Can publishers find useful applications for augmented reality?


Augmented reality has received its share of buzz over the past 18 months as a handful of publishers have experimented with the technology online and in print. But can AR really be useful and profitable, or is it just a dancing-celebrity shtick? Here's what publishers have been trying.

Bonnier's Popular Science was one of the first publications to put AR to use in print. Its July 2009 issue featured a cover image (created in partnership with GE) that, when held up to a webcam, featured a 3-D hologram of windmills turning.

Hearst's Esquire followed with an AR feature on the cover of its November 2009 issue: a walking, talking Robert Downey Jr. when held up to a webcam. A handful of print publishers have followed with various AR iterations, including InStyle, Time Out New York and Süddeutsche Zeitung magazine, published by Germany's largest newspaper. In the online world, Hearst's recently launched an augmented reality app.  

Some of these examples offer more glitz than utility — impressive, but not necessarily worth running home and holding your issue in front of your wecam or downloading a phone app in order to view it. For instance, in the video demo of  Süddeutsche Zeitung, most of the experience consists of holding your smartphone over an image to see a new layer on a photo or some added animation; it lacks a practical function until you get to the crossword puzzle (the AR shows the answers).  

Talking celebrities and photo tricks might be eye-catching and offer a bump in newsstand sales initially, but, after the novelty wears off, what are the long-term applications of AR for attracting an audience and boosting revenue?

Of course, AR innovation is new for publishers. There's even debate around what constitutes augmented reality, as Jason Fell notes in a recent Forbes blog post. For instance, does image recognition and 2-D bar codes, two features that many publishers are experimenting with ― count as AR? Fells writes: “AR is still an emerging market, and its major players know the rules are still being hammered out.”

A few publishers are exploring more utilitarian and advertising-based AR initiatives. We spoke with Time Out New York, InStyle and Seventeen about their efforts along these lines. Do they show signs of hope for AR, or is it all just a gimmick?

Showing users where to go

Time Out New York's stint into augmented reality included a location-based layer in conjunction with their summer drinking guide. Users could download metaio's Junaio app and point their smartphone in any direction in NYC to see the closest TONY-featured discounts at bars. Augmented Reality: Time Out New York

The tool fits with the TONY brand of telling users what to do and where to go. Location-based deals are nothing new for them, but AR adds a new and different way of presentation, explained Marci Weisler, digital business director at Time Out North America. “We harness the consumer where they’re at,” she said.

To measure success, Weisler said her team looked at usage within the app, including how many people redeemed the offers (which could be tricky to track at the individual bars). She declined to share any results.

TONY also has used AR for a cover of Time Out New York Kids and continues to look at future AR and QR barcode applications, Weisler said. “We’ll see how can we extend it so the issue is not purely about the editorial but also the advertising,” she said.

Augmented advertising

Time Inc.'s InStyle has executed AR campaigns for both advertising and editorial, starting with its December issue, which featured a 3-D gift guide and a welcome message from Taylor Swift on the cover. The technology, developed by Total Immersion, was activated by holding the magazine up to a webcam.

The gift guide aimed to drive traffic and sales and well as drive readers to the point of purchase, said Paul Robertson, InStyle's senior integrated marketing director. The advertisements in the guide feature a gift-box image marker that could launch into a video customized for each advertiser, as well as a click-to-buy option.

"In any sort of business, especially media, people are always looking for innovation and anything that is going to entertain consumers,” said Robertson. “When we were brainstorming our December program last year were looking for something innovative.”

The gift guide helped drive advertising sales for the issue: At the MPA conference in June, Robertson said the magazine brought in 27 advertisers, or close to 40 pages of business that the magazine wouldn't normally have in the December issue.

While declining to provide additional metrics, Robertson said the campaign was successful enough to prompt another AR project in the spring for both editorial and advertising.

The main goal, he explained, is to expand the reach and audience of the brand. “Having that buzz in the marketplace speaks volume about your brand,” he said.

A virtual brand campaign recently launched a back-to-school virtual dressing room sponsored by JCPenney. This example, which uses AR technology in a web app developed by metaio, lets users “try on” clothes on the screen using their webcam.

"We wanted to come up with a really unique experience that helps [JCPenney] engage teens,” said Kristine Welker, vice president of sales and marketing at Hearst Magazines Digital Media.

This sort of campaign can be effective because it delivers a more engaging experience with a consumer, said Jon Schaaf, media director at Razorfish, which helped develop the campaign. “Obviously you never want to use a new technology just to use a new technology,” he said.

An evolving medium

Schaaf said AR will become more ubiquitous as smartphone capabilities improve and the cost of creating AR comes down.

Right now, AR remains a plaything primarily for large consumer publishers who can hire high-end AR specialists, but the technology is gradually becoming more accessible. Metaio has released an open API through its junaio platform. In addition, Layar, developer of a popular AR browser for smartphone, released the free Layar Player, which enables iPhone developers to embed AR content.

As the technology evolves, so do publishers' applications of AR. At the recent Digiday:Mobile conference in New York, panelists discussed the potential value-added services of AR. Maury Postal, director of strategy at marketing agency Carrot Creative, said AR should add more than what one can already get on a 2-D plane. “I'm sure over time we're going to see it kind of shift toward that more valuable interaction,” he said.

For instance, AR could enhance location-based services such as travel or real estate research, said Kevin Lilly, senior vice president and mobile director at media agency Starcom USA. But, he said, when trying to find a restaurant, a 2-D map is often a lot more useful.

The question any publisher should ask when considering AR is a simple one: Does it make the experience better, or is it just gimmicky?

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