Reality, what is it really? Exploring Augmented Reality

I love the concept of augmented reality. I mean, isn’t watching Avatar in 3D Imax so much better than the gray reality when you come home to look at your walls?

Don’t you love the colors! – and can’t you feel your muscles twitching as you mentally jump from psychedelically colored palm frond to palm frond along with the Navi?  When I got home after the movie, all I could do is stare at my (boring) walls and wonder “where are my white floating squids?” Uch. Reality is tough, gray, cold – well, “real”.

But seriously, I think augmented reality has the potential to be the next mass (and I mean, MASS) addiction after social networking.

Currently every discussion around it seems to focus on the information it will bring…as interesting as it would be to have directions overlaid onto my wanderings (directly into my retina, or indeed – the optic nerve at some point) I think another obvious application is more akin to gaming in nature.

Your neighbors, the Smiths

Imagine you’re just in one of those moods, and instead of having to look at all the “regular” faces you pass on the street (gray, dour) you could instead decide that today is “sea monkey day”. Seriously, you’re in the mood for sea monkeys. So you program your “sea monkey setting” into your yet-to-be-determined data input module and voila! Everyone has a sea monkey head.

It’s the ultimate version of beer goggles.

The program could generate facial differences by interpolating from real faces, or by pulling data from various public profiles (the sentiment analysis of your current Facebook status interpolates: “bad mood”) and an unhappy (but potentially, comical) Sea Monkey face is projected. Etc. etc. You get the picture.

An additional idea would be being able to set your own markers so that AR programs interpret your data in a certain way that day. In a flirty mood / want to chat? Advertise with a certain color (how about, green face = available). We could color code the world and communicate without any words at all. After all, if our information from a wide variety of sources is going to be broadcast anyway (ref: http://lindaricci.com/01/04/not-just-a-pretty-face), why not control what we put out there in this way?

This could be seriously addictive. And seriously lucrative from an entertainment merchandising standpoint. Think about it: Now I don’t have to just leave the Navi behind when I get home, I can superimpose licensed Navi images on my whole day. All I need is some giant pond fronds (why not my office chair??)

It makes sense as part of the “personalization” trend: everyone wants (information) how they want it, in the way they want it. How difficult is it to imagine that this will also include superimposing our own desires for what “reality” will look like that day?

Once it happens would you ever go back to just seeing things the way they “are”?  I don’t think so.

Virtual me

A few years ago I met with a company that was in start up phase, with a cool vision: they were developing body scanning software (not new) BUT – and this is the cool part – they were taking it a step further by planning on installing kiosks in malls which were tied to the apparel inventory in the store at that mall.

So you could be scanned, tell it you were looking for a red dress, and it would give you the list of options: “At Macy’s Liz Claiborne has a red dress in your size. At Bloomingdale’s, Tahari”.

Note: as any women can tell you, sizing is a “rough estimate” not an absolute – so you can be one size with one brand, and a different one with another. The body scanning software eliminated this fuzziness – it correlated your actual measurements with individual brand measurements and then checked inventory there to ensure you didn’t have to waste a lot of time searching and trying on things that didn’t fit. It would send you to the right place/brand/size without all the hassle.

Aside from the fact that some don’t find shopping a hassle and it’s a very utilitarian approach to searching and finding, this is clearly genius. But I’d like to see it taken a few steps further.

The body scanning /real time inventory integration should be combined with avatars and virtual world technology. Not in Second Life, although that can be a real hoot (hey, I know, I’m a geek) – but the ability to scan, build an avatar that actually does resemble you (not the idealized 20 year ago in my wildest fantasy version), with correct dimensions, and then – and this is the next steps – have it try on apparel that actually is based on real manufacturers styles and sizes. You could *immediately* actually see if that dress fits, how it looks in 3D, and whether it’s flattering.

This would be a huge cost reduction for what is a practice barely improved since the advent of the Sears catalog back in 1888. Currently catalog or Internet sales are a fuzzy science – a teeny picture (maybe, a shot from the back too), that’s no where close to your size/body shape. I don’t even bother, but when I have, I order two sizes and return the one that doesn’t fit – or return them both in disgust.

These returns cost both the retailers and the manufacturers a huge amount of money and hassle. It keeps inventory management a guessing game for the manufacturers, who have to take back inventory that doesn’t sell in the retail channel and also share – if not own – any sales price reductions that the retailers implement. So, if something comes back, it either goes to the sales rack or gets returned to the manufacturer. For the retailers it’s more about hassle and the costs associated with logistics.  

With body scanned avatars – and accurate sizing reflected in a virtual garment – the number of returns would be greatly reduced, because you would *know* it fit, and that it looked good. It’s such a win-win-win solution for everyone involved (consumer, retailer, manufacturer) that I don’t understand why I’ve not seen any movement towards developing this.

I’m not sure I really want to see what I look like in 3D, which I’m sure is a concern for many (I like my delusions as much as anyone….). But the amount of hassle and guessing it would eliminate would be a powerful incentive to try it.

And then when customized apparel manufacturing starts to go mainstream – it will be a necessity. Straight from scan to cutting table, so to speak, even if a laser is doing the cutting. But this disintermediates the retailers to a large extent, so has less incentive to be implemented.

I’m disappointed that in truth, I’ve been thinking about this for at least 5-6 years and as yet, it seems the industry is sticking with the old.

The good news is that my delusions are for now, still safe.

“Augmented reality” (well, sort of): How not to use techology in advertising

Got this email from Boucheron today (very high end fine jewelry, for those of you not familiar with them), titled “Enjoy a unique experience with augmented reality‏“.

It sends you to the website, where you can “try on” the jewelry using your web cam and a paper ring or watch you download, print out, cut out and then “wear”. When you hold your arm up to the web cam field of view, it superimposes the jewelry on the screen so you appear to be wearing it.

It’s klutzy (how many steps does it take again??), and an incorrect usage of the term “augmented reality”, but at least they are trying to be creative about how to make a user experience where a consumer can actually interact with their products (OK, that’s me attempting to be positive).

I know first hand that jewelry is a tough sell (I also own a jewelry brand); it’s an emotional product, and very difficult to sell without actually being able to try on the product. I’m guessing this is where their impetus to create a way to “try on” the jewelry is coming from.

But to be honest, it strikes me as very “web 1.0”. I mean, print out paper template, find scissors, cut out template, find tape (lordy I’m bored already), have working web cam…you get my point. My guess is that this won’t actually be a very useful tool for selling Boucheron (and we’re talking EXPENSIVE!) jewelry here.

It’s really just a sad, half step towards appropriating some of that wonderful virtual world technology…how come it hasn’t taken off in more commercial applications yet?

But the saddest part is, they undoubtedly spent a lot of money making this work, and when it is unsuccessful (if they’ve defined “success” at all) they will blame the medium and probably say to themselves “See? I told you the internet isn’t the right way to sell high end jewelry.

I applaud their willingness / effort – really I do. But am wondering why they decided to spend this much money on a microsite/app (a destination one at that, meaning you have to go the website to use it) for a product that by sheer price point, let alone category, is a highly niched product. You’re shooting a very wide range of bullets in the hope that one of them will hit something, so to speak. Can’t help but thinking there would have been a more targeted, effective way to spend that money.

Blurring the line (channeling Neo): Virtual relationships

This is fascinating: www.psfk.com/2010/09/japanese-men-enjoying-their-holidays-with-virtual-girlfriends.html

Japanese Men Enjoying Their Resort Holidays With Virtual Girlfriends

Yes, you read that correctly: There’s a hotel in Japan catering to men and not real women.

“Japan’s resort town of Atami held an interesting yet unusual promotional campaign last month to draw in tourists-customized packages for Japanese men who come with their virtual girlfriends.

These girlfriends are videogame characters from the hit dating-simulation game LovePlus+ and cater to men who are lonely and miss having a girl by their side. Users carry their girlfriends in a game device that recreates the actual experience of a romance and relationship.”

Increasingly people seem to be blurring the line between the virtual and “real”. My pet theory on this one is that people don’t have the patience – or bandwidth – to put effort into developing real relationships (nasty, time consuming, and impossible to control things that they are). How much more perfect than having a girlfriend (or boyfriend, or self created alien!) who does whatever you want?

And how will this trend impact on the real world? Are people going to keep retreating into their own, self created (and totally controlled) worlds at the expense of “real”? It reminds me of Solaris, that planet created by Asimov where contact between humans is distasteful and (life like – we’re getting there) robots serve every whim.

…and if you’re curious, Asimov’s Robot/Foundation Series are well worth reading – particularly, in my opinion, The Caves of Steel  and The Naked Sun.