Augmented reality has become increasingly mainstream due to improving technologies and the pandemic-driven technology acceleration. Compelling AR experiences are now readily available on smartphones, both in native apps and in WebAR implementations. They’ve proven instrumental for both commerce and entertainment, but they should be playing a bigger role in marketing communications.

Augmenting Reality

in 2020 tech transformation sped up, just as most of the world slowed down. That affected the ways we used and perceived all manner of technologies, for work, education, communication, and entertainment. Some of these changes, like the increased use of e-commerce and videoconferencing software have been discussed ad nauseam. But other technology adoptions have been somewhat less noticed, augmented reality among them.

We’ve long been advocates for AR, and we’ve been building customer engagements using the technology for many years. We have long felt that there are broader and more exciting use cases for augmented reality than for virtual reality once it’s powerful and seamless enough to feel invisible. The current generation of dedicated AR headsets (Hololens, Magicleap, etc.) are still fairly bulky and still have a fairly narrow field of view. We’ve build some very successful experiences using them, but they’re not ready to change the computing paradigm just yet. Soon we’ll write in more detail about the current state of AR tech, but for today let’s focus on its increased acceptance by a broader audience.

What’s primarily driven the newfound acceptance of AR is that a version of it can be delivered on smartphones. According to data from AR Insider, there are already hundreds of billions of AR-compatible devices in the world, accounting for roughly 334 million active users. Those are huge numbers that are only expected to grow. Some estimates put the number of AR users as high as 2.4 billion by 2023 – that would be one out of every three people on earth. And the capabilities of AR on smartphones is improving all the time.

This is all great news for those who are looking for new ways to connect with their customers. Conversion rates increased by 90% for retail consumers engaging with AR. It’s long been clear that the technology allows for far more immersive experiences. Knowing that millions of customers are already acclimated and eager to adopt the technology should help to convince more brands that it will be a good investment and that the risks of poor adoption are low. In fact, by all measures, customers want more AR.

My overarching thesis for 2021 has been that marketers will need better production values when connecting with their customers. AR can be one more tool in the production values toolbox that allows a brand to be more more memorable. No longer a gimmick, AR is now an increasingly mainstream tactic for creating a more engaging brand-customer relationship. Providing more memorable experiences not only allows you to showcase your products and services, but to create a long-lasting impression that people will want to share.

The Path to Now

While they may not have recognized them as such, one of the first places many consumers encountered augmented reality was in watching sports on TV. The NFL on Fox was a fairly early adopter of the tech, using it to overlay the first down line onto the field during broadcasts. They explored more ambitious implementations of AR as well. Soccer, while less popular in the US, also made interesting use of the tech. The fields have long been ringed by advertisements, so clever broadcasters figured out how to use AR tech to replace the in-stadium ads with ads they could monetize in local markets. In cycling, 3D animations of riders showing their strategies from different angles have been used to help fans understand the nature of the complex and little-understood sport.

Tennis has been using an innovative camera-based system called Hawk-Eye for many years. (Last year, the pandemic caused the US Open to rely on this system for every line call in lieu of human judges, but that’s a whole other story.) Nowadays, that camera system is used to generate a slow-motion graphic for viewers, showing the trajectory of the ball and where it struck the court – augmented reality in action. The NHL’s new puck tracking system was launched as a way to enhance the viewing experience, and make it easier for new fans to understand the game – it can be quite hard to see a small fast-moving puck on television. Despite the beauty of the tech, the investment didn’t pan out this year because the embedded pucks didn’t slide well and were panned by players. Now they’ve been pulled for quality testing, but it’s likely they’ll be back.

Such widespread use among sports broadcasts soon led to its adoption by news channels for weather and political analysis, among other uses. Even if some of these experiences weren’t always recognized by viewers at the time as AR or understood as relevant to other applications of the technology, they surely helped to prime the pump for future acceptance. And the more consumers engage with these near-frictionless AR experiences, the more they come to accept and even expect them. And as awareness of the augmented reality embedded in such experiences has grown, that has surely helped consumers to appreciate how such technologies can help them contextualize and understand information better.

Commerce and Convenience

As augmented reality was finding its way into our broadcast experiences, it was making its way into the smartphone ecosystem as well. Furniture and interior design have been especially fertile ground. Ikea introduced an app to allow people to see how a piece of furniture would look inside their home and then updated it to allow placement of multiple pieces at once. Amazon now has a similar tool. Samsung has created an AR tech to allow customers to see what new products would look like in their homes, from televisions to refrigerators. Today’s interior designers can use a broad suite of tools that utilize AR and the new iPhone 12’s Lidar to plan out their spaces.

Perhaps not surprisingly in this age of selfies, the face has also been the target of much AR innovation. Of course there are countless silly overlays and filters in Snapchap and Instagram and TikTok. But there is also no shortage of truly useful applications. Warby Parker created an app that lets customers see how a pair of glasses would look on them. ModiFace was so successful at increasing sales of makeup and hair color products with their virtual try-on service that L’Oréal purchased the company and its underlying technology, which is now linked into social media sites like Facebook, Instagram, and Pinterest. AR beauty apps like Perfect Corp’s YouCam Makeup, Sephora’s Virtual Artist, and Ulta’s GLAMLab are only growing in popularity as they change the nature of the “free sample” forever.

And then into this environment suddenly came stay-at-home orders and the closure of public spaces like malls and stores. In addition to needing new ways to shop, being at home more often has given people more time to consider their choices when it comes to purchases large and small. This has further opened people up to AR technology when it allows them to see how products look or make them feel. And brands are learning that engaging customers where they are is no longer just a stop-gap measure.

Enter the Marketers

Of course many marketers were using AR before the pandemic. As I said at the top of this article, we’ve been building such activations for years. With the introduction of ARKit for iOS and ARCore for Android several years ago, making native augmented reality apps for smartphones has become increasingly easy and they can be increasingly capable. Even WebAR applications can be quite powerful and not require users to download an app. But they still require strong creative and a compelling narrative, so some forays into AR are more successful than others.

WIth in-person events cancelled, many event marketers looked for ways to use AR to fill the gap. Nutanix, for instance, gave customers the opportunity to place a virtual twin of its event booth in their own driveways in lieu of a live expo. An interesting use case for AR, but once the novelty wears off, perhaps the value proposition of watching product videos in a virtual booth in AR doesn’t gain the customer much.

BON V!V Spiked Seltzer used out-of-home advertising to promote their AR experience in which customers were presented with a huge virtually vending machine. This was able to lead customers to actionable behavior and find where they actual buy the product nearby. Since it was tied to physical signage, they could ensure that enough product would in fact be available for purchase nearby. Product could also be ordered online via the experience.

Volkswagen had two new vehicles that it would have loved to showcase at the auto shows, if only any auto shows were happening. So instead we helped to build them custom AR showrooms, built using WebAR. Customers could place the new vehicles in their driveways, or in fact in their living room or on their kitchen counter. Configuration options allowed them to choose their desired color scheme, and they could explore the car from any angle. Finally they could place the vehicle into some pre-selected setting and add some cool overlays to save an image of their dream car. And of course they could inquire with a local dealer about availability. In order to achieve the high levels of fidelity in the WebAR experience, we created custom textures and geometry, and carefully optimized the digital assets to allow for quick download speeds.

2021 and Beyond

The good news is that once you’ve brought customers into an engaging brand experience, it becomes easier to retain them and to re-engage them again. Improving production values and creating serialized content experiences that fans can unlock over time are great strategies for building lasting customer relationships.

None of this means that any buzzword like AR should dictate your brand content. Like any tech,  AR is simply a tool that can help to tell a larger story or to augment a brand’s identity. It must be employed to enhance the delivery of a carefully crafted message – it cannot be that message. Good storytelling always needs to come first.

Even in a post-pandemic world, some consumers will continue to expect AR-enabled experiences. These might stand alone or become a first step for customers before they show up in person. Millions of people have engaged with AR over the past few years and 2020 saw more such interaction than ever. Immersive and interactive experiences have become central to commerce, entertainment, and other types of business during the pandemic. And with hundreds of millions of active AR users around the world, brands can scarcely afford to ignore this technology as it becomes mainstream among all age groups.

AR can make experiences come to life, giving people the sense of community and joy they need now more than ever. It can also get us back to work in ways that seemed impossible without boots on the ground. Marketers should seize upon the opportunity to make a mark.

Images: AR Showrooms from Volkswagen