In the augmented reality world, annotation is everything. Looking at life through your smartphone could allow you to add a layer of information to your surroundings -- information that would allow you to find directions, restaurant reviews, cinema listings or anything else that's of value to your everyday existence.
But here's the rub: how do you convey all of that information on your phone's screen? What if you're trying to find somewhere to eat on a busy high street where the choice of food is overwhelming? How does your new augmented reality app or hardware deal with this distinctly first-world problem? Which brands or companies get precedence? Does it come down to search engine optimisation (SEO), or is it a case of looking at every single individual restaurant? If it's the latter, then is there even any need for annotation, when you can look in the window and browse the menu, or search for a review online? That's a lot of questions, but they can probably be boiled down to just one: who dominates the content space in the annotated world?
It's a question many brands and consumers should be asking as we edge closer to living through annotation, especially given the way in which Google, Nokia and others are pushing us towards this level of layered reality. The most obvious play Google has made is with Project Glass, the company's augmented reality eyewear concept. But it's also been working with apps, most noticeably Field Trip and Google Now, with the former acting as a real-time guide, giving you click-free notifications that provide information on interesting places near to your location.
And it's looking like this kind of augmented reality technology is going to be baked in at the source in future technology. Look at how Nokia have built City Lens into the Lumia 920. It's an app that gives you annotated directions and location information on your phone's display, which, if successful, could be a constant presence in all future Nokia handsets.
All of this information needs to fit on your phone's display (which, in the case of the Lumia 920 is 4.5") though, which brings us back to the question: who dominates the content space in the annotated world? With only a finite amount of space available, too much annotated information could lead to a busy display that creates a negative reaction in the user, especially if the annotations are fighting for room on the screen with calendar, email, text and social media alerts. All this could lead to too much clutter -- a build up of digital kipple -- which doesn't make for a great user experience. So what and who takes precedence?
A lot of it depends on how content is distributed and who has control of the distribution. It also depends on how much importance is given to raising revenue through advertising and paid placement within annotated reality platforms -- something that won't necessarily improve a user's experience. But let's say that the information will be pulled in through a number of sources -- social media, online reviews, news, blogs, websites. How do you then optimise for annotated reality? Will SEO as we know it be relevant in this context, or will companies need to develop a form of geo-optimisation, combined with a user-optimisation system that factors in someone's life and viewing preferences along with their social footprint? The annotations will come in real-time and for that to work and to be relevant, they need to be able to meet people's individual needs.
This then leads onto content: what will annotated reality mean for content producers? If annotated reality becomes as natural as using a search engine, then what does that mean for content creators in terms of how and what they write? How do brands stop themselves from becoming just an annotated point on a map and how do they utilise the briefest flash of information to draw people in deeper to more information-filled assets, like websites and blogs?
If all they want to be is a point on a digital map, then fine. But what information does that give users other than a brand's geographic whereabouts? You could serve the best tea in the world -- tea that everyone should know about -- but if the only information people see in an annotated reality platform is your company's name, then how are they going to know about your great tea? This also applies if you sell great biscuits too.
Yes, there are challenges with the annotated world for content creators -- but there are also opportunities. You could create content that tapped into the way people interacted with their geography. So, for instance, if you're a runner and you're using something like Project Glass, or an app that sends vocal notifications (reading out information, so you don't have to stop and look at your phone's screen), you can receive annotated real-time advice about routes, rest points, terrain and other tips as you're running. If you're a card-carrying music fan, then you could get information on record shops and gig venues, complete with listings.
Thinking of annotating like this follows the idea that this aspect of augmented reality content will have its roots in publishing -- where dead-tree guides are replaced by live, ever-changing localised guides, personal to you. Real-time micro guides. The only difference for the writers is that they're writing for an audience on the move rather than a static one, which means the content needs to be delivered in ways that compliment the audience's needs.
Annotated reality is something that's still very much in its infancy and, as such, it's something that spawns a lot of questions. That said, it's also a concept where the answers to those questions will probably drag us into a world of digitalised, information-filled fun. Feel free to be either horrified or overjoyed about that.