The AR revolution is here: Are you ready?

Everyone wants in on the Pokémon Go craze, but advertisers should proceed with caution, writes Opera Mediaworks' senior creative director for North America.

Ever since Pokémon Go became a cultural phenomenon, the number of requests for augmented reality mobile ad campaigns has snowballed. If we were a telethon — or if it were 1988 — you might even say, "our phones were ringing off the hooks."

You can’t blame mobile advertisers for wanting in. After all, the game surpassed mobile darlings Instagram and WhatsApp in usage time, Tinder in app downloads, and even Twitter for daily active users. They were watching the mobile app charts - as they should be! - saw a surging wave and wanted to ride it.

And when there was no opportunity to direct excitement about the game to their brand, or implement location-based advertising, they thought, well, let’s introduce augmented reality elements into our ad campaigns! It’s "mainstream" now, right? We don’t have to wait another five years for it to catch on? 

But, as Jeff Goldblum said more than 20 years ago in the movie Jurassic Park, albeit about the re-creation of dinosaurs, "Just because you can do something doesn’t mean you should."

Don’t get me wrong — I’m happy that mobile marketers are excited about AR. The philosophy is solid: rich media advertising shouldn’t be simply observed and appreciated; it should be truly engaging and participatory. Only through interaction can we guarantee attention and interest, and, in the long run, brand recall and loyalty.  

For many brands, it makes sense. Entertainment companies with big summer blockbusters to promote can use AR to overlay iconic characters from the film onto the real world, or "gamify" the experience. And there are some verticals, like home goods and automotive, where products can be integrated into the real world. Ikea’s virtual catalog lets buyers "place" furniture in their home to see if it fits, and several well-known car brands such as Hyundai and Volkswagen are using AR as a sales tool, creating virtual guides to certain models. Luxury auto manufacturers are using AR to provide clientele with an up-close, personalized look at new models and to showcase innovation.  

But what about the rest? The fact of the matter is, for most of the brands that were blowing up our inbox, AR is just not the most effective tactic.

Here’s what we told them: Look at the bigger picture. Why are people going nuts over Pokémon Go? It’s because of the seamless blending of the real world with a fictional one. AR is about mixed reality — taking surreal, fantastical elements and making them seem real. When you let the user start to unleash his or her imagination with digital elements and tools, that’s when the fun begins. And in the ad world, entertainment + fun = brand lift.

Mobile gaming companies have been doing this successfully for years, both in-game and within advertisements. Here are some of the sensory experiences available in mobile that we hope will percolate down to brand advertising, now that marketers are witnessing consumers’ insatiable hunger for mixed reality.

Shake, rattle, and roll. Video game manufacturers have been using vibration, or haptic effects, in their consoles for decades. In Microsoft’s Flight Simulator, for example, gamers feel machine-gun recoil, weapon-fire damage, and explosions in the game controller. Now that games have moved to the mobile device, they can use the built-in haptic motor, the one that causes the phone to vibrate upon certain events, like a message, phone call, or touch of the screen.

Brands such as Stoli Vodka have used haptic effects to simulate real-world actions in mobile videos, like the shaking of a cocktail, and Lexus and Peugeot are using it to give the user the feeling of driving a car: accelerating, taking sharp turns, and braking. More recently, 20th Century Fox started leveraging haptic video effects in a campaign to promote Ice Age: Collision Course to summertime moviegoers. And advertisers have found that using real-life touch sensations to make a virtual experience feel like it is actually taking place boosts metrics across the board, from brand recall to positive sentiment.

Looking up, down, all around. One of the reasons why video games became so addictive is their ability to let the player enter a virtual world, where they can explore at will, with few limitations. However, despite how fast virtual reality technology is progressing and becoming more accessible, creating a full virtual reality experience is still out of scope for most brands, and, even if it wasn’t, it doesn’t necessarily mean they should be investing in it.

Instead, think about the elements of virtual reality that are attractive to consumers: the freedom to move about within that world, to look up and down, not just side to side – to explore their environment as they want to, zooming in and out on specific areas. That’s where 360-degree panoramic ad units come in, like the Game of Thrones Facebook canvas ad or Hilton's mobile ad for its Barbados resort. Immersive ad experiences can also incorporate ambient movement in the background, which adds to the "reality" factor.

Where is that Cheshire Cat? Along the same theme of letting the user explore at will is the concept of random discovery of hidden objects. In video games, it dates back to 1979, in Atari’s Adventure, where the programmer left a hidden message giving himself credit for the game, and the company’s staff called it an "Easter egg." Today, video games are known for sneaking messages and images into their code, from the Thelma & Louise ending in Grand Theft Auto V to "Totaka’s Song" in Nintendo games.

Why not apply this tactic to advertisements? Adding hidden messages to a campaign can help drive exploration and engagement. Some of them are more purposeful, like a tap-to-expand list of characters of an animated feature film, but some are just for fun, like a Cheshire Cat that disappears and reappears on the screen, depending on how you tilt the phone. These add an element of surprise, and if you can delight consumers, chances are they’ll remember you.

No doubt, the introduction of new functionality, or the rediscovery and interpretation of old ones, have truly opened up our creative palettes, and it is starting to feel like anything is possible. It’s no longer a question of "what can we do?" The challenge now facing mobile advertisers is: "What should we do?" What combination of technology and creative will help us meet our outcome? 

This column first appeared on campaignlive.com.

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