Can AR outgrow its gimmicky image?

By Richard Stuart-Turner, Monday 21 January 2019

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Long touted as the next big thing and a major opportunity for print to boot, augmented reality (AR) has hit the headlines again in recent weeks.

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In November, Konica Minolta unveiled its new AR app genARate, a flexible cloud-based tool that it says enables users to overlay digital content such as video, animations or 3D models onto printed materials.

The app has already been used by The Big Issue, which earlier this month launched a special edition of the publication that was enhanced with a range of exclusive content only accessible via the app.

Macfarlane Packaging, meanwhile, launched its own AR service in November, which it says businesses can use to “entice their customers with exclusive content or promotions; overlay product information such as instruction manuals and tutorials; and undertake exciting social media campaigns”.

Using AR to bring print to life using a smartphone or tablet is not new, however. Glossop Cartons started up an AR service for its packaging customers back in 2014.

While the firm still offers the service, sales director Jacky Sidebottom-Every admits she rarely finds anybody on the uptake and suggests the technology is “a bit before its time”.

“I personally think that people look at it, think it’s brilliant but have no idea how to adopt it into their sales or their packaging, which is a shame. I think it’s down to people’s lack of foresight and vision.”

Grafenia, meanwhile, has been using AR in a slightly different fashion since 2017. The company’s BeholdAR app enables its clients to visualise their designs on various fabric exhibition displays in situ.

Chief executive Peter Gunning explains: “To start with you do a sweep of your room, so you can see whatever room you are in in the display, and then you choose a product, place it where you want it to go, and then you can walk round it, move it around or stand back, or zoom in.”

While AR looks to be on the up, then, one of its pioneers, Blippar, whose technology had been used in a number of high-profile cross-media campaigns, fell into administration last month following a dispute over additional funding.

The company’s most recent accounts, for the year ended 31 March 2017, revealed that it made an eye-watering pre-tax loss of £34.5m on sales of just £5.7m.

Keypoint Intelligence: InfoTrends research analyst Colin McMahon calls Blippar “a cautionary tale, but nothing unique”.

“The AR solution marketplace is young, and these arenas are full of many companies that ultimately do not make it. I would say that the only real takeaway from Blippar’s collapse is the importance of innovation.

“Blippar touted itself as one of the first solutions on the market – which was true – but it was quickly joined by dozens of others, some with products that were more versatile and technologically impressive.”

While its struggles may not be indicative of the health of the wider market, like any saturated sector businesses using AR will need to offer something beyond that of their competitors to stand out.

Konica Minolta Business Solutions Europe partnership founder and international business development manager Ashley McConnell notes that while AR still possesses an initial wow factor, in many cases that subsides by the second use, at which point only a richer experience will keep users coming back.

“With The Big Issue, we added value with AR so that it’s not just a gimmick, and each piece of content adds value to the story,” he says.

“There are a lot of use cases around 3D models and other gimmicky stuff, and that’s what we’re trying to move away from.

“With that will come adoption and repeat usage, and hopefully in the future people will start to expect it with every publication.”

Factors that are perhaps still holding AR back from reaching its full commercial potential include its interface limitation of still being largely confined to mobile devices, and the fact that the technology needs to be tied to an app to work on these devices, though this is likely to be rectified in the near future.

“Having to download an app and inform people that this content is augmentable is definitely the biggest friction point we have at the minute. The only people that are really going to change that are the likes of Apple and Google,” says McConnell.

While obstacles still exist, 2019 could nevertheless yet turn out to be a banner year for AR technology, and print stands in good stead to benefit.

“I think one of the best advantages AR brings to print is its ‘newness’. Right now, print is looked at by many as an old technology. They think they’ve seen all print has to offer – namely static words and images on a page,” says McMahon.

“AR changes this. It’s not static. It’s alive – it can move. It can even play a host of different programs off the same image, if programmed properly.” 

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