

As the supporting technologies have become smaller, cheaper and as a result more accessible by the masses, applications for augmented reality are increasingly supporting consumers in their purchasing decisions and brands in their marketing strategies. Today, any of the following can occur, thanks to augmented reality:

  • A man can walk up to a restaurant on the street, hold up his augmented reality-enabled smartphone and instantly see reviews and rankings for the eatery at which he’s considering eating, as well as for competitive restaurants within a specified radius: what type of pressure will this put on companies’ brand management and SEO programs?
  • An unassuming business card can break free of its “flat” reputation by incorporating a barcode, which when scanned by a smartphone opens a browser playing an in-depth video about the individual’s professional milestones, accolades and media coverage: how could streamlined, on-demand marketing techniques positively impact marketing budgets, message penetration and brand recall?
  • A woman shopping an online retailer for a new pair of jeans stands in front of her computer’s webcam and virtually tries on dozens of pairs, with the images of each superimposed over her body. Cycling through different styles and adding choices to a shopping cart are made by arm gestures, without ever needing to touch a computer control: who wouldn’t want the option to try before they buy, and how does the ease and freedom of such an option improve a shopper’s likelihood to spend more money, keep the items they purchase, shop there again and recommend the site to a friend?

Whether it’s augmented reality, social media or viral word-of-mouth, customers don’t care about the channels; they simply care about whether their brand experiences will be interesting, valuable, emotionally resonant or just plain fun. It’s a victory for brand marketers if they can deliver those experiences via augmented reality, but as far as that female online shopper is concerned, finding a pair of skinny jeans that fits is the only reality that counts.

What’s your take on how augmented reality will affect business, marketing and your personal shopping behaviors in the year ahead? Give us your own reality check!