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Augmented reality – or AR, as most of us refer to it – is seeping into the print industry and changing the way we interact with brands and products.

The term augmented reality was originally coined by Boeing aircraft researcher Thomas Preston Caudell back in 1992 who used it as a way to describe a system that would help workers in the assembly and installation of electrical cables in the aircraft. Fast forward 27 years and AR is now more common in marketing to dive into a brand story to allow customers to enjoy a more immersive experience and connection with a product or service. 

The clever tech that sits behind AR is attracting the beady eyes of large corporations and entrepreneurs alike. Hugo Ribeiro is co-founder & CEO of Magik Book, an interface that connects books and printed material with digital content. Ribeiro told Printweek that what originally started as a university project is now a flourishing start-up. “This is a technology that we’ve developed over the last four years. It started as a student project and we played around with different concepts. We initially started working in children’s literature, but then we saw bigger opportunities in the retail and digital signage market.”

Magik Book takes readers’ traditional love of books and printed material, and the physical act of turning a page and connects it with digital content. “We think it has big potential to become a really interesting interface that connects the physical and digital worlds. Everyone knows how to turn a page on a book. If we can extend the content of the book using audio-visual content by connecting it with screens, we can have the best of both. 

Ribeiro describes Magik Book as a medium to create “more richful experiences” for the user, and it’s not just consumer applications that he has in mind, he sees real value for this technology in the manufacturing sector: “On the prototype we worked with car manufacturers and showed how to use it to bring their printed catalogue alive.” 

One large brand playing around with AR to bring more traditional print to life is fashion magazine and website InStyle. The title’s US publisher Meredith recently trialled a ‘try-on’ experience using AR that allowed readers to virtually apply beauty products and hair styles on their own faces before buying products. Working with technology partner Perfect Corp, Meredith expects to market the service to make-up brands. 

Konica Minolta’s AR product, GenARate, is intended to appeal to a wide range of potential users with ease of use its key selling point. International business development manager Ashley McConnell says: “The USP is the simplicity of drag and drop combined with the flexibility of being able to work via its app or integrated with the customer’s existing app – it’s AR for everyone.”

The marketing focus promoting GenARate is on service providers, including printers and creative agencies, although Konica Minolta will work with any brands that approach it directly. GenARate was successfully used by street newspaper brand The Big Issue to increase its exposure. Head of custom content & sponsorship Oliver Waddington-Ball says: “GenARate has been a big step forward to cross the print/digital divide, we have been able to engage our audience in richer and more nuanced ways by complementing our print editorial with digital media. 

“Additionally, we have been able to get our readers to parts of our own and our advertisers’ online presences, in a more streamlined way.” 

AR aids customer service 

RIP software developer SAI recently brought to market a product that offers subscribers to their Flexi platform access to the new VirtualSign app. Users can download the app for free and import a file of a logo or a sign, then when the app is held up to a wall or flat surface it allows a customer to see what their sign would look like. “It’s a cool application, which allows users to show their customers what signs and artwork will look like in real life,” says Michelle Johnson, director of worldwide marketing. 

As well as being a rather novel service to offer, VirtualSign can also help printers and designers with the customer service issues that can arise when signing off a job. “We surveyed our customers, asking what the most challenging things are that they have to deal with, and they said customer relationships is their hardest part. We wanted to alleviate some of those issues for our customers by integrating little tools like this. It means printers can ask if their customers are happy or if they want to go back to the drawing board. 

“Plus, it enables customers the opportunity to give real-time feedback like: ‘Can we make it bigger or smaller or what would it look like if we turned the sign a different way.’ It’s a neat little tool that gives our customers the upper hand when working with their own customers.”

A good fit for FMCG brands 

A host of print and packaging related companies have pushed out AR services or products in recent months and the range of potential applications continues to expand. 

Macfarlane Packaging believes “packaging is the next frontier in customer engagement” and launched an AR service intended to help brands “entice their customers with exclusive content or promotions; overlay product information such as instruction manuals and tutorials; and undertake exciting social media campaigns”.

Similarly HP is keen to tap into the opportunities to combine AR with packs and labels, particularly in the food and drink sectors. HP’s AR offering comprises Reveal, which it describes as an easy to use AR platform, and Link, which is designed for brand protection and to help prevent against counterfeiting, which uses the advantages of digital to make every label unique and trackable.

“AR has grown considerably over the last few months and it has allowed us to do some great things with labels and packaging,” says Andy Pike marketing manager for UK and Ireland at HP Indigo. 

HP has seen particular success with AR projects among drinks brands. HP Indigo worked with Nineteen Crimes, a start-up Australian wine company creating interactive labels for its 19 different wines, with each label telling a unique story about the collection. The Nineteen Crimes brand secured some viral social media exposure with the help of its innovative AR-infused packaging. 

Using the Aussie wine brand as a springboard, the HP team attracted the attention of new whisky brand, Whisky Baron, which as Pike explained was the perfect fit for augmented reality. “Whisky Baron wanted to attract a new market of whisky drinkers. Who are digitally savvy and interested in learning about and interacting with a brand, not just drinking it. 

Another Australian winery that has reaped the rewards of AR, is Taylors Wines, which chose to rebrand to mark its 50th anniversary and the team thought it was time to bring in AR. “It was something that we wanted to look at and it was a key time to do it,” explains Pieter Klein, senior product development manager. 

“AR as a storytelling vessel was a great thing for us to jump on. Telling your story is one thing but making sure that it resonates is another. AR is a great way to do it. We wanted to make sure that it worked on every label we have, whether it’s the Taylor brand in Australia or the Wakefield brand in the UK, across both brands we have over 130 different bottles of wine.”

Slow uptake

But in spite of some notable success stories and the allure of introducing some sexy digital elements into otherwise static print products, uptake has been sluggish across all application types and AR remains a niche, which is a frustration for its advocates.

Pike say: “It’s still a differentiator for brands, but there are huge opportunities for it to be more than that.” 

With some notable success stories under HP’s belt and a number of technology developers in the field, Pike questions whether enough is being done to raise the profile of AR among consumers by the brands and retailers, especially in a bid to signpost them to look out for additional content on packs. 

He says: “At the moment we’re having to educate the customer about AR packaging and labels and that there is a need to download an app. People don’t just walk into a shop and automatically interact with labels. People are having to find out which labels have AR; some brands are showing this off on their neck labels to make sure people are aware.” 

Pike believes the technology can play a more serious part in life: “There are certainly more practical uses for AR; it’s not just about a marketing campaign. One of our customers at HP was looking at it as a way for showcasing hardware tools. Showing not only how to use the tools, but also how to install them. Using AR is a clever way to demonstrate that information and it can help increase safety issues. There are so many practical reasons for using it. We’re at the start of a very interesting journey.”

Klein adds: “There are so many ways that AR can be done from gimmicky to sincere and so many characteristics and manifestations of it – you need to be clear on what you’re doing with it. It’s a big learning curve, give yourself time to do it correctly.”