David Bowie in Three Dimensions just launched in the New York Times app. It’s an article that has integrated AR features, which enables you to view David Bowie’s incredible costumes in 360. As you scroll through the article you can drop these outfits into your physical world and walk around them as if you were seeing the real thing in an exhibition. Below is a screenshot of his Ashes to Ashes costume (the messy studio apartment doesn’t really evoke the museum experience I’m hoping to imitate) and although I kept bumping into furniture the experience was a lot more realistic than I had anticipated. The visuals were clear and striking even when I got up close.

This is the first time in a while I’ve bothered to engage with AR and it’s only really because the features are integrated into an existing app I already have on my phone that I’m using it (well, that and being a Bowie fan). The New York Times has been developing immersive content for a few years now, expanding the number of films they shoot in VR and dedicating a section of their website to helping subscribers understand how to use it. Although I enjoyed the Bowie experience I wondered if it would have been much better than just developing 360 videos that you pinch and zoom. Although I wasn’t sure of the real value-add it did make me realise how AR has improved since I first interacted with it.

The first time I used AR was back in 2012 when Blippar collaborated with Stylist to bring their Olympics issue to life. Even though it was exciting no one really wanted to download the Blippar app, feeling much the same way they did about having to keep QR code readers on their phone. While the thought of AR reviving the print industry was an exciting one the initial buzz around the tech was eventually lost on consumers. It wasn’t really until Pokemon Go came along that people actually got excited about AR again.

Reading the Bowie article made me think about the possibilities of AR and how only a few brands are using it meaningfully. In last week’s edition of SpotTable we looked at how some brands, like Nike and Lowe’s, are using it more effectively as part of a wider retail strategy. These companies are seeing AR as a potential problem-solver to iron out kinks in the online shopping experience rather than a one-off engagement tool.

So when should brands use AR? Well, ultimately it comes down to what the likes of you and me are going to get out of having access to it. Personally, I wouldn’t mind using it in the following situations:

Navigation / Search

As shown in SpotTable, AR can be used to guide you to specific products in a large format store such as a supermarket. Dent Reality is fine-tuning an AR app that UK retailers will be able to use from autumn this year. I can imagine it would be easy to develop this further for say music festivals or large scale events to help visitors navigate their surroundings.

Retrieving information

Bareburger, a restaurant chain the US, has just started enabling customers to preview menu items in AR and hopes to replace all their physical menus with virtual ones in the future to save money. But augmenting someone’s reality doesn’t have to stop at digital overlays. Spotify uses Genius to explain the meanings behind a song’s lyrics as it plays in the app. Galleries use sound showers to play directional audio to you as walk around exhibits. As John Hanke writes in his Medium post“Many will interpret AR to mean merely the visual effect that you experience with a device where a digital object or annotation is overlaid on the camera view on the screen…But that’s really missing the point… What AR really means is connecting digital information, objects and experiences with the physical world in situ as you experience them. It’s the part about connecting information to the world that’s important. The way that information gets to you is secondary.”

Immersive storytelling

In the story, The Princess and the Goblins, Princess Irene is guided by a magic thread only visible to her. In Neil Gaiman’s, Coraline, the main character peers through a magic stone to find the spirits of the lost children. As a kid I would have loved to have been able to access these special abilities through the power of AR. Although Virtual Reality will dominate the entertainment space, AR can still provide the wow factor when bringing a book, film or TV show to life. And like John Hanke said- AR doesn’t just have to be about the visual. Audio or haptic triggers can be woven into how you make a story jump off the page/screen.

Brand experiences

Oreos recently launched their scavenger hunt, the Great Oreo Cookie Quest, which enables players to unlock virtual cookies by interacting with their surroundings. By collecting cookies players can win anything from bluetooth speakers to a trip to Google’s HQ in California (Oreos has an ongoing partnership with Google).

I’m not a big enough fan of Oreos to play the game myself but it makes sense for such an irreverent brand to invest in a longer-term AR experience where fans can constantly be rewarded. Like Nike’s SNKRS app which requires users to find items in real life and scan them to access limited edition shoes, brands have an opportunity to make AR an intrinsic part of how their customers access exclusive content. It could be used to retain existing customers of a TV subscription service – imagine scanning your itemised bill to see if you’ve won tickets to a movie premiere. In a grocery situation it could be scanning all your shopping to unlock a surprise discount at the till. If you can build AR into your existing brand app then your customers can take advantage of these surprise and delight moments much more seamlessly.

Simple but Remarkable

It might not be that sexy but recently my favourite branded AR app was created by furniture retailer, Lowe’s. Is it a game? No. Is it a virtual interior designer? No. It’s a digital tape measure so you can actually go ahead and buy that cabinet you desperately want. For me this is a brilliant use the technology to improve the customer experience. I hope that this year we’ll see even more examples of brands using AR in smart and simple ways. While immersive storytelling and brand experiences are also exciting opportunities, thinking about how AR would truly benefit the customer is a much more interesting prospect.

-Kei Lawford, Futurologist