Media Perspective: Time for augmented reality to show what it can really offer us

Blimey, augmented reality gets you lot going doesn't it? I've been writing this column for 300 years and I've never had as many e-mails, DMs and people accosting me in the street as over the issue of augmented reality.

The first issue I should address is my alleged iPhone-centricity. I am delighted to point out (as I did when I first mentioned it) that the iPhone is not the only mobile device with augmented reality capabilities (GPS, video, compass etc).

It's just the only one (so far) with the magic combination of a biggish installed base, a platform people are excited to develop on and a brand that can make a successful application famous. It's the one that's ikely to lift fledgling mobile/media technologies from something a geeky bloke like me will do to something my mum'll do.

Secondly, I should acknowledge that there's a ton of augmented reality applications already out there. And I think this can be explained as part of something bigger: a difference in expectations between separate aspects of the digital world. Because there's a difference between the future potential of augmented reality as a useful service and its current reality as a temporary marketing confection.

Which brings me to the gist and pith of the matter - because, while there's nothing wrong with temporary marketing confections, there's no point doing a boring one. And too many people have told me that they are about to present an augmented reality idea to a client, which means it's unlikely to get built for weeks or months. Which means, by the time it emerges, it'll be as novel and newsworthy as Second Life.

This seems to be one of the perpetual digital traps: being caught between the interesting and the popular. There's a valid strategy in creating something niche and novel, something that'll get written about, that'll start a bit of buzz. And obviously it makes sense to use a technology that's normalised and become mainstream. It's just that too many digital initiatives fall between the two: not new enough to be newsworthy, not big enough to reach a mass audience.

Augmented reality will be an exciting technology one day, especially for gaming and it'll also enable a ton of useful mapping and informational services. But right now, for most brands, it is a diversion, taking the space on the media plan that was once occupied by the microsite and the Whack-a-Logo game.

If you're launching one now, hurrah, congratulations, I reckon you got in under the wire. If you're planning one for next year, you might want to think about something a little more novel. Maybe use an Arduino. Or some RepRap kit. But not an augmented reality game. Please God, not an augmented reality game.