Skeptical shopper: Enhanced advertising in augmented reality

Augmented-reality mobile applications can seem incredibly cool--until they become cluttered with sales pitches.

Have you ever found yourself in an unfamiliar city with no clue about where to go and what to see? What if you could just hold up your phone, snap pictures of your surroundings, and discover interesting local restaurants and landmarks? With augmented-reality apps, you can do just that. But advertisers are jumping on the trend as well, so the same application that reveals intriguing potential destinations might also bombard you with ads for nearby fast-food chains. Can augmented reality actually be useful for consumers, or is it simply another way for corporations to get a hand in your wallet?

Augmented reality is a technology that couples physical reality with computer-generated imagery. You see it on TV all the time. One simple example is the first-down lines that sports networks display during broadcasts of football games. Augmented reality isn't limited to location-based applications, however; a number of games, browsers, Wikipedia-based apps, Twitter clients, and the like use the same technology.

Brightkite Gets Noisy

One very popular augmented-reality app is Brightkite. Marketed as a "real time so­­cial discovery network," Brightkite lets users "check in" at restaurants, bars, and other public places and then see who is in the area and who has been there before. Back in December 2008, the application started showing advertisements for nearby businesses in its augmented-reality view.

When they launched, the ads were fairly unobtrusive, appearing at the bottom of your phone's display. Now, however, giant logos for Starbucks and McDonald's in­­vade your screen if you're close to one of those chains' outlets. And if you click on the logo, you get additional information about the retailer and the various products it carries. I think that these advertisements violate what Brightkite said its mission was--social networking. Does anyone make friends based on whether or not they dine at McDonald's?

If you frequently use Google Maps and Google Street View, you may have noticed that local businesses are now highlighted when you're getting directions. This is helpful, I suppose, if you need to stop for a gift on your way to a party or need a caffeine boost before a big job interview. For the most part, however, they're pretty distracting, especially when you're trying to navigate through an unfamiliar area.

And the assault doesn't stop at pop-up advertisements: For example, a blank billboard in San Francisco's Union Square can become an ad for Levi's when the photo previews on your phone. Using GPS, advertisers can pinpoint various locations for ad campaigns and implement a digital overlay when the user snaps a picture.

It's an interesting concept, like many other augmented-reality apps, but it's also problematic. If the advertisements overwhelm everything else, consumers are going to get burned out on these apps very quickly. Rather than creating more logo clutter for consumers, the advertising partners should offer app users special deals or discounts on their products. To "augment" means to supplement or make greater, but a virtual world overloaded with marketing messages isn't exactly better than the real thing.

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Ginny Mies

PC World (US online)
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