Augmented reality has been in stasis for the last couple of years, with app developers and gadget-makers still figuring out a mainstream use-case to trump the Pokémon GO phenomenon. London-based startup Blippar thinks the answer lies in advertising.
It’s been working with several automotive brands to launch mobile banner ads with augmented reality built into them. In one demonstration seen by Forbes, a smartphone user taps a banner ad which then swaps their screen out for an image of the inside of the car. The user can then move their phone around to see different parts of the car's interior. If they give it permission to access their camera, they can see their real-life surroundings through the virtual windshield and windows of the car too.
“This is the industry’s first augmented-reality digital ad unit,” says Danny Lopez, chief operations officer at Blippar, and says this is about giving digital display advertising a “new lease of life.” Blippar says a major car manufacturer will start showing augmented reality ads using Blippar's software this month.
It's worth noting that the number of people who avoid banner ads vastly outweighs those who deliberately tap on them. But Lopez says that the right wording, like “Jump inside our car right now,” can be enough to entice people to change their minds.
Blippar won’t say what other brands it is working with, but Lopez suggests the tech could be used for ads displaying clothes, and offer a means to use your smartphone camera to see what a jacket might look like on you.
Augmented reality has been around for years, and so have banner ads, so why hasn’t this been done before? Lopez says AR simply hasn’t gone mainstream yet, and advertisers have meanwhile been cautious about investing money in tech that’s still in its infancy.
“What you’re seeing now is [advertising] agencies and brands getting more and more interested,” he says.
A demo of banner ads using Blippar's tech:
Last month Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg revealed he was making a significant investment in augmented reality, saying in a speech to developers that the social network was “making the [smartphone] camera the first mainstream augmented reality platform.”
Zuckerberg’s big idea is to take AR beyond the realm of cartoonish frames and masks made popular by Snapchat, to using the Facebook camera to overlay the world with information and digital objects you can interact with.
Blippar has had a similar vision since it was co-founded by in 2011 by Ambarish Mitra and Omar Tayeb. They say they came up with the idea for their startup after sharing a joke in the pub about making picture of the Queen on a £20 note come to life.
In the five-and-a-half years since, Blippar has made augmented-reality software behind ad campaigns for big brands including General Mills, Coca-Cola Company and Nestle, and it has an app for showcasing the technology too. The app isn’t perfect, but it can recognize things like water bottles, books and cars if you point your phone camera at them. (It'll suggest a handful of related and unrelated objects too.)
The company claims that in the U.S. its app can recognize the year, make and model of every car in the country from the year 2000, with a minimum accuracy of 94%. Why build up such an extensive catalogue? “Three out of five largest advertising companies in the world are car companies,” Lopez explains.
Little surprise then that one of Blippar’s first partners on augmented reality banner ads is a car manufacturer. Lopez says that the tech is relatively cheap, costing around $4 per 1,000 impressions to undercut the $7-10 range for “rich media” ads which typically include audio and video. (The average display add is around $1-2 per 1,000 impressions, which includes GIFs.)
The tech is image recognition, trained partly by the regular people who have downloaded and played around with Blippar’s app. “But the difference is we’re going really deep into certain categories,” says Lopez.
“What we know is what people like doing,” he adds. “We know what they like pointing at, what times of day or night they like pointing at something. We know how long they spend… This is all the info we have which makes the design of our campaign far more effective.”
Being first doesn’t necessarily mean Blippar will find great success, of course, particularly when so much depends on how much consumers choose to adopt a new trend like AR. In February 2014 Blippar was also the first company to make an image-recognition app for Google Glass, a product that struggled to gain traction, and which Google stopped producing less than a year later.