SAN DIEGO — Augmented reality (AR) is giving marketers the ability to provide compelling, immersive customer experiences that help people find products and decide what to buy in whole new ways.

During a presentation at Gartner's three-day digital marketing conference here, RJ Holmberg explained how AR bridges the physical and digital worlds — and stressed how smart companies and brands are already making practical use of this sci-fi sounding technology.

AR creates interactive experiences that draw in customers and maintains engagement far better than passive marketing, Holmberg said.

Aurasma: From HP to OpenText

Holmberg is director of business development and operations at Aurasma. This AR platform, originally part of Autonomy, was launched in 2011 — the same year Autonomy was acquired by Palo Alto, Calif.-based HP Inc.

Just recently, Waterloo, Ontario-based OpenText inherited Aurasma as part of its $170 million acquisition of HP's customer experience assets and is now acting as a reseller of HP Aurasma.

In the past five years, Aurasma has helped more than 200,000 customers deliver AR experiences that connect digital and mobile with traditional and print channels. The goal is to increase customer engagement, generate more effective metrics and shorten the path to conversion on traditional channels, Holmberg explained.

Based in London and San Francisco, Aurasma is gaining traction as AR shifts from a novelty to a tool with practical applications. Its features include a recently redesigned iOS app that lets users scan, create and share augmented reality experiences; templates for use cases such as statements, packaging, event engagement and direct mail; and built-in analytics to help marketers reach ROI goals and communicate the performance and value of AR campaigns.

In a January report, Gartner noted that Aurasma has "primarily focused on and excels at AR marketing and customer communication campaigns, positioning its product as the next marketing channel to provide measurable, targeted, engaging and interactive solutions."

AR Can Give Marketers an Edge

AR helps marketers turn everyday objects, images and places into new opportunities for engagement. It works by giving customers the ability to overlay virtual content on the physical world and have the two interact in real time, he explained.

As examples, imagine being able to see how a couch would fit in your living room before actually you buy it — or see how you look in a certain article of clothing without trying anything on.

Many brands, from Starbucks to Nestle, started using AR to promote new products and services as early as 2012 and Google's introduction of Google Glass a year later only intensified interest in AR.

More recently, companies including Ikea, Ray-Ban and Cover Girl have jumped on the AR bandwagon.

Today, Aurasma includes an impressive list of clients, including Best Western, Office Depot, AMC, Argos, Harrods, Kaiser Permanente, United States Postal Service, Caterpillar, TD Ameritrade, Sage and Disney. More specifically:

  • Disney Hollywood Studios used Aurasma to "bring the park to life with digital content" surrounding their Star Wars Weekends. It's helped and boost merchandise sales by 25 percent while engaging visitors
  • Budweiser used Aurasma to bring product packaging to life through a campaign that also offered fans a chance to win tickets to the World Cup
  • Best Western generated more than 40,000 downloads by adding Aurasma to its app. The hotel chain continues to embrace AR and engage their guests with interactive lobby stands, Aurasma reports
  • AMC added an augmented reality component to its movie-going experience by allowing customers to interact with movie posters with their smartphones. Holding a smartphone up to posters would, for instance, launch a movie trailer or offer the option to buy tickets on the spot. AMC reported a 75 percent higher click-through rate using that strategy

Augmented Reality vs. Virtual Reality

During his presentation, Holmberg clarified an ongoing source of confusion: the difference between augmented reality and virtual reality.

Gartner defines augmented reality as the real-time use of information in the form of text, graphics, audio and other virtual enhancements integrated with real-world objects. It is this “real world” element that differentiates AR from virtual reality.

AR integrates and adds value to the user’s interaction with the real world, versus a simulation.

Virtual reality, in contrast, is an artificial, computer-generated simulation or recreation of a real life environment or situation. It uses images and sounds that are produced by a computer and connected equipment to make the use feel as if they are in real three-dimensional space.

“Virtual reality … is kind of a solo sport. You’re not really engaged. As marketers, you can leverage [augmented reality]. All the customer needs is a phone,” Holmberg said.

AR is making a big buzz this week, not only at Gartner's conference but at Google's annual developer conference in Mountain View, Calif., where the company's new venture into augmented reality is set to be a major highlight.

Gartner's Take on AR

Gartner thinks augmented reality solutions are poised for rapid growth, empowered by the Internet of Things, digital business and next-gen smartphones.

In a market guide released in January, Gartner identified business and consumer AR implementations.

  • Consumer AR implementations — external-facing solutions intended to be used directly by the consumer — have been mostly for marketing, advertising, gaming, education and other forms of consumer engagement.
  • Business AR implementations — internal-facing AR solutions — include training and maintenance, product and parts visualization, repair and prototyping. "Internal-facing AR solutions are best viewed as a tool that helps employees do their jobs better and/or more safely," Gartner noted.

Gartner is positive about the market for AR, which it noted offers the strategic option "to further leverage existing digital content in the context of the physical world while using readily available, mass market hardware and sensors (many of which, such as smartphones and tablets, are already part of the corporate pool of equipment)."

However, it suggests market intelligence managers research AR before adoption to see if it will help achieve business goals. It also warned that AR for the mass market is relatively new, and that case studies and cost analyses remain elusive.