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Mobile Augmented Reality - Your Future?

This week, FreshMinds attended Technology For Marketing & Advertising (TFM&A), an event that provides the marketing & advertising community with a forum to network, share knowledge and source suppliers. We are involved in neither marketing or advertising, but are legitimately ensconced in TMT, and always interested in learning a bit more about what people are doing in the tech space.

As it turns out, people are doing quite a lot. Too much for one blog post. One thing that I really took away from the event is a new awareness of Mobile Augmented Reality. I had heard of it before, but dismissed it as gimmicky, and an effort to use in day to day life. And that impression, having learned more about Mobile Augmented Reality, is it's overwhelming hurdle.

Augmented Reality (AR) blends virtual imaging into the video stream of a mobile device's camera, essentially overlaying images, information, data, onto a picture of the real world, onscreen, in real time. And mobile AR does the same thing using handheld devices (think your iPhone 4) to provide the most portable and immersive AR experience possible.

Mobile AR has been relatively accessible since 2009 when Mobile Marketing's editorial director David Murphy first had it demonstrated to him. He would later describe it as "like a kind of magic" to one of his writers. Now, given the technologies we use (for example Apple's Video Glasses with their virtual 67-inch screen, receiving ok-ish reviews), Mobile AR seems entirely logical. But back then - and 2009 really is the annals of history in tech terms - it was something special.

Now, after the launch of the iPhone 4 in 2010, Mobile Marketing estimates the "AR-ready global audience" as somewhere close to 100 million, with several hundred AR-enabled apps on the market, AR becoming a feature of online and mobile gaming, and marketing agencies jumping on board to use Mobile AR as a customer engagement tools for brands.

It sounds great, doesn't it? But are you using it? The reaction to Mobile AR has been met with hype and scepticism in equal measures.  Stuart Dredge put it well in his Guardian blog:  "technically impressive, but the business models and usage patterns are still evolving." Which, he acknowledges, is the diplomatic way of saying that it's all very cool, but nobody's quite sure how to make money from it in any meaningful way. Cue Dan Hagen, head of planning at Carat, urging people not to use AR "because it's cool - do it to add value."

Angela Maurer, Head of Innovation at Tesco, noted that using Mobile AR successfully lies in making the experience simple for the customer, and that awareness of how AR works and what it's for, could be much higher.  The future of Mobile AR, it seems, will be decided not by it's capabilities or potential, but by how the brands that employ it, manage its use and the way in which consumers experience it.

Some are calling 2012 the 'Year of AR', in which offline and online experiences will finally blend holistically. And there is a real buzz about it. Dan Hagen may say it shouldn't be done just because it's a fun cool thing ... but this is 2012, and this is London. It runs on buzz, fashion, and hip-factor. So much so that I don't think I'm even allowed to say 'hip' anymore. And anyway, when was the last time you didn't do something just because it was cool, or fun? On that basis, if AR can just make itself seem accessible, it might stop being the next big thing (three years is a long time to be the bridesmaid), and become the actual Big Thing.