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Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Augmented Reality but Were Afraid to Ask

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Cast your mind back five years ago. If you work in media, marketing, business or tech, you'll no doubt remember a debate that raged in blogs, board rooms and bars after work. Was there really a business case for the then new-fangled craze of Social Media? Could Facebook and Twitter actually help drive business or were they just a fad that would pass faster than Rupert Murdoch could say "MySpace"?

While the debate continued, many companies sat on the sidelines playing a game of wait and see (companies probably run by the same people who, in the early days of the internet, hadn't been convinced on the need for a website.) Some companies jumped on board, hiring social meejah gurus to parachute into their offices and teach them the ways of the tweet. Others just left the office intern to get on with it... and we all know how that story ends.

How quickly the world moves on. In just a few short years, Social has become a standard channel in the marketing mix for almost every B2C brand. These days, brands score themselves on how many "likes" they've accumulated on facebook. It seems that barely a print ad goes by without a facebook logo emblazoned on it or an event passes without the obligatory twitter hashtag getting a #shoutout.

And yet here we are again, with history seemingly repeating itself and the same old debate raging. Companies are once again pondering a potential business case and casting about for gurus, but this time it's about the newest marketing channel in the mix: Augmented Reality.

Farewell Star Trek, Hello Main Street

Augmented Reality (or "AR" for those in the know) has finally shaken off connotations of headgear-wearing loners and is beginning to make good on its promise to fundamentally change the way we see and interact with the world. And this recent resurgence of AR - which for so many years promised so much and yet delivered so little - is all down to the ever increasing processing power of our smartphones, currently making mincemeat of Moore's Law and doubling in processing power roughly every eight months.

This phenomenal and unprecedented increase in processing power allows software companies to begin to use the unique inputs of the mobile device (camera, GPS, accelerometer) to deliver an augmented view of the world through the device's screen.

Pictures (especially augmented ones) speak louder than words, so to get a feeling of how AR works, download the free Aurasma Lite app (available for iOS & Android devices) and point it at the images included in this TED blog post. (Yes, it even works on screens).

New app companies, AR platform providers and agencies delivering creative services on those platforms are springing up to deliver on the promise of augmented reality. Some offer single issue apps, capable of delivering one or two "experiences". Fun though they might be, these might (sometimes fairly) be accused of being a bit "gimmicky" - for example, add a pop star to your phone's view or a virtual sofa to your living room. Others are based on a platform model, with one app supporting hundreds or even hundreds of thousands of experiences. The user only need download one app in order to see a whole world of content.

Whichever route the market adopts - and signs are it may well continue to support both - analysts predict the value of the mobile AR market will grow to $3 billion in 2016. Analyst reports aside, perhaps the greatest indication of the forward trend is that global brands like Tesco, Mercedes, Marvel and Universal Pictures are making AR a fundamental part of their marketing strategy and crucially their marketing budgets.

Mark Cody is the digital marketer heading up Tesco's AR initiatives. He sees opportunities for this new medium across the business but right at the heart of every opportunity is the customer experience.

"Being able to integrate Augmented Reality into our own apps makes this technology a hugely exciting proposition for us and our customers," Cody says. "Primarily it allows customers to have an enhanced experience of our products whether they are browsing through our print titles like Real Food, our outdoor advertising such as posters or simply the products on the shelf in stores."

So are businesses like Tesco adopting AR because they've learnt from the lesson from the rise of Social Media - Engage Early? Perhaps. But more likely it reflects wider changes in the way that businesses engage with consumers and crucially, the way consumers engage with them.

"It's early days and some people will always be a little sceptical," Cody admits, "but we believe this has the potential to greatly improve our customers' shopping experience. Yes, AR is a brand new initiative but the business is right behind it."

Are you Engaged?

Go to any marketing pow wow these days and listen to the speakers. You'll notice that businesses today don't just want your eyeballs - they want your engagement. Engagement is more than just a moment of attention - it's a dialogue. It's the customer experience you tweet about, it's the ad you share on facebook, it's the online offer you recommend to your network, it's the brand you follow on Pintrest. And here's where AR really starts to get interesting because when used right, it's a powerful two way channel with customers.

Mobile AR apps can provide direct links to social channels so you can share your augmented experience with your network and even the augmented view from your phone screen with just a tap. But more than that, the most advanced AR apps enable you to tag up the real world with your own videos and pictures - effectively letting you create your own augmented reality on the fly.

Today, using your mobile device, you can attach digital content to images, objects, and even physical locations and then share that view of the world with your friends socially. This is potentially transformative for the way we share digital information, allowing people to post product reviews on packs, leave video reviews of the service in a coffee shop on its front door and even weave photographs into physical locations - digital memories to be returned to and rediscovered in the place where they were taken.

If we want to see how this trend for user-generated AR will develop, it's probably wise to look at the sector that's been first to fully embrace AR's potential - Education. Thousands of educators around the world are using Augmented Reality as a teaching aid, winning students attention by bringing a new digital dimension to their lessons, text books and even class rooms. Its use in schools is spreading virally, with ideas and best practice being shared on social channels, blogs and at conferences. According to teachers, students respond to the almost magical ability AR gives them to discover hidden digital information and create and share their own augmented reality. Businesses take note - that's real engagement. The only question is, AR you ready?