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But unlike many digital fads, there are also plenty of solid examples of AR in action. On the publishing side, the Washington Post has launched a series of stories with AR elements, which will allow its audience to explore architectural wonders. The first instalment features Herzog and de Meuron’s stunning Elbphilharmonie concert hall in Hamburg. How does the AR work? Read the story on the Post’s IOS app, and point your smartphone at the ceiling, and you’ll see the Elbphilharmonie’s unique acoustic panels appear above you, complete with animations that show how they disperse sound waves to create near-perfect acoustics. There’s a commercial upside too. The AR component is sponsored by Audi.
If AR is to flourish, advertising and sponsorship need to be part of the picture. Snap, the parent of Snapchat has been active in monetising AR through its sponsored lenses. The most recent campaign saw Snapchat users turn their heads into tacos with a lens sponsored by Taco Bell. Sure it’s silly stuff. But it’s a powerful brand marketing tool on a platform that has mass youth appeal. Whether it’s cost effective is another question. The filter reportedly racked up about 224 million views, and advertisers pay between $300,000 to $700,000 for this sort of campaign. Did Taco sales increase? Who knows! Undeterred, Snap is launching an augmented reality ad unit that lets marketers add graphics to the front-facing camera. Advertisers like Warner Brothers, Netflix and Dunkin’ Donuts are already queueing up to use the new ads.
And other brands are at it too. Mcdonalds has launched an augmented reality game in Sweden called Beatquiz. The game, which is part of the Mcdonald’s IOS and Android apps, automatically generates multiplechoice questions based on the music playing in restaurants. Consumers have reportedly responded positively. But, again, whether they buy more Big Macs as a result is yet to be seen.
But not all AR activity is brand new. In 2013 Ikea launched an augmented reality app that lets users see what any item of Ikea furniture will look like in their home. Point your camera at that awkward nook, and you can see what some Swedish-designed, flat-pack units will look like there. This sort of application seems far more likely to be a commercial success as it’s providing a valuable step on the customer’s path to purchase.
For now AR is probably set to remain the plaything of those with the deepest pockets, as the barriers to entry are high. But this may change, especially as the likes of Facebook try to monetise AR activity at scale. If this happens, the challenge will be to use the technology to create something of value for audiences and customers. Publishers and content creators need to resist the temptation to create content and campaigns that buy into to some technology zeitgeist, but don’t result in customers buying their products.