The Current Augmented Reality (AR) Landscape for Brands
Augmented Reality (AR) has been a buzzword in the marketing and tech worlds for nearing a decade. Yet not one person in either industry would say that the true potential of AR has been realized. That has in large part been due to AR’s lack of scalability. Thankfully, every single major tech company has been working feverishly to solve this problem.
Google. Apple. Facebook. Amazon. Snapchat. I could go on, but I think I have your attention now.
Clearly, Silicon Valley has fully bet on the promise of AR, which means anyone (read: everyone) who does business or competes with any of the aforementioned companies should be paying attention to how they are building the future of human-computer interaction.
Announcements over the last six months (with the most recent news coming out of Apple’s WWDC just yesterday, following Facebook’s F8 and Google I/O a few weeks ago) have made the tech giant’s goals for AR in 2018 clear: Bring it to the masses. From legitimately useful tools to captivating games and entertainment, AR will be all around us before we know it, because for the first time the technology, distribution, and creation of AR content is accessible for all.
AR Preview via Apple iOS preview landing page
One of the most salient examples of successful AR delivered to the masses is Pokémon GO, released in the summer of 2017. So salient in fact, I’m tired of talking about it and you’re probably tired of reading about it. To its credit though, the not-really-AR-app made AR a household term overnight and reignited a fanbase that had been mostly lying dormant.
While Pokemon GO was the first (and arguably the only) AR activation to reach a critical mass of adoption, it has not been the last entertainment franchise to use AR to engage and strengthen their relationship with a dedicated group of fans. For example, last summer Starwars rolled out an AR feature within their mobile app that allowed classic ships to appear above landmarks around the world in conjunction with Force Friday and in preparation for the Last Jedi movie premiere. Since then, the franchise has further opted in and released a standalone AR headset and lightsaber combo for their Jedi Challenges experience. In fact, the opting in of major franchises to the technology has been critical to the expansion and continued spotlight on AR.
Vid-still via Pokemon Go Live
Snapchat has also leaned heavily into entertainment industry activations to boost engagement, offering sponsored lenses, face filters and most recently sponsored world lenses, with the first one coming out as a partnership with Netflix promoting its Stranger Things 2 drop. Countless major movie titles have sponsored Snap Lenses that transform users’ selfies into characters as a part of their premiere promotion. Of course, those are not the only AR experiences available in the Snapchat app, with all sorts of non-sponsored Lenses cycling through availability from day to day, and even dancing hot dogs and bitmojs.
3D Bitmoji Screenshot via Business Insider
These are examples of what has already been done with consumer-facing AR. Outside of what many considered a passing teenage fad, or somehow convincing users to download a separate app, there was little opportunity for brands to create meaningful AR content that users could interact with on a regular basis. So what’s changed?
The first piece of the AR puzzle would be to make it easier to build. Apple entered the AR space by taking a stab at solving this problem. At WWDC in June 2017, the iPhone X and ARKit were announced, and suddenly markerless (no more QR codes) AR was possible on a mass scale. And of course where Apple goes, Android swiftly follows (no pun intended).
In August of last year, Google announced their answer to Apple’s ARKit for Android, called ARCore. Most recently Google has announced that ARCore will support multiplayer AR apps across both iOS and Android. Apple just responded with the announcement of ARKit 2.0, which allows object detection, multiplayer and persistent experiences. They showed it off with an impressive demo with Lego that emphasized how AR can bridge the gap between the digital and physical world.
In terms of distribution, Snap was a true leader in the AR space. Since December 2015, Snap has offered sponsored lenses, but they were all made in-house and came with a hefty price tag. In December 2017, Snap released Lens Studio, a tool to help developers make their own AR World Lenses. (Uncoincidentally Facebook released their own version of the tool, called AR Studio, just two days prior). In even more recent news, just last month Snap announced that developers can now build their own face-filters through Lens Studio, and they’re shoppable to boot.
All of this is to say that everyone has thrown their hat into the ring at this point. Even if you’re not willing to do the same, watching how all of this plays out is sure to be filled with a few surprises and more than a few upsets.
Now that major strides have been made in solving the distribution problem, even more companies are sure to be asking themselves (or more likely, their marketing teams) whether they should be making an AR play. Arriving at the answer to this question is really no different than evaluating any other media channel a brand is considering adding to their media mix. Does the medium make sense for your brand? Does your audience already engage with this kind of content? Could AR’s unique capabilities bring a brand story to life better than another medium?
There’s a reason why certain large brands like Nike, Ikea, and Amazon, have already opted into AR activations. AR is a natural step for cool, high tech, or even risk-taking brands to make. But does that mean that everyone else should be standing on the sidelines? The AR audience is growing, and the tools to build it are more accessible than ever. The hype train is leaving the station, however, and AR branding activations will soon no longer be as splashy as they are right now.
It’s easy to assume that the only users of AR are all young well-to-do technophiles, which may or may not match a brand’s target audience. The fact of the matter is, anyone with a smartphone has the potential to be an AR user. Of those people, eMarketer has estimated that in 2018 there will be nearly 50 million AR users in the US alone. That’s more than 20% of the total US smartphone-toting population, and rivals SnapChat’s estimated 77 million US users.
So, if your audience is on mobile and is an avid consumer of social content, chances are they will engage with some form of AR content this year if they haven’t already. This is not to say that if a brand has a mobile or social strategy, then it needs a AR one too (yet). However, AR is getting to the point where it can no longer be ignored. Brands should be seriously evaluating their opportunity to leverage AR before they are stuck playing catch up.
I believe that we are on the cusp of a Cambrian explosion of branded AR content. All of the ingredients for it to flourish are there, all it will take is one “Aha!” moment (aka a “killer app”) and then every brand will be clamoring to create AR the way they clamored to get on Facebook. And what is Facebook doing now? Oh yeah, trying to be the go-to distribution platform distributor of AR content.
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As I stated at the beginning of this post, the true potential of AR has yet to be realized. And the true potential of AR is much larger than digitally rendered overlays viewed through a smartphone screen. There is no doubt that mobile AR is just the stepping stone to an even more sci-fi looking world of AR glasses, Holodecks, and the like. When combined with other buzzwords like artificial intelligence, hyperlocal, or micro-moments, one’s imagination runs wild with the possibilities of what the future could hold.
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