Augmented Reality: Gimmick or Game Changer?

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It’s hard to look back at 2009 and ignore the rather sudden blooming of augmented reality. What was it that made AR suddenly so popular? The rise of ‘mobile’ apps helped. But was that all there was to it? I don’t think so.You can learn so much about a culture by observing how they take in new information. It’s easier than ever to watch how the internet community responds to new things; whether it be a new president, a new episode of Fringe, the death of a pop icon, or ‘new’ technologies. When something happens you can literally watch the connected swarms absorbing the news, assimilating it into their lives, and regurgitating it in the form of comments, tweets, articles and other hip ways of communicating.

With technological innovation

This cycle of assimilation from inventor to news source and eventually the public (who then sometimes become secondary inventors) can be a frenzied and often frustrating thing to observe. Especially for user experience designers. Until the true benefit of a technology becomes its most prominent usage, it will continue to wallow in worthless gimmicky applications, and this makes me sad. If, instead of embarking on a futile development voyage, we thought about it a little bit first, we might actually be able to figure out how to make good use of a new technology in, say, under a few decades.

ARead All About It

Although the ‘news release’ of augmented reality’s invention may not have ever actually happened, the current frenzy is reminiscent of what happened when the first visions of connected personal computers starting popping up in the 60′s. That is, to put it bluntly, uninspired exhibitions of the technology with little to no regard for a particular user need or everyday application. That said, I really can’t blame people for iterating and trying to hone in on the most viable use, I just wish they could be a little more thoughtful about it, that’s all.

Parading around claims that the latest issue of your magazine is capable of telling the time, that you, the reader can control the weather, wins you no points in my book. The fact that the editor in chief says, “What you’ve seen so far is that, you can control what happens with the issue…” Excuse me, but couldn’t I already control what happens with every other issue of every other magazine I have owned? How does this augmented reality issue suddenly empower me to decide what to do with it? Does it contribute any new meaning in my life? The answer, sadly enough for Esquire’s last ditch effort to save its print embodiment, is that it doesn’t. As much as I love Robert Downey Jr.: this is a gimmick. Albeit a nicer gimmick than some of the other augmented riffraff we’ve seen of late, but it’s still a gimmick. It does not contribute to the value of your print magazine any more than a shiny coupon for a store that you don’t even have in your town.

Now I’m not saying I have all the answers

In fact, I really don’t have any answers. But if I were to think about this, I might arrive at the conclusion that instead of tacking on some fiducials that enable a computer screen-bound fashion model to shed some sweaters, Esquire maybe could have tried to enhance the reading experience of…oh I don’t know…the articles? Come on people, let’s put our heads together and figure out what to do with this goshdarn AR stuff. Why is it so hard to come up with a useful application that everyone can and wants to use?

A few months ago

I found myself optimistically answering someone else’s utterance of this same plea with specific examples of a few really cool AR applications. Just so this rant isn’t entirely ranty, here are some of my favorites:

USPS’s Priority Mail Virtual Box Simulator

You gotta love the simplicity of purpose and beautiful execution of USPS’s Priority Mail Virtual Box Simulator. This, to me it is an ideal example of a company identifying a user need (finding the right box size for some goods). It is answering that need with a technological solution that uses augmented reality, not because its popular, but because it allows for a really great in-home solution to their customer’s problem. Now, instead of trying to fix the user experience in every one of their thousands of store locations, USPS allows users to go to their site, print the USPS eagle image on a piece of paper, turn on their webcam, launch the simulator and hold the eagle icon up to your camera to see what size box to purchase. Voila, value added and problem solved.

Topps 3D Live trading cards

Whoever thought that cutting edge technology couldn’t be nostalgic is being proven wrong with Topps 3D Live trading cards. Talk about reincarnating a dead pastime. Not only do these new cards give sports fans a reason to go out and purchase new cards to supplement their dad’s handed-down mega collection, they also include games. Whether this concept successfully popularizes baseball card collecting or not, it’s certanly an admirable attempt at using new technology to add value (and a more complete service) to a nostalgic product.

Living Sasquatch

While this example may not be as clear cut about adding value to an exisiting product or service economy, the Living Sasquatch project proves once and for all, that Big Foot is indeed real, augmentedly at least.


It’s likely that this BMW augmented reality video was made almost entirely with video effects, however the concept behind it is a powerful one. A future in which life’s instructions are simply a layer ontop of reality (seen through hopefull less dorky glasses) is a future I’m excited to live in.

Zugara’s shopping tool

Zugara claims that this webcam-based shopping tool is the meeting point of augmented reality and utility. I’d actually have to agree. With the goal of enhancing the online retail shopping experience, the site allows users to ‘try on’ clothes in the comfort of their computer room, all without needing a keyboard or mouse. The tasty blend of motion capture and AR gives this concept a ton of style points.

Tellart 2008 Holiday Card

While there were no doubt several examples of AR holiday cards from the past couple years, I couldn’t help but insert this musical number, made by my multi-talented coworkers at Tellart.

AR Drum Kit

Continuing with the music theme, I really enjoy this drum kit demo for its ability to work with the parameters of AR and maintain the gestural feeling of drumming. It may not be a game changer just yet, but I think it’s one of the most interesting directions I’ve seen.

I really do believe that AR has a place in our world

Science fiction novels have long predicted a future in which everyone sports AR glasses, navigating the real world with varying layers of virtual. And this future is exciting; people SHOULD be excited. I just hope developers get all the useless crap out of there system soon so we can move on to the augmented future we all dream of. The key, I think, is to calm down, think about how to make game changing applications that users will crave, and facilitate the assimilation of new technologies into everyone’s lives in the most exciting and useful way possible.

Top image by: cubistcarborough

Seth Snyder

Seth Snyder is an experience designer at Tellart in Providence, Rhode Island. He specializes in cross-disciplinary explorations through research, brainstorming, concept development, and interaction design. Prior to joining Tellart, Seth graduated with honors from the Rhode Island School of Design's Industrial Design department. The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Tellart.

9 comments on this article

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  5. Seth, really great article.

    I think you are right, there are some great uses (and not so great) of AR.

    One I think is really cool is the Parrot AR.Drone. It’s an iphone controlled helicopter that uses a camera on it to send the feed back to your phone who then in turn creates and AR game on the phone based on your real world environment.

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  7. William on

    Hi Seth,

    thanks for the article, great package of AR examples.

    I can’t help thinking about my early days of Multimedia at university where our lectures always pushed us to think not of the technology, but how interaction can occur in space. And not the outer space kind, it was to stop us from thinking how technology could be used in a box and how you would use it in the real world.

    Essential trying to change the metaphor of design from humans interacting with technology to how technology can interact with us.

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