By: Heidi Tolliver-Nigro
You may have noticed that augmented reality (AR), and even to a certain extent virtual reality (VR), are no longer a marketer’s party trick. They have entered the mainstream, and major brands are tapping them for national campaigns. Well-known printing industry software developers like GMC and Solimar Systems are also incorporating them into their workflows.
But with so few commercial printers comfortable with the technology, where can we go to ask about the future of AR and VR? Where and how will customers be adopting it in the future? For answers, we can look to Trekk (formerly Trekk Cross Media), a Rockford, Ill.-based agency with core capabilities in AR/VR, and its spinoff, RealityBLU, which has launched a product for deploying AR at scale.
For this Tech Talk article, we talked to MJ Anderson. As former co-owner and chief marketing officer for Trekk — and now chief experience officer for RealityBLU — Anderson’s experience with these technologies is extensive. While with Trekk, he helped to build a practice inside the company that focused on delivering AR and VR creative services.
“That happened four years ago,” Anderson recalls. “We built an in-house expertise to do everything someone would need to create an AR experience, including our own video studio.”
MJ Anderson, chief experience officer at RealityBLU, outlines seven steps that should undergird any deeper investment in AR.
1. Define the business problem (or problems) AR will be used to solve. It can’t just be a gimmick.
While at Trekk, how did Anderson know that the market was ready for this level of investment? “A lot had to do with watching and being a part of what the larger brands were doing— Facebook, Google, Samsung, Microsoft — and paying attention to the investments those companies were making,” he explains. “Over the years, that offered great insights into market needs and opportunities.”
When it became clear the market needed a full-scale product to serve the enterprise and industrial scale needs of AR, RealityBLU was launched.
Anderson’s co-founded RealityBLU with his longtime friend Stefan Agustsson, who is CEO, last month. “Even as AR/VR takes hold in a real and meaningful way, there has been no product that allows service providers to integrate AR into their workflows at scale,” Agustsson explains.
“The market only has one-off solutions, but they do not allow marketers to deploy AR at an enterprise level. We give companies the ability to create, deliver and manage AR and VR content in the context of what they are already doing.”
Hence the launch of RealityBLU. The company’s cloud-based platform, called BLUairspace, is a full-scale production, delivery and management environment for AR and VR content. BLUairspace will be sold into the enterprise and the print-for-pay spaces.
Initially, BLUairspace will be offered as a cloud-based service that enables marketers to apply AR experiences on existing content that they already have and are creating today. Over time, it will provide customers with a start-to-finish app, whether an AR reader or a plug-in that customers can use to “augment” other third-party apps.
Phase 2, which is targeted for launch in Q3 2017, will offer enterprise licenses of the tool. Whereas Phrase 3 will provide access to the RealityBLU design studio for creating and managing content for multiple customers. This is planned for release in Q4 2017.
What is happening in the marketplace to support a product for full-scale AR/VR production in the marketing and transactional marketplaces now? Anderson gives two reasons:
- Corporations are getting their arms around mobile strategy. They are figuring out that mobile is the predominant channel by which to reach consumers. This creates a growing need for new tools and methods to communicate with people with small devices. “The way we all need to think about documents today needs to change to include the third access,” Anderson says. “That means dimension, sound and interactivity.”
- The consumer marketplace is waking up to AR. For this, let’s give a big round of applause to Pokémon Go. “People are hearing about and utilizing AR in their normal course of the day, even if they don’t realize that’s what they are doing,” Anderson explains. “The more companies embrace AR beyond being a gimmick and begin thinking about it as a problem-solving tool and a useful way to deliver information, the better off they will be.”
One of the places AR is gaining the most traction is in the training space as companies move to mobile learning. “People aren’t just tied to their desks as they once were,” he notes. “Anything that will facilitate that transition will help.”
Traction is also being driven by deeper integration between consumers and the “Internet of Things” (IoT). This is supported by the new generation of phones that are fully AR-capable and geographically aware.
“The IoT will be a huge part of the way we communicate with objects and things connected to the Web, and we will do it through our small devices,” Anderson continues. “For example, the Google Tango device knows where it is, what it is in proximity to, and will make the ‘always on’ interaction with the Web simple and seamless.”
As one example of how the IoT and AR combine, Trekk is working on a project for a large cable provider using AR to demonstrate how to hook up new cable services. The cable provider mails the customer a box, then the customer can use the provider’s mobile app to interact with an AR-enabled printed piece. Once the app is launched, the customer will be taken through a 3D-modeled tutorial on how to connect the router and modem. This allows them to get up to speed on their own terms, rather than the cable company’s.
“Consumers want to save the home visit for problems other than onboarding,” says Anderson. “The cable company is all too happy to oblige. The more quickly customers can onboard, the happier everyone will be.”
But while the market is ready for developing AR experiences at scale, the workflow and platforms have not been there to support it. Hence the launch of RealityBLU. From a product perspective, Anderson calls this side of the business the Wild West. “Our concept is the first of its kind,” he notes.
In the transactional space, one of the things RealityBLU will be focusing on is its partnership with Solimar Systems, a software company based in San Diego. The company develops workflow products for large service bureaus, enterprise printers, and marketers predominantly serving the transaction and publishing spaces.
“We have an integration with Solimar workflow tools and BLUairspace that enables banks, financial companies and the transactional printers that serve them to add AR content to consumer statements,” says Anderson. “It becomes a dynamic way to bring new life to the communications and adds value to the printed documents.”
The partnership between RealityBLU and Solimar developed as an opportunity to help companies create revenue-generating offers to their transactional clients in global banking. Consumers are increasingly using their phones to transact all forms of business, but mobile screens are not the easiest way to consume banking information.
“The idea is that, eventually, content will be delivered through a media-rich channel that includes AR and maybe VR at some point,” according to Anderson. “We are talking with companies around the world, including those in Europe, South Africa, Asia and Australia, where banking is growing faster than here in the United States.”
What will AR banking look like? From within your bank statement using AR tags or through a mobile app, an AR reader will allow you to interact with your bank statement in a way you have never done before. “We can deliver personalized video, spending habits and loyalty content so that once scanned, the printed statement becomes virtualized,” Anderson adds. “That content gets pushed to the phone, complete with bill pay, coupons and other options within a browser.”
Bank statements will also use AR in customers’ loyalty and rewards programs. Statement onserts will be replaced with interactive content that consumers can store on their phones and fulfill offers.
One prototype produced with Solimar is a video bank statement. It welcomes customers by name and tells them how much they spent using their VISA compared to the prior month, and launches graphics that show the amount due, when it’s due, the minimum payment and the customer’s spending habits. It even makes recommendations to lower their balance. The video experience is completely driven by the data as VDP would be — motion graphics, voiceover and music as opposed to text only.
“Right now, the way you look at a bank statement is through ledgers and columns,” Anderson points out. “Our drive will be to change the way we present that information so that it is more organically consumed.”
Will AR be restricted to the banking and financial industries? What about general direct mail? It is for both and beyond, Anderson insists. “We can deliver variable data and conditional video offers, as well as promotions that can be fulfilled on the phone,” he says.
Take, for example, a direct mail campaign promoting the AEM ConAg Con Expo, which occurs every three years in Las Vegas. Working with Trekk, AEM sent a mailer to 13,000 people and included a box containing Google Cardboard. Trekk had videotaped the conference in 360-degree video. When using the AEM app and the Google Cardboard, recipients experience a 360-degree view of the show.
“The AEM app continues to get downloads even today,” Anderson adds. “The brand’s concept is to continue to use the app for the next three years to continually promote the event. Trekk will augment the app with 360-degree virtual content so they can continue to keep the buzz going and expose people who have not been to it over time.”
What’s particularly noteworthy is that the AR-enabled app is more than a way to deliver information. Over time, it becomes a communication channel. “Once someone has the app downloaded, they can continue the dialog,” he says. “For its part, AEM increases eyeballs and usage.”
Where did the name RealityBLU come from? A glimpse comes from the company’s logo. “Reality” is rendered in type that looks like 8-bit pixilation from a video game. “BLU” is right next to it, rendered in a 3D modern font. “The idea is that we’re transitioning from this communications reality — the one we are currently in — into a space that will allow marketers to control all the air space over every object they create, whether a document, an object or a package,” Anderson concludes.
“BLU? Think ‘the Wild Blue Yonder.’ Anything is possible in the new reality.”