By any other name...
This post was originally going to be titled On Why Your App is NOT Augmented Reality. I was all set to go on an epic rant about how several high profile event apps were being touted as “augmented reality”, when in fact they weren't AR at all. They were just ordinary apps, pretending to be augmented reality, as part of the seemingly never-ending feature war that the mobile conference and meeting app market has become.
But... after discussing the topic with some other industry folks (thanks @kristicasey!), that’s not entirely fair. I’m still not 100% convinced the examples I’m about to give are AR, but I’m willing to entertain the possibility that they’re a tiny fraction, of a small percentage, of the potential for the AR apps of the future.
The definition of augmented reality:
So what is an augmented reality app? Before I can even think about accusing someone of not being AR when they say they are, I should probably define that, eh?
I define an augmented reality app as something that displays a live view of the world (i.e. “reality”) and then takes information, graphics, animation, sound, or other data and adds it as a layer over or alongside that reality (i.e. “augments it”). So the definition of an Augmented Reality App, is any app that - wait for it - augments reality. Weird.
Surprisingly, if you look around the web that’s pretty close to the definition everywhere, much like looking up the word “recursion” on Google (“Did you mean: recursion”).
The first key part of that definition is the word “live”. If I take your picture with my cell phone and then use an app to draw on squiggly hair and Snidely Whiplash mustache, I can’t think of anyone other than an argumentative philosopher that would say that app is somehow an augmented reality app. It would, however, be hilarious.
The second key part of the definition is “layer over”, as in- you see (or hear, or smell) reality, but information about that reality is also being given to you by whatever device or app you’re using.
My perfect example of what an augmented reality app could be: Imagine you’re at a trade show and want to get to a specific vendor. You hold up your phone (or look through your Google Glass) and you see what you see in real life- booths, displays, people, carpet (double padded... oooooh...) However, when you input the name of a vendor you want to find, a large arrow appears in the image, hovering over where you want to go. On the carpet below you appears a line with arrows on it, showing you the quickest way to the booth. Along the way, you see the names of each vendor hovering over their booth, with a button to favorite or remind you to look at later. You don’t bump into anyone, because you’re seeing all this through your device, layered over reality. As you approach your destination, the arrow gets larger and larger, until you’re standing right under it, in all it’s 3D glory! This kind of AR is called “geotagged” as it’s information based on specific locations in your environment.
Another example: You point your device at a conference brochure, and a beautiful animated version of the conference logo on the page appears and dazzles you. You open the booklet to the speaker bios page. Each one of the photos now has a highlight box around it. You select a speaker and their photo comes to life, and the speaker gives you, in their own words, a 30 second description of their session. Again you can tag the speaker as a session you’d like to learn more on, and move on to the next. This kind of AR is known as “marker based”, as its animations and information is keyed off certain markers contained in the printed brochure, showing your device where to layer over the data.
Now, for those who don’t happen to have these magical devices, you can still wander the trade show floor with a paper map, trying to find booth 702 in Aisle G, or you can just look at the speaker bios and the two sentence descriptions of the sessions in the conference brochure. Those who have downloaded the app and have the right hardware? They will experience an immersive world of extra content, all subtly branded and sponsored.
Where it falls apart
A book is not augmented reality. A book is something that takes you out of reality. It can be very informative, even about your current surroundings or situation, but it exists outside of that situation, and would still exist if you were in a completely different place, doing completely different things. A map is not augmented reality. You have to look at the map, interpret it, then look up and try and apply that information to the world.
Likewise, a traditional conference app is not augmented reality. You open it, you read it, it informs your decisions, and you apply it to reality. While you’re looking at it, though, you are almost completely disconnected from reality.
So what about the apps that spawned this article? One, from a high end hotel chain, claims to make them the “First North American Luxury Hotel Brand to Feature Augmented Realty” in its ads. The other is from a music festival sponsored by a large U.S. (but no longer American owned) beer brewery. In both cases you had to open a pre-downloaded app, the app would engage the camera in the device, and then you point it at some printed materials. Once the app recognized the materials, the page “came to life” in the display with a colorful, approximately 3 second animation.
Aaaaaaaaand done. That was the end, as far as I’m concerned, of the augmented reality portion of the evening. After that three second animation layered over the printed page, you were taken to a menu, in the case of the music festival. The hotel? A full screen video with a couple of buttons, one of which would let you skip the content. From that point on, the apps looked and behaved just like any other event or conference app, with links to schedules, bios, bands, special offers, and other normal old “exclusive” content.
So are these apps “Augmented Reality Apps”? I would say no. Three seconds of AR does not make it an augmented reality app. But look closely at the hotel’s claim- they “Feature Augmented Reality”. It’s not an augmented reality app, it’s an app that features augmented reality. Likewise with the festival app. Despite the headlines for the articles written about it “bringing augmented reality to events”, the actual app makers themselves hold no such illusions:
“When you hold your phone up to an image or product, it takes just seconds to get that experience on your phone," <redacted> said. "Once you get that experience, that’s when people really start engaging, whether playing a game or doing polling or whatever”
So the idea is to hook them with a few seconds of something interesting, then get them to do something else- play a game, polling, whatever. Fair enough.
So are these apps using AR? Technically, yes. Are they using AR for anything other than just a quick, flashy gimmick? No. What you’re looking at through the display is almost irrelevant- it’s just a cute animation based on the printed material that triggered it. The difference between that and scanning a QR code is minimal, at best.
The future's so bright, I gotta eat bacon
Think I’m being too harsh? Do yourself a favor and watch this demonstration:
That video is from 2007. TWO THOUSAND FREAKING SEVEN. Think about that. That’s a full three years before the iPad. Here we are six years later, and the computing power in our mobile devices is bordering on the obscene. My earlier two examples might have seemed a little far fetched, but are they really? After watching that video, I can't help but feel that we've only scratched the surface of what's possible. I know there's people out there right now, pushing the the technology to the limit, and what's coming around the corner is going to blow your freakin' mind.
In the meantime, you’re telling me that the best we can do is a three second animation over your conference brochure cover or print ad? C’mon, son. I want my giant floating arrows and talking speaker pages.
So if that's it- that’s all you’re going to do with AR, you should save yourself the money and buy all your attendees an extra slice of bacon for breakfast. They’ll be happier for it. For the money the hotel chain spent on the app, plus the giveaways and discounts the app provided, they could have become the "First Luxury Hotel Brand to Feature Complimentary WiFi. Because You Deserve It." The copy would have written itself...