Augmented and virtual – the new realities
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Augmented and virtual – the new realities

Augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR) have already come a long way from being hit-or-miss novelty technologies. We take a look at how they’ve earned their marketing stripes – and what the future holds.

Before considering how AR and VR can be used to create pioneering marketing initiatives, it’s important to understand how the technologies differ from one another. Ramzi Yakob, consultant at digital transformative agency TH_NK, puts it this way: “Augmented reality can enhance real life, whereas virtual reality takes you away from it,” he says. “VR is escapist. AR is additive.”

Matthew Greenhalgh, creative technology director at customer experience marketing agency MRM Meteorite, agrees:

“AR enables us to use our current environment in order to present enhanced information about a product,” he says. “VR takes the customer out of that environment in order to do the same. For example, we created a customer AR experience for technology company Intel, to be used on the shop floor.

The experience turned a folded piece of paper into an ultra-light laptop, highlighting Intel's role in reducing overall weight – the customers were already in a sales environment and there was no need to take them out of it.

“Contrast this with a VR experience we created for Vauxhall, which enabled the customer to ‘virtually’ test drive an Astra around a racing track. VR allowed us to transport the customer to an exciting environment they couldn't easily access themselves and enhance the experience that way.”

Another way to look at it is to consider VR as more suited to content, and AR best applied in the ‘real’ world. “VR is the only medium that guarantees a complete focus on the content, making it a profoundly immersive way to tell a story,” says Luke D’Arcy, UK president at total brand experience agency Momentum Worldwide. “Once the headset’s on, there’s no checking email or updating social media.”

If, as Bill Gates once famously predicted, content really is king, allowing the customer to experience it in a way that demands their undivided attention could be a huge advantage for advertising and marketing. “VR will redefine storytelling and cinema,” says Luke. “What happens inside the headset can put us inside stories in ways we've never experienced before.’

AR, on the other hand, adds contextual layers of information to our experiences in real time:

“We were working on the launch of the new Land Rover Discovery Sport and faced a real marketing challenge – we had to showcase the new model without a finished car to display,” says Sam Ellis, business director at direct marketing agency LIDA. “We developed an AR model that allowed customers to see a detailed photo-realistic 3D model of the car when viewed through a headset, with different animations appearing to demonstrate its new features.

“For example, the driver’s door opened so consumers could peer inside to get a proper look at the interior. We used AR because we wanted people to see the car in the actual dealership environment, as they would a real car. It allowed them to get a sense of size and scale compared to the other cars in the range, and meant they didn’t have to have a heavy headset tethered to a large PC [as with VR].”

Ultimately, both VR and AR tinker with our reality. AR enhances it, while VR diverts us from it – or trains us for it. “VR is not just about escapism; it’s also about simulation, which you can’t achieve with AR,” says Yakob. “It can help us train and plan for medical, technical or defence scenarios in a very deep and focused way.”

There’s no doubt that the merging of these technologies offers incredible scope for increasing customer engagement but, before that happens, VR in particular must become more mainstream. “Until such time as a VR headset is commonplace in customer households, we’ll see it occupying a more niche role,” says Greenhalgh, “whereas AR is accessible to anyone with a smartphone.”

What’s new?
  • Microsoft’s HoloLens AR headset lets the user experience ‘mixed reality’ – holographic content that overlays the physical world. Developer kits have recently been released.
  • Google has invested in Magic Leap, whose AR technology beams lasers into the wearer's eye via wearable units to activate 3D computer-generated imagery over real-world objects.
  • Google has also announced its Daydream platform, which brings VR to mobile devices.
Claire Lavelle Journalist CPL
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