The (Augmented) Reality of Print

What is Augmented Reality (AR)?

Physical printed pieces, whether they’re direct mail, catalogs, magazines, advertising or other media have their own strengths—permanence, tactile connection, a time-tested interface, price, portability and more. These classic benefits seem even more powerful in an age of ubiquitous digital experiences. But some emerging technologies potentially promise to extend the value, longevity and power of printed pieces. One of the most intriguing is Augmented Reality (AR).

AR is a technology that superimposes some computer-generated content on a user’s view of the world, usually via a smartphone or tablet. In the last few years, AR has been a trendy buzzword, and the technology has appeared in everything from catalogs to theme parks. Ryan Kiley, Director of Strategic Production Services at Ricoh, said recently in a webinar [link], “AR is here. It’s inescapable. You see it on everything from wine labels to bubble gum wrappers, from textbooks to aquariums.” (HIs company has created the print-centric Clickable Paper AR platform.)

How did we get here?

The bridge between a piece of paper and the digital experience has historically been a long one that typically asks a lot of an audience—see a call-to-action (CTA), remember or copy down a URL, find it again. QR codes tried to address those problems, but the bulky, ugly codes didn’t really catch on, mostly because of smartphone manufacturers’ lack of out-of-the-box support. While QR codes didn’t become the next big thing, they still had a useful side-effect: training people on a basic behavior—that you could point a phone at a piece of printed information and something would happen. AR has the opportunity to be different. Point your smartphone or tablet at a printed piece, and using an app (either a customer’s or an open AR platform’s) and new content is displayed. This could be anything from a simple URL redirect to pseudo-three-dimensional product content based on the print piece to video snippets, additional audio or pricing information, behind-the-scenes details, and special offers based on geolocation data—the options are nearly unlimited. Or at least, they’re only limited by one’s budget and imagination.

Gil Bathgate, SPC’s VP of Loyalty explained that “AR can connect the dots from online to office. There’s so much that can be done with this technology,” he said. “Going forward, it could generate one of the most powerful, complementary experiences that mail can deliver.”

What can AR do for print?

In some ways, AR changes nothing. The timeless principles of marketing still apply: Consider your audience’s needs and desires. Create a meaningful call to action. Provide follow-up content that is relevant and tailored to users. Miss those steps and AR will prove to be a poor investment. But used wisely, AR allows marketers to extend the reach and longevity of a printed piece, letting it succeed at all the things print does well. This new plethora of options for content or use can be paralyzing, but marketers can employ user-centered thinking to figure out what customers actually want in the moment, which is what will take this technology from curiosity to integrated tool in the marketing tool belt. Any content should be tailored to the audience, the surroundings/context, and the time users have when encountering a piece, whether it’s at home or in public.

The challenges are the usual suspects

As with most emerging technologies, the greatest hurdle to AR is adoption. Even if the technology is accessible, understandable and desirable, marketers must create the incentive for someone to push past the barrier of pulling out a phone/tablet and downloading an app. Then it is on the marketers to have even more compelling offers and CTAs that follow. Brands know that the adoption barrier might dissuade some users, but the interested users who push through will be rewarded with rich, compelling content. The potential to deliver a powerful and engaging experience to your most committed audiences is huge—and ironically, it’s one of the ways brands build committed fans and ambassadors.

A pair of examples

There are many examples of AR in use, both good and bad. Here are a couple of notable print ones:

19 Crimes Wine Labels
This Australian wine maker used AR to create animated characters that came to life off their labels.

IKEA Product Catalog
The Swedish furniture maker has done an amazing job integrating this technology into its annual catalogs in the last few years, making the prospect of sitting down with their catalog an enjoyable experience.

One of the chief benefits of AR is that is can stand in for the information that used to make printed pieces obsolete or outdated. Pricing information, production options, event dates and locations can all be removed from printed pieces and pushed into the easily-updatable digital environment, relieving print of the burden of communicating all the nitty-gritty info, focusing on creating clean, beautiful reading and browsing experiences. That changeable digital content can also be a new revenue stream for marketers and print partners as well, while extending the life of printed pieces.

USPS Support

In the past, USPS has offered mailing promotions and discounts for companies who used approved technologies like AR platforms in mailings. Unfortunately, no current benefits programs are running, but this will hopefully change once the new USPS governors are established, and the Board of Governors once again regains the ability to make pricing and market changes.

Overall, it’s probably too early to predict the long-term future of AR, but it seems poised to have a positive impact on print as a whole, powerfully placing it back into a symbiotic relationship with cutting-edge digital experiences. Bathgate said, “At the end of the day, we’re focused on crafting experiences with print, and this technology can help marketers do that to an even greater degree. We’re excited about exploring the boundaries of it.”

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