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Companies increasingly see possibilities in augmented reality

By Matt Ford, for CNN
Not just a pretty face: Advertising campaigns integrate print, TV, online and now augmented reality.
Not just a pretty face: Advertising campaigns integrate print, TV, online and now augmented reality.
  • Marketing campaigns are using "augmented reality" to become truly integrated
  • Can enable old media with new layer of interactivity, but future lies in smartphones
  • Great potential to enhance social networking and transform shops and services

(CNN) -- Imagine you're an advertiser looking to get more from your print budget: Wouldn't it be great if there was some way to make your designs literally leap off the magazine page and give readers a fully-3D experience, complete with video clips, audio and almost any other form of multimedia you like?

Well there is. Right now. The possibilities of so-called "Augmented Reality" (AR) have been talked up for years. But AR could be on the verge of a mainstream breakthrough as new open source software using Flash -- the ubiquitous animation and video technology installed on an estimated 98 percent of PCs -- places it within the reach of almost anyone who wants it.

When used in conjunction with print, AR works by linking consumers to online content via visual signifiers. At the moment this is frequently a black and white code printed on a page that can be recognized by a computer webcam when the page is held up. The cam then uses the code to retrieve specific data and media, which it displays it on a user's monitor.

The basic technology has been around for years. Conceptually, computer artist Myron Kruegar was playing around with similar themes in the 1970s, and since the turn of the Millennium there has been the potential to use it more widely.

We've found the sweet spot. It's not just a geek thing, it's useful to people.
--Andy Cameron, interactive designer

But it's only recently that always-on high-speed Internet connections have been widespread enough to make investment in the tech worthwhile. With the arrival of powerful smartphones with built in Internet/video capacity -- such as the iPhone and those using Google's Android OS -- the possibilities of AR are going growing, and clued-up companies are already switching on to its possibilities.

Fashion retailer Benetton has employed AR extensively in its latest campaign "It's My Time," which aimed to get ordinary members of the public to become models, using the technology to enable them to find out more about existing models. Last year the company's magazine, Colors, carried dozens of AR symbols in an issue devoted to teenagers, enabling readers to find out more about the young people featured via video and multimedia content.

"We have found the sweet spot," says Andy Cameron, executive director of Fabrica, an interactive design house that works with Benetton. "It's not just a geek thing; something to do techy tricks with. It's something that works and is useful to people.

"We've also experimented with catalogues where, instead of just seeing one pic of a particular model wearing particular clothes, you can hold the picture up to your webcam and see them wear a selection of clothes -- even see them strip off. It's another way of engaging the spectator and giving them more.

"With 'It's My Time' AR was particularly useful as we were trying to change the nature of the models we used. "We wanted to encourage... more edgy, interesting people, and this was a great way to reach them."

In the U.S. Esquire magazine has done an AR edition, which featured Robert Downey Jnr. "coming to life" on the cover, and in Europe Wallpaper magazine did a similar experiment using video and animation. There are also AR books in the pipeline.

Ultimately, though, augmenting old media -- however cool and smartly done -- probably won't be enough to take AR into the mainstream.

"Holding up a magazine to a webcam won't be it," says Cameron. "It's quite a carry on -- and you get arm ache after five minutes."

He believes mobile devices will be the key and says one of the most exciting AR Apps currently available is Layar. This uses the iPhone's in-built compass and location information to give users local information from Wikipedia, YouTube -- even Flickr pictures of the surrounding area.

"Wherever you are you can look at sites of interest around you and find out about them," says Cameron. "It's with things like this where you start to see the real power of AR."

The prototype of another App that may give an indication of where things might be going in the near future was demonstrated at the Barcelona Mobile World Congress earlier this year. Produced by Swedish company The Astonishing Tribe it promises to take "social networking to the next level" by allowing users to point their phone at a person, and pull their Facebook and Twitter information off the web.

But AR isn't just about making the world more fun -- the potential for creating tech to annotate the working environment of engineers and mechanics is just as exciting. Imagine how much a pair of DIY AR goggles would transform the lives of home handymen and women?

As with any emerging technology, the role of AR is constantly evolving as the world adapts to its potential and imaginative people start to get involved.

"The key thing is to be on the ball and spot new opportunities as they come up," says Cameron. "No one could have imagined any of this even a few years ago, so who knows where it will all go?"