When I was a little girl, my sister and I were obsessed with beads. A trip to the Spellbound Bead Company was our favourite day out; our tiny, soft fingers running over wooden grids filled to the brim with silver fastenings and chunks of cheap, glittering glass. One summer, we decided to make earrings and sell them. But we didn’t have eBay, Etsy, Squarespace or Shopify. We had a recycled cork board and Mum’s goodwill to spend her weekends at car boot sales. We probably sold 10 pairs.
We had the technology (wire cutters, pliers and patterns), the community (thank you, Spellbound staff) and the content (hole-inducing danglers). But we didn’t have the distribution.
Augmented-reality technology faces a similar problem today.
I’m a big believer in the promise of AR. Not just for brands to connect with consumers, but for people to connect with the world and with each other. Applications are wide-reaching: language-learners might see through the lens of another culture; anxiety-sufferers might navigate the bus network with more confidence; or you might just make sure your bag fits in the overhead bin before you go on vacation. This ability to serve vastly different audiences in a multitude of ways is a hallmark of technologies that scale (the internet, video calling, 4G – to name a few).
But it seems that, despite the sophisticated AR technologies we’ve developed and the increasing democratisation of content creation (Apple announced its Reality Composer software this month, allowing non-coders to create AR experiences), we’re still tripping over the little problem of distribution.
Plenty of brands are embracing AR to great effect. KLM’s bag sizer, Nike’s sneaker-try-on and the BBC’s Civilisations app are all best-in-class examples of brands bringing value to customers through the technology. But we’re still chained to one of two distribution channels: an owned app or big tech partners such as Snapchat or Facebook. We have to spend media pounds on platforms that may or may not allow us to speak to our audiences in the right way, at the right time (if at all), or build proprietary apps and drive downloads that will most likely be ephemeral (apps are deleted just six days after their last use on average).
However, Google announced last week that AR beauty product try-ons are coming to YouTube – this tells us something significant about the future of the way people will use the medium.
The fix for this distribution fail is just around the corner and it’s called WebAR. This technology allows AR experiences to run in mobile browsers and can be launched seamlessly on both Android and iOS, ridding us of the dependence on apps and platforms.
In addition to its reach potential, WebAR is creatively exciting because it’s still poorly defined. Imagining how brands act as augmentations over the physical world is a job for the limitless creative potential of our industry.
Agencies can start leveraging WebAR right now, working with immersive tech specialists such as Rewind on a custom build (see its just-launched secret menu unlocker for Samsung) or using pre-packaged solutions, such as 8th Wall Web or Lens.io.
Another perfect place to start might well be Google search. The tech giant recently announced it is bringing AR objects into search results by the end of the year, representing the potential for products to be seen "in the real world" before online purchase by millions overnight. This is big news for everything from fashion and furniture to consumer electronics and carpets – all of which could be ripe territory for the creative usage of AR.
It’s our responsibility to remember what this technology does and use it diligently; it is meant to make the physical world better in some way, meaning it suits brands that have the credibility to engage us at the intersection of real and digital worlds. Whether it’s trying out a light fitting at home, taking a wristwatch for a virtual spin on your real arm or sharing something new about the world we inhabit, make sure your brand has something interesting to say before you choose AR to say it.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to set up my online earring shop.
Gracie Page is innovation lead at VMLY&R London