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Augmented Reality: What Should Businesses Expect From This New Tech?

Posted by: Reena Jana on September 10, 2009

The concept of Augmented Reality, or overlaying the real world with text or images seen via a mobile phone’s camera or a Web cam on a PC, has gained a lot of attention in recent months. Big tech companies, from IBM to Microsoft to Nokia are developing mobile-phone software and services in this space. Major retailers from Best Buy to Wal-Mart are using AR tech for the PC in their marketing campaigns. And numerous start-ups are developing cool applications that allow anyone to create tags for the real world. Yes: anyone can tag physical buildings or landmarks with informative text, like that found on a traditional Web page. The idea is to allow people to point their phones at, say, the Eiffel Tower, and see stats on when it was built or how tall it is, on their phone’s camera, in real time, instantly.

The promise of Augmented Reality has been documented recently in The New York Times and The Economist, but coverage has mainly looked at AR as a cool new phenomenon and not at the benefits and costs to businesses. Is this more than a fad that companies might waste money on? Is jumping on the AR bandwagon now good for positioning a brand as forward thinking or at the very least trendy? How much does it cost a business to create an AR marketing campaign or service?

For insight, I called Claire Boonstra, co-founder of Amsterdam-based Layar, a start-up that created an AR campaign for ING this summer. It allowed users to find ATMs in Amsterdam by searching through their phone camera lenses and pointing at the flesh-and-blood around them. Bank info would pop up.

"ING told us they were very happy with it,” Boonstra told me.

“But there were some lessons learned. Some people said they thought it was really cool, but were surprised all it could do was just ask for an ATM,” she continued. “Some users said it’s just not a natural behavior to grab your phone and look for something around you to get information.”

I asked her how expensive it is to create an AR world-browser via Layar. The software app is free. And the expense is basically hiring people to plug in their database of information into the app, which will use a phone's GPS system to locate the user and then coordinate the info with what he or she sees on a phone's camera screen.

“It’s relatively inexpensive, and we’ve had some people tell us they’ve created a layar [as the browser information is called] in only an hour, ” Boonstra said.

The company can also create custom layars for companies, as they did for ING. “We’re talking thousands of euros, into the ten thousands," Boonstra said, in terms of their fees. "It’s nowhere where near the price of a TV advertising campaign.”

Google’s Android operating system -- getting attention today because of the Motorola Cliq announcement, which runs on Android -- supports AR, although the iPhone does not…yet. But with Nokia, Microsoft, and IBM working on their own AR software and services, AR seems to be closer to widespread adoption than merely a blue-sky, sci-fi concept. As for Layar's new clients, Boonstra wouldn’t name names, but said that “Big agencies, mobile-phone operators, manufacturers, VCs, very many brands, communities, and software developers have been calling” in recent weeks to partner with the start-up. “We don’t need to do any cold calls,” she said.

To see Layar's AR technology in action, check out the video below.

Reader Comments


September 11, 2009 1:10 PM

They key for businesses (for web based AR), I think, is to use the tech to create useful, rather than gimmicky, executions. The initial “cool” factor of printing out a marker and simply seeing a 3-d image is gone. It’s been done. Today, the technology needs to be used in such a way that it augments the “traditional” online experience. Businesses need to think about what their AR execution is adding to the online experience. Are they using AR to just showing a video, or an image? And if the answer is “yes”, then they should ask themselves, how is this better than just putting these assets online (let alone, the exposure and potential for a great video to go viral goes down considerably if there are such barriers to consumers sharing/viewing it).

The technology is amazing, and will be even moreso in the future as companies like metaio push the mobile space forward. Let’s not rule out the tech, or call it a fad, just because of a few gimmicky/lame executions. It would be like ruling out the automobile because of the pinto or the gremlin…

And now, a shameless plug. Here are a few web based AR executions my company (Zugara) has developed

An online shopping AR app meant to capture that moment at the rack when a teen holds an item of clothing up to themselves and says “what do you think?”:

A casual flash game that uses AR and motion capture to put the gamer in the game:


September 11, 2009 2:07 PM

typo above, sorry: meant to reference Layar instead of metaio...

evidently it's my first time typing...

Mouli Cohen

September 11, 2009 2:08 PM

I don't really see augmented reality taking off in the static environment of a home computer, but really believe its true potential exists in the mobile space that is beginning to emerge at the moment. While I tend to side with quality and relevancy associated with the idea of company created "content layers," I feel that's it's much more likely that we'll see the first killer app appeal to the audience for data generation, grabbing ahold of the social potential and pushing the AR market forward.



Eric Elkins

September 11, 2009 5:04 PM

It's time we start clarifying the differences between augmented reality use QR codes and the like (i.e. the pc/paper interface), and mobile AR, which, for now, is limited to use with a mobile phone or goggles (but imagine a tablet with a webcam and internet access, or other mobile devices that could be used). They're two very different kinds of augmented reality.

QR interaction is interesting and does have value, but it's the internet overlay of the world in front of us, wherever we are, and whatever we're doing, that has major business (and entertainment) implications.


September 11, 2009 5:18 PM

Its interesting to see how blue-chip brands are beginning to use this technology

Floyd Flanagan

September 14, 2009 1:51 AM

Yes, AR is intriguing. In fact it wrote a novel about it and recorded it on video.


November 6, 2009 2:55 PM

Yep, cool, interesting, novel, survival tool, the latest thing.

The real end use is what? Replacing guide books, Lonely plant hard copy guides, to ensure everyone is hooked into the interactive web. Where's the dollar.

Augmented Reality is a fancy name for a niche information supply. The reality is that the image the phone camera sees is not recognised by the software but the software works out the changed orientation of the phone GPS then throws up the info on that object or locations of objects such as ATM. It is a clever marriage of GPS and datasets provided by other parties who wish to earn cash by either providing information or providing it and taking a cut.

Augmented reality will be the "next thing" until the next thing comes along. As for being a productive tool for business executives, dreams are free and we can all have our fanatasies.

This ain't an earth shattering or ground breaking innovation. Get back to me in a year regarding the productivity explosion that has resulted from this innovation.

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