UK start-ups are leading the way in a new marketplace, augmented reality. But is it a gimmicky fad or a new advertising model? Allan Swann investigates
Aurasma and Blippar are two of the largest players in the augmented reality (AR) marketplace, and both are pushing a technological advertising revolution that straddles the real and virtual worlds, capturing the attention of multinationals such as Audi and Diageo.
So what is AR and why are so many technologists and futurists getting so excited?
AR is basically the layering of virtual information over the real world we see around us. The technology turns a smartphone or tablet's camera into a 'lens' that shows virtual information on top of real-life objects, be it a link to a website, a digital coupon, a video or another type of promotion.
At the most basic level it is image recognition software, triggered by a marker, which can be anything from a particular shape or colour pattern, an icon or barcode (similar to quick-response - QR - tags), through to GPS locations or even audio.
It has actually been around for a few years, but the proliferation of smartphones, tablets and portable devices has brought the technology out of the labs. With the most obvious-use cases perhaps being in the advertising space, there's potential for this kind of technology to be used by industries such as film, gaming, tourism, the arts and more.
What does that mean to the consumer? They can point their smartphone or tablet at an object, such as a coke billboard, and cocktail ingredients could pop up as well as a promo for coupons. The latest coke video ad would play, too, and a link to its webpage could appear.
Or users in a music store point their smartphone at the cover of a CD and it will pop up a virtual menu, complete with track listings, lyrics, a demo you can listen to and a link to the artist's fan page.
How about an Omega watch ad in a magazine that produces a 3D render of the watch, which you can slide your hand into to see how it looks? Just shake your phone to change the watch's styling and colouring. Also, a Tesco ad in the newspaper could come alive and show you the latest specials, including AR exclusive deals.
Up until the last year or so, the technology has mostly been used as proof of concept, utilised to pop a 3D dragon out of a poster, display rudimentary GIF images, or to play a game where a virtual ball rolls around in your hand.
Beer company Beck's, for example, ran an art promotion last year, where it placed green boxes around London. When you viewed them through the firm's proprietary app, developed by UK company Digicave, pieces of art by local artists would pop up.
These kinds of applications have also been used to overlay photographs of 1910 London over the modern world, or to do virtual culture jamming - such as virtually defacing artwork or advertising.
The most visible current world application is Microsoft's Xbox 360 Kinect video game device, which films users' body movement to control the game. PlayStation's new Vita handheld console will also have some AR functionality built in, such as using branded cards to create virtual table football fields. Vita is due to launch in the UK on 22 February.
But, however impressive much of this tech is as proof of concept, AR has developed a reputation for being gimmicky, with limited real-world commercial applications. Is the technology destined to follow in the steps of the '90s virtual reality fad?
UK company Blippar launched in summer 2011 and won first prize in the UK Trade and Investment start-up competition, which saw the Government sponsor them to attend the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. The firm has since received substantial funding from leading smartphone chipmaker Qualcomm, its first investment of this kind outside the US.
Blippar now handles the accounts of Tesco, Diageo, Dominos, Waitrose, Unilever, Pepsi, Nestlé, Cadbury, Samsung, Xbox and Heinz, with many more global brands in the pipeline. Jessica Butcher, Blippar's CMO and founding director, says the firm has deliberately focused on media and brand owners to produce commercial applications, and to help dispel these 'gimmick' notions.
"Quite simply, [AR] will remain a gimmick if the content that's put through this media is gimmicky. That's the biggest challenge we have as a company right now, to convince our brand and media partners to offer innovative content, to offer our consumers something compelling, exciting and exclusive to this channel. That is how it will win this battle and not disappear like virtual reality," she says.
The company has taken off with thousands of requests from companies for consultations, a far cry from the early days when it had to cold-call clients and explain the technology to them. "Now when one of our clients launches an AR campaign, we are flooded with calls from their competitors. There is definitely a lot of interest in this technology," she says.
Another UK company, Autonomy, has been having similar successes with its Aurasma product.
Founded in Cambridge in 1996 and listed on the London Stock Exchange, it recently handled a Lucozade campaign. It was also involved with John Lewis's successful Christmas 2011 campaign, which gives another example of the commercial potential of the technology.
Mike Lynch, Autonomy CEO
John Lewis used the technology for its clearance event, which enabled shoppers to buy items that would have otherwise been unavailable for a further three days by holding their Aurasma-enabled devices up to the items on display in shop windows.
They were then taken to the clearance web page for that particular item. Once there, otherwise restricted items could be purchased on the spot without entering the store. This avoided queues while also offering the privilege of an exclusive early purchase.
Users can see how this kind of blending of online and real-world shopping might one day give Amazon and other retailers cause for concern.
Aurasma says the promotion increased John Lewis's website traffic by 119% last year, and also boosted mobile purchases by 45%.
Aurasma also worked with Net-A-Porter's Window Shop last year, a virtual fashion show. The Window Shop was displayed on vinyl graphics in Mount Street, London, and Mercer Street, New York. The windows went 'live' at 6pm.
Visitors who had downloaded the app could visit the virtual pop-up Window Shops, scan the banners with their phones, and the products appeared on their devices available to purchase or to win as a prize. Net-a-Porter is planning an even larger event in late January across five cities, which it claims it will be the first time AR is used for a global launch.
Meanwhile, similar to Blippar's 'B' logo, Aurasma has an 'Aura' A. By hovering over particular pages, logos or articles in the newspaper, Aurasma can, for example, turn a static image of a weather forecast or a photo from a football match into a live video stream.
AR applications are already being used to help civil engineers identify where underground pipes and cables are located. This means that when road repairs or additional pipe and cable laying is carried out, the appropriate images are available on remote workers' laptops. This not only speeds up the work but also eliminates the huge costs associated with unnecessary damage repair.
Enterprise mobility firm Blackbay is already incorporating AR into its Delivery Connect software. This allows couriers arriving at a delivery point to use their smartphone to access an AR overlay display of the building. The display will indicate delivery entrances, which ensures deliveries are made to the right area quickly.
Meanwhile, companies such as US-based Innovega are pushing AR away from smartphones, creating headsets for security guards that will overlay information, such as maps, camera feeds and alarm warnings. One day this technology could be similar to the heads-up display of the Terminator in the film series of the same name.
Tools such as text translators will also soon be possible. Simply download the app and scan it across a Mandarin newspaper and the app will present it in English.
So where will AR go in the long term? Autonomy's founder and CEO, Mike Lynch, believes the possibilities are limitless.
"Imagine museums where the exhibits actually come alive and tell you about themselves, or travel guides where you can walk around Rome and see ancient Rome as it was," he says.
Blippar's Butcher believes that in five years AR use will become second nature in our lives, a daily habit.
"The consumer behaviour will be to simply pull virtual information out of the physical world around them. It will appeal to that instantaneous and spontaneous aspect of our character. We will simply pull out our phones and point them at things and say, 'I want that recipe', 'I want those shoes', and even one day 'I want to cast my vote'. The phone will become an ancillary part of our senses," she concludes.