Australia: Augmented Reality - the 21st Century Neon?

Nathan Birch
Smart phones, social, and the internet have collectively changed the way we communicate, consume content, and engage in commerce. But we are on the brink of a completely new device and platform category which will provide businesses and brands with almost unimaginable possibilities for engagement. While Virtual Reality (VR) is arguably an interim step, augmented and mixed reality (AR/MR) will overshadow all other technological advancements to date.

But are Australian businesses progressing their brand strategies quick enough to match consumer expectations on how AR is an engagement game-changer? Even more interestingly, are they constraining their thinking about their visual identities and engagement based on twentieth-century toolkits and processes?

A little over a year ago, a relatively unknown game developer, Niantic, in partnership with Nintendo, launched a mobile app that brought to the forefront of many consumers’ minds the power and potential of AR. Despite the fact that the game was introduced in 1996 on the Gameboy, Pokemon Go became an overnight, viral sensation.

Hunting strange creatures that only materialize through your smartphone’s camera and capturing them by digitally throwing a small red ball with a flick of your finger—all the while being in real time and in your local neighbourhood—was for many, a light bulb moment.

Pokemon Go was the fastest app to reach 50 million downloads worldwide, just 19 days following its launch in Australia and New Zealand. In its first week, Comscore reported it peaked with 28.5 million users in the US alone. A year since its launch, rather than being yesterday’s news, the game still has almost 65 million active users per month, globally. To put that in perspective, Uber has 40 million monthly users, on average. Having generated over USD $1.2 billion in revenue over the last year, it also brought the potential of AR to the attention of brands and businesses.

This changes EVERYTHING
I’ve been lucky to be around long enough to experience some seismic shifts in the way we live and work. I recall being offered my first laptop computer that “allowed me to work on the road.” I remember browsing the internet and sending “electronic mail” for the first time and even making my first-ever mobile phone call. I’ll never forget my first Facebook friend request, poke, and post. In each of these cases, I experienced the frisson of excitement as I eventually came to grips with a new device, UX, or software and glimpsed that “this thing” would change the world, and my behavior, dramatically.

Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the past two years, you’re probably aware that we’re on the brink of the explosion of a new device category and platform that will enable businesses and brands to engage audiences in more immersive and creative ways than ever before.

I expect AR and MR will be amongst the very few things I’ll ever experience in my life that will change almost everything we do as customers and consumers. It is not an understatement to suggest that AR has the potential—more than any other technology before it, be it a social platform, mobile device, hardware, or software—to change the way we create, consume, and interact with content. And in ways that have yet been imagined.

If you doubt that, I’ve already hacked my brain into thinking there is a pod of small blue whales swimming through Grand Central Station.

An even more interesting thought is that the timeframe in which we will experience this monumental shift in consumer behavior and expectations is nearer than most businesses or brands think.

The new kid in town
Think how quickly we’ve moved on from the primitive Google Cardboard and Google Glass, and we’re beyond the period of faux “VR headsets” (little more than a rubber and plastic headset to hold your $1,000 smartphone, sold in Aldi for $25).  Today, HTC Vive, Microsoft Hololens, Facebook Oculus, Google Daydream, Apple AR, and Play Station VR will be making their appearances on Santa’s naughty-or-nice list this Christmas.

While this list of heavyweight tech players investing in AR platforms and devices is impressive (I mean Google, Apple, Samsung, and Microsoft can’t be wrong. Right?), we’ll quickly move on from even these cumbersome headsets. In 2019, the cool kids will be asking Santa to deliver amazing offerings from the likes of Meta, Magic Leap, and ODG.

What they won’t be asking for as 2020 approaches is an iPhone, Pixel, or Galaxy.

New technology, old ways of using it
We’ve all seen and even experienced the current devices being used in a broad range of applications in retail, training, and education, farming, entertainment, etc.

Outside of VR gaming, in most cases, AR is being used to engage customers through improving the efficiency of many everyday interactions we have with physical objects and people. How can the decision to change or personalize a new pair of running shoes be influenced by an augmented experience?

Beyond the efficiency potential that AR devices and platforms allow, I’m still struck by the limited way in which brands are thinking about their intended customer experience. Visual cues, verbal and gesture recognition are going to be an important brand consideration in the brave, new AR world.

21st Century Neon
While we’ve seen many brands and business experimenting with the novelty of using AR to replicate existing analogue process, improve functionality or understanding, or just creating frictionless transactions in interesting and engaging ways, (the latest Nike campaign is a current example).  What strikes me is that there seems to be little development of brands that are specifically designed and developed for an AR-infused world.

Take a brand’s visual identity. In Australia, in particular, the visual identity for brands has historically appeared as logos, taglines, monikers, and motifs for over a century in traditional print, on TVCs, even across mobile and digital screens. Until now, a common trait is that they have all developed with 2D thinking and design processes.

Shouldn’t more innovative brands be now rethinking their visual identities for an AR era in which consumers will be able to walk around, under, and even through their brand motifs? What shape is the Telstra logo if viewed from a different perspective? If I walked around the Starbucks “Mermaid,” will I get to see the back of her head? Why limit it to a static object or motif at all? Why can’t I see Qantas’ brand developing into a five hundred foot-tall, skyscraper-jumping kangaroo?

Does this matter? Many will say no. I would argue the opposite.

A new era of augmented reality will give brands the freedom to break free of historical 2D design constraints—brands will have almost unlimited degrees of freedom to develop visual (and other means) of engaging with consumers.

However, I fear that Australian brands will continue to allow themselves to be constrained by current 2D design in this new three-dimensional era.

If this is the case, people walking around downtown Sydney and Melbourne may well experience a version of life similar to the 6-minute concept film Hyper Reality by Keiichi Matsuda, a London-based film director. The film presents a hellish new vision of the future, where physical and virtual realities have emerged, and your morning commute is saturated with AR billboards, offers, and signs. The film explores the implications and level of intrusion that AR/VR could have on our daily lives—combined with the infiltration of wearables, gamification, and the IoT, if we allow it—and if brands continue to constrain themselves to 2D thinking.

In the same way neon signs became the (literally) shiny new breakthrough for outdoor advertising in the 1940’s, brands in Australia now must now think about how to avoid replicating the neon explosion that was experienced in the US, now seen in capital cities around the world today, from Tokyo to Rio.

The not-too-distant future
In the not-too-distant future, Australian brands with the largest, loudest AR may not physically flood the streets with advertising, logos, and signage, but they run the risk of saturating consumers’ perspectives with AR and MR advertising. My fear is that despite all its potential to engage with customers and clients, AR will become the neon of the 21st century.

If we increasingly move into an era in which consumers are asked to focus and engage with static pages, small screens, and other pieces of glass, why would a brand not be designed for a three-dimensional world? When is the first Australian brand going to redesign its visual identity for the AR era?

In much the same way, new AR devices will cure us of “tech neck” by unleashing us from interacting with annoyingly small screens and haptic keyboards – in the AR era, the interface with a key board will become obsolete. New ways of using voice and gesture control to interact and manipulate objects and interface with brands will emerge, much in the same way we point and click now. When is the first Australian brand going to redesign a brand experience that leverages the full potential of AR?

Could a forward-thinking Australian brand develop signature gestures and verbal cues so that AR device-wearing consumers associate a gesture with the brand? If I say “Just do it” or air-guitar a swoosh with my right hand will that let me buy the latest Nike from its AR store? If I hold out my thumb and little finger, will that be the Telstra gesture to initiate a “phone call” to someone – without having to carry a smartphone around with me?

But of course, given the pace that AR is moving at, this is all conjecture. What is certain is that we’re about to be excited and amazed by a new device and a technology platform that will challenge the way we think about brands, marketing, and customer experiences in ways we’ve only just started to imagine.

In Australia, and indeed worldwide, AR can be the enabler of a new creative renaissance for brands and consumers—­­­­but I hope it doesn’t become 21st-century neon!

Chief Executive Officer, Australia