There’s not a bigger number in the burgeoning business of augmented reality than 900 million. That’s the estimated number of AR-capable mobile phones worldwide expected to be in place by year’s end, according to recent projections.
Add to that the AR capabilities on platforms such as Facebook and Snapchat, as well as the enabling app-creation technologies from Apple, Android and Amazon, and there’s a lot of opportunity. Done right, AR promises to empower brands and creators to reach very big audiences in very attractive ways.
For advertisers and marketers, AR’s ability to tie entertainment, brand and immersive experience can be a powerful lure.
But, according to members of an AR advertising panel I moderated recently in Los Angeles, that potential is only just beginning to be realized. Early innovators are already seeing strong brand engagement with smartly executed AR experiences, they said.
“This world is incredibly exciting and enticing to brands; you’re creating a brand experience you couldn’t get otherwise,” said Evan Fisk, the VP of theatrical marketing for Lionsgate, which has done AR projects in support of their latest films in The Hunger Games and Saw franchises, among others.
“I feel like augmented reality from an entertainment perspective does a really interesting job of bringing the consumer in,” said Vince Cacace, CEO of AR and VR ad specialist Vertebrae, which hosted the event.
“If it’s an entertainment property like Jigsaw (the 2017 Saw sequel), AR allows them to take part in the experience, to feel more connected to the experience itself and to be the star of the experience in some ways, and then to be able to share it with their friends,” Cacace said.
Vertebrae created the Jigsaw AR experience, which put users in a virtual version of the “suicide collars” crafted by the movie’s eponymous villain. The horror sequel would go on to gross $38 million after its debut last October.
Brands with great, creative ideas can use AR experiences to buzzsaw through the background noise of the web and really capture attention, said Matthew Stanton, senior strategist of emerging media& technology at Edelman.
As an example of that potential power, Stanton pointed to a VR project by Tom’s shoes, the brand that gives away a pair of shoes in poor countries for every pair it sells.
Tom’s Virtual Giving Trips “are living the Tom’s mission statement,” Stanton said. “It showed what it was like handing a pair of shoes to an impoverished child. It’s much more powerful, as opposed to passive ads. As technology catches up, you’ll see more and more of these great storytellings, distributed on mobile, that allow people to tie into a positive brand experience.”
It’s a time of continued boundary-pushing, panelists said, because no one knows the new medium’s limits yet. That includes beginning to take advantage of wearable devices that extend an experience beyond a smartphone.
“We’re at that magical moment in this digital phase where we can and will try everything,” said Jason Steinberg, VP of Strategic Initiatives at Avatar Labs. “We have glasses. We have wearables. This is the moment when the cellphone dies, and I’m super excited about that because I’m tethered to it and I’m tired of it interrupting my life.”
There are challenges. As Cacace noted, too often companies are repeating one of the sins of virtual reality: doing AR for the wrong reasons.
“If you’re using a camera to create a contextual experience, have the camera be there for a reason,” Cacace said. “Have the surrounding environment be there for a reason. We saw that with VR: People were doing VR to do VR. It was all happening right in front of you, so there wasn’t any value in having an immersive experience. So now the brands are figuring out what the use cases are for coming up with a creative perspective.”
It’s also important to manage client expectations in these projects, Stanton said.
“Every brand does not have to be a first mover on an innovation platform,” Stanton said. “Your (brand’s) mission may not align with being a first mover.”
One technology that should supercharge AR, especially on mobile, is the widespread deployment, beginning this year, of 5G mobile technologies that bring far faster bandwidth and much lower latency.
The number of devices able to tap 5G will be far lower than that 900 million figure initially. It won’t stay that way long, given the technology’s aggressive rollout by governments and mobile providers in the U.S., China, Korea, Japan, the Middle East and Europe. Significant markets should exist within a couple of years that will be able to tap extraordinary AR experiences wherever they are.
And that should attract a whole new class of creative talent who also will be able to incorporate libraries of free assets and technologies to build all kinds of AR experiences.
“There’s going to be an opportunity with 5G for anyone anywhere to create interactive experiences, games, facemasks, tabletop and room-scale experiences,” said Fisk. “We’re on the doorstep already. Combine that with capabilities that come with mobile web, and we really are on the cusp on this new sort of creative community coming out with free off-the-shelf tools on the web.”
At the same time, AR also will generate an extraordinary amount of highly targeted data that can be immensely valuable for brands.
But that data will need to be handled carefully. Concerns about privacy and the passage of legislation such as the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation, will require careful handling and smart decisions about data collection, storage and reuse, panelists warned.
“The data can be anonymous,” said Cacace. “You can aggregate that information. And we haven’t seen a huge impact on GDPR. If you wanted to know that (an audience member watching an AR experience) smiled, that would be creepy, right? But you’d need to go a long way from there to what advertisers find useful for their purposes.”