Augmented reality: what does it mean for print?


Augmented Reality. You may be familiar with the term, but perhaps you’re not sure what it means. Or maybe you have never heard of it, but you’re eager to learn more (you are reading this article, after all). Augmented Reality (AR) is the next level of print and digital interaction, and it has the potential to revolutionize the way we interact with the world around us, and subsequently, how marketers will advertise to consumers. So if you think that using QR codes to link print to the web is tech savvy, just wait until you hear about Augmented Reality!

AR is the end result of layering data (audio, graphics and animation, for example) over live video. This creates a view of reality that is modified by computer-generated inputs. This technology is meant to add information, meaning and value to the real world in real time. Its goal is to enhance the world around us, blurring the lines between reality and virtual reality, and is more than just animated video because you are actually controlling every move. This technology has a broad range of applications from enhanced advertising campaigns, to location-based services that help users navigate new places, to providing more relevant educational experiences, to pure fun and frivolity.

For example, what if you are exploring a new place in the world but you don’t speak the language? There is a simple (AR) solution to this problem! QuestVisual has created Word Lens that allows your smartphone to become an instant pocket translator. Simply open the Word Lens application and point the camera towards the text you wish to be translated. The text is instantly translated into English on top of the existing text very clearly. You have to see how incredible this technology is to believe it: (Keywords: Introducing Word Lens).


The surge in smartphone adoption is likely to help facilitate the AR usage in everyday life and will aid in the rapid perpetuation of the technology. In a hyper-customized world, the advertiser can now let you, the consumer, control reality. Will a “somewhat” relatable model selling you Coca-Cola in an advertisement really trigger you to buy the product? Now, Augmented Reality enables the consumer to “exist” inside of the print advertisement and now you are selling yourself the bottle of coke.

You may be asking yourself, “if it’s so great, why isn’t everyone using it?” The answer is that the implementation of the technology is still in its infancy and can be very complex. It can also be expensive to maintain and although AR has had lots of hype in recent years, it is still very much in its experimental phase.


It is believed that the term “Augmented Reality” was coined by Thomas Caudell in 1990, when he was working at Boeing where this technology was used to help workers sort parts. That was 21 years ago, but the first ideas surrounding AR date back over 50 years ago. In 1957, Morton Heilig, Cinematographer, created a simulator called the “Sensorama” with picture, sound, vibration and smell. Fast forward to 1975 when Myron Krueger created “Videoplace” which allowed users to interact with virtual objects for the first time. In the year 2000, Bruce H. Thomas developed ARQuake, which is the first outdoor mobile AR game and in 2008, Wikitude AR Travel Guide premiered on the G1 Android phone. In 2011, Nintendo 3DS included six AR cards that can be used to play various mini-games involving 3D objects.

Three components are necessary for AR to function: content, software, and the marker (which is a black-and-white label or other distinguishable graphic that will prompt the software to display the correct 3D graphics). Users can then hold the marker up to a webcam or smartphone to discover the additional content within the AR application. AR has inherent depth perception; therefore, the user can move the image on paper by moving it in “real life.”

To better understand how AR technology operates, here are the three types of displays used to provide the experience to the user: head-mounted displays (whereby the user will see the real world with graphical images displayed overtop aided by sensors, which allow the device to align real and virtual worlds), handheld displays (smartphones, for example, which provide portability and built-in cameras for AR interaction) and spatial displays (projecting graphical images onto real objects).

Complex software algorithms (for example, custom-coded C applications) enable enhanced interaction with one’s graphics card for AR sophistication, making this technology such that not everyone can easily create AR applications yet.

eskwire-esquire-augmented-realityESQUIRE MAGAZINE AR APPLICATION

Esquire was the first publication to create a “living, breathing, moving, talking magazine.” The magazine is famous for being at the forefront of technology in the magazine industry (the E-Ink issue in October 2008, for example) and the Augmented Reality application for their “2009 Best and Brightest” issue is no exception. In partnership with a digital services company (The Barbarian Group) the team collaborated and brainstormed to create a magazine with unheard of capabilities.

Once the reader installs the Esquire Magazine Augmented Reality software (, the marker can be held up to a webcam to unleash the unique capabilities. The software “tricks” the webcam into showcasing Augmented Reality by reading the black-and-white marker, prompting the correct scene to play on the screen, overtop of live video.

It was important for Esquire Magazine to not only show off this technology, but to really showcase Augmented Reality’s ability to add value to the editorial content within the magazine. Therefore, there are a number of opportunities to participate in AR experiences throughout the issue. The Augmented Reality content within the magazine occurs on the front cover (with Robert Downey Jr. sitting on top of the AR marker), in a monthly piece (“Funny Jokes from a Beautiful Woman” featuring Gillian Jacobs telling a joke), and also in their fashion story (you can control what the model is wearing by rotating the magazine to change the seasons on screen). All of the AR content was filmed with high-definition cameras and frame-by-frame animations layered over top. Specialized 3D software was then used to ensure the user could interact with the AR content from any angle. The end result is that the reader can tilt the magazine from right to left, or up and down and watch Robert Downey Jr. tilt with them. AR technology is not virtual reality because of the live video aspect; therefore, AR is reality that is enhanced with computer-generated components to create a unique reader experience.

Check out this great video link to see a tour of Equire’s AR issue for yourself: (Keywords: _Esquire_’s Augmented Reality Issue: A Tour).


How is this technology shaping the future of advertising, among many other industries? Advertisers like Coca Cola and Absolut Vodka have used AR print ads to empower their consumers to see something additional that only those with smartphones can experience. For some consumers, this exclusivity enhances the desire to participate in the ad campaigns. In terms of the Coca Cola AR campaign, when the reader holds his or her smartphone with the corresponding AR application over the print ad, it appears as though the reader is the one holding the bottle of coke in the ad. In the Absolute Vodka advertisement, a limited edition, secret flavour is to be unveiled and the user can only uncover it if he or she holds the phone over the advertisement, and the bottle is unveiled.

On the advertising front, AR technology opens up a floodgate of opportunity to integrate AR as part of a larger, cross-media campaign. Lynx deodorant’s “Angel Ambush” campaign in the UK included a TV commercial featuring angels falling from the sky due to the “irresistible scent” of Lynx product. Advertisers took this one step further and within London’s busy Victoria Station, actually made angels fall to Earth beside the consumer. Commuters who stood on a decal floor marker, got a “heavenly” surprise when they saw themselves on the large departures board screen along with the AR angel who had just fallen to Earth. Becca Sawyer, part of the advertising agency who came up with the Angel Ambush campaign stated, “We didn’t know if it would work, either technically or in terms of how people would respond to it.” Crowds gathered and this campaign successfully drew in their target market.

Sawyer feels that “Augmented Reality is all about creating a fantasy experience that people can interact with,” and this campaign did just that. Watch more about the AR angel here: (Keywords: Lynx Excite Angel Ambush London Victoria). Watch the fallen angels TV spot here: (Keywords: Lynx Excite TV Advert – Full Length Version).

When it comes to selling a high-tech car, the makers of Fiat decided that the traditional ways of selling a car were not the most appropriate for the new, high-tech generation of drivers they were targeting. In order to align their campaign and increase its relevancy to their target market, they created an AR application (“Street Evo”) where users can learn more about Fiat by using technology to scan traffic signs from around the city. These traffic signs are recognized by smartphones in much the same way that QR codes are interpreted (via pattern recognition) and each type of traffic sign informs the consumer about a different feature of the car. For example, if users scanned a stop sign, they would be shown the Fiat’s superior breaking capabilities via a 3D animation on their smartphone. Fiat also incorporated a contest into its app to encourage users to participate in the Street Evo campaign, resulting in over one million traffic sign scans in one week.

How about using AR to market oneself? Burton Posey, Interactive Game Designer/Developer, created his own 3D Avatar on his business card that comes to life when the AR marker is scanned. This is a clever way to distinguish himself from his competition and demonstrate his capabilities to potential clients. Check out his AR business card here: (Keywords: Augmented Reality Business Card – Avatar Concept).

These are just some of the thousands of examples of AR technology in the hands of advertisers today. But not all Augmented Reality applications have to use jaw-dropping graphics for the “wow factor.” There is a wealth of practical applications for this technology that go beyond just selling a product.


Andy Gstoll, Chief Marketing Officer of Mobilizy (maker of the Wikitude AR browser in Salzburg, Austria) believes that the future opportunities for AR will be in location-based services. Whether navigating through unknown territory or discovering new places in your own city, he states that AR will help bring increased value and relevance to the world around you. Gstoll specifically breaks down the three types of location-based scenarios for which AR can help provide solutions. The first is “search” where users are looking for something in particular, such as a Thai restaurant or museum. The second is “explore” where users are not sure what they are looking for but they are just discovering what is around them. The third is “experience,” whereby users are looking for AR to provide additional value, which can include entertainment. All three types of location-based AR solutions can be accessed through one’s smartphone by holding up the phone in the desired direction.

An example of a location-based AR application is Layar’s Reality Browser, which is designed to enable users to discover information about the world around them. The app displays “layers” of information about a specific location in your smartphone’s range of vision. Their catalogue includes over 1500 international layers to search, explore and experience the world, including “Free Sightseeing,” “Food and Drink” and “Your City 100 Years.” Even the Canadian Government’s “Action Plan Canada” is going high-tech, and this layer provides a link to all Action Plan Canada projects in up to a five-kilometer radius. As users complete a 360-degree turn, it will show them each project in the direction they are facing. Additionally, if they are interested in visiting the project site, it will launch their Maps application for the iPhone, which will then provide them with turn-by-turn directions to get there by driving, walking or taking public transit.

Are you looking to buy a home in the Netherlands? Not sure where to start? Use Layar’s Reality Browser app overseas, and potential home buyers can visit their desired neighbourhoods with their smartphones and interact with their surroundings in a meaningful way. Once the smartphone is held up in the direction the user desires, indicators will appear where there are properties for sale. Potential buyers can set their purchasing parameters (price range, radius to current location, etc.) and perform a complete 360-degree turn to see all of the properties on the market. Armed with this information, they can then click on the properties of interest for more information, as well as speak directly to the real estate agent via their phone.

Similarly, “LookBackMaps” is an exploratory application that super-imposes old city images on top of new city images on your smartphone to aid in civic engagement and historical education. Once the user is in the correct location, he or she is able to call up a translucent image of the location as it used to look overlaid on the live video being taken with the smartphone. “In my day, we had to walk to school uphill both ways!” Well, now we can fact check that using AR technology!

“We strongly believe that in 2-3 years from now, if not sooner, the mainstream consumers out there will use their phones to simply point them at buildings, at products, even at people to find out more about these various objects or personalities,” Chief Marketing Officer of Mobilizy, Andy Gstoll, explains. Gstoll admits that there are many privacy implications to location-based AR technology, however this has not stopped social networking sites like Facebook from forging ahead with aggressive international expansion.

Augmented Reality is also very well suited to education and training, by adding relevance and context for students. For example, a healthcare provider (HCP) in training can download an app that lists medical emergencies. The student can then click on an emergency to learn more about the preferred treatment method, including tracking patterns to help simulate the correct procedure. The 3D simulation will show when, how and where to execute the correct procedures (Cardiopulmonary Resuscitation, for example). The student can then record himself or herself practicing the training and can then layer the 3D simulation over top of his or her practice to correct any mistakes. This AR usage allows for deeper understanding of topics and a more meaningful learning experience.

One daring AR user decided to test the limits of the technology by tattooing a game card from a Nintendo 3DS AR game onto his arm. But did it work? It certainly did! The ink was clear enough that the camera on his Nintendo 3DS could accurately read marker and display the corresponding graphics. The effect is pretty captivating, as game characters and animation is seen bubbling up from the gamer’s arm.


As you have witnessed, Augmented Reality does not fit into a traditional “advertising applications only” scenario, and is already being used in many other industries.

It is extremely exciting to think of where and how this technology will be applied in the not-so-distant future. There is a huge opportunity for AR technology to supplement printed products from the books we read, to the printed advertisements we see on the subway, to the packaging we consume every day.

What if, instead of the author’s biography being printed on the back cover, there was an AR marker that when you hold your smartphone in view, the author came to life in 3D on your phone to discuss him or herself? Additionally, there is a tremendous amount of room to include value-added content within publications like magazines, books and even newspapers through embedding video clips or linking to additional information. It would be fantastic to have educational resources, like Shakespearian texts, with built in Coles Notes that summarize key points in plain English and even act out scenes for increased understanding and student engagement.

From a packaging perspective, AR could be used to enhance the consumer shopping experience to include more information to supplement the printed package, or for contest or promotional hype.

This technology could also be extremely useful from a printer training perspective. Whether the equipment is digital or offset, key markers could indicate the inner workings of the equipment via an AR application for enhanced learning. Training via digital simulations overlaid onto the real equipment could provide a wealth of knowledge for faster learning using fewer resources. The potential for Augmented Reality technology is limitless and the future opportunities are unfathomable in today’s world.


Diana Varma is an Instructor at the School of Graphic Communications Management at Ryerson University and the Owner of ON-SITE First Aid & CPR Training Group, a health & safety company that provides training to the Graphic Arts Industry.