Can Reality be Printed?

By Noel Ward, Editor@Large

The title above is not intended as an existential question, but as the relevance of print continues to evolve it is worth consideration. Of interest here is a technology called Augmented Reality and its relationship to print. Is there one?

Definitely. At PRINT 18 I gave a presentation entitled “Is AR the Resurrection of Print?” which much to my surprise drew a standing-room-only crowd and has since generated numerous phone calls about this emerging technology. So, you may be asking, what is Augmented Reality?

Good question, so we’ll start with what it is and what it is not.

In one of its basic forms AR uses a printed image and a smartphone or tablet app to create a direct link to graphic, video, animation or other content residing on a remote server or in the “cloud.” It is not a substitute or replacement for QR codes, those remarkably ugly old-school squares of inscrutable markings that can be viewed on a static web page. AR is also not a substitute for the 2D bar codes beloved of low-tech marketers, financial institutions, transactional service bureaus and direct mailers. And it is most decidedly not a lame game like Pokemon GO, although that does draw on some AR technology.

In the context of print, AR is a way of bringing printed images to life using a smartphone or a tablet. At the moment, most AR implementations require a specific app that is used to view an image, logo, or other graphic using the camera on a smartphone or tablet. When activated, the app recognizes the image and takes the user to a remote server where a video, an animation or other material related to the image is available. The apps are presently the gateway, but this changing rapidly. We are still in AR 1.0, or maybe AR 1.5, but AR 2.0 is just about here.

Rooms with a view
Using AR, a brochure for a Caribbean resort, for instance, might have photos of people kayaking and enjoying a meal in a beachside restaurant. Pointing one’s phone at the AR-enabled images links a user to a cloud-based server holding videos from the resort about kayaking and/or the restaurant, complete with additional links to details about kayak rentals or the menu in the restaurant. Such features add value to the printed document, fostering customer engagement that can drive additional sales and interaction with the company. And the printed page is now worth more, too.

The good news for printers is that the images are nothing more than PDFs. The app reads the image and the magic happens on a remote web page where the app engages the user as it plays a video, animation, slide show or whatever.

So, you say, how is that different from a QR code? Mostly because an AR link is both dynamic and timeless. QR codes or 2D barcodes are static—permanently linked to a specific URL—usually a web page holding an image or block of text. Neither are intended to point to changing information, so if the information on a QR or 2D code is changed, so too is the URL for that page. A new QR code has to be physically replaced wherever it has been used if it is still to provide a useful link.

In contrast, AR links can be continuously updated without needing to change the original printed image. In our Caribbean resort example, the kayaking video could change from one-person to two-person kayaks or include children. The restaurant could change to show seasonal offerings and updated menus, all without changing the image in the brochure. Back down at the printing end of the food chain, this means a print provider can use the same images on 200,000 brochures while prospective travelers using their smartphones in January could see entirely different videos or graphics than those viewing the same images in June. After all, companies change their websites all the time. Why should the images people access with their phones be any different?

The Three-Foot Effect
Or consider packaging, poised to be a leading player at the intersection of AR and print. Packaging is a compelling starting point for AR because so many people have smartphones with them all the time. Packages on retail shelves are meant to pull people in from about three feet away, a tactic known as the “Three-Foot Effect.” As AR is more widely adopted, labels and even entire packages can be linked to all manner of detailed information: A box containing a wide-screen TV can offer details about ease of set up and sound capabilities; packaging in the grocery aisle can provide info on a company’s organic products; over in cosmetics products that are not tested on animals can make their case via AR to shoppers for whom this is a deciding factor. The list at the product level is endless, along with the associated brand extension opportunities.

Living Wine Labels, for instance, creates wine labels with AR links intended to build brand awareness and track sales. The company recently did a campaign with the brand 19 Crimes, the bottles of which bear offset printed, glue-applied wine labels featuring images of British criminals from the 1870s who were convicted of crimes that resulted in perpetrators being sentenced to imprisonment in Australia. Pointing a phone containing the Living Wine Labels app at a 19 Crimes wine label brings the person on the label “to life” as they tell some of their story. Although this program has not been not as fully implemented as it might have been, it is a compelling use of the technology and is only the beginning of what can be done. Other implementations from Living Wine Labels are already out in the wild or in the wings.

Or consider a more corporate application. A client of mine wanted to include AR on his annual holiday card. So we produced a video that used a graphic on his card that linked his customers (moslty printers) to the cloud so they could view a message about the value of using AR.

While the technology exists to personalize AR-related videos, most so far have been relatively generic, but the potential is there to make AR-empowered applications very powerful. So no matter what you print, use your imagination and talk to customers about how they can use this emerging technology—and how you can help them.

And now come the ‘gotchas’
As you probably expected, this is not totally simple. The biggest gotcha at the moment is the apps. Depending on whom you talk with, there are as many as 40 different smartphone/tablet applications that can make AR possible. Vince Naselli of Print Planet calls this the “Gold Rush Period,” when every possible contender hopes their AR app will be the one that becomes some kind of standard.

But standards aren’t what they used to be and phone makers like Apple, Google, and others are not sitting still. AR apps are already being included in the latest smartphone operating systems and this will only accelerate. Remember, just a few years ago dedicated apps were needed to use QR codes: now it’s automatic using the phone’s camera. Mobile phone operating systems are (or will soon be) making an AR connection when using a phone’s camera.

Some emerging AR applications will tie closely to print. Others will replace print, and some will add capabilities that have nothing to do with print at all. For instance, Apple’s ARKit (available in iOS 11.4) works on iPhones as far back as the 6S, can let you view say, a chair, on an AR-linked website such as IKEA’s and, still using your phone, see how it looks in your living room or man cave. Or go outside, point your phone at the stars and see constellations named and annotated on the screen. Another app, presently in beta phase by carmaker Mercedes Benz, seeks to do away with printed owner’s manuals (which people generally do not read). To use it, slide into a new Benz and use the app to get a tour of the car, learn how the climate control system works, how to check oil, delve into maintenance intervals, and more.

Another perceived barrier is that this is complex. It can be, but doesn’t have to be. Most of the AR app providers will handle the heavy lifting of placing and supporting a video, animation or other information on a remote server. Uploading the file is a non-issue: The video I produced for my client was a normal video file that was uploaded over the Internet and placed in the cloud by the app maker. There is a cost, of course, for hosting the video file (often calculated by total amount of space required) but it’s an one to amortize over multiple customers, most of whom will typically understand the value associated with customer engagement and branding.

So where’s the market?
Smartphones and tablets are compelling devices. Baby Boomers, Gen-Xers and Millenials alike all watch video and look up information on their smartphones. Even Millennials (19-38 year olds), who are digital natives, typically like print but also seek “experiences” that static print can’t provide. But AR can, and will. This group, the largest single demographic segment since the Baby Boomers, looks for and responds to messages to which they can relate. AR can provide experiences and connections that resonate with them.
Almost all the examples of AR usage in this article differ very little from a QR code in anything other than aesthetics. A QR code can be made "dynamic" by putting new content behind the same static link printed in the QR code whenever you want it to be updated, or by making it variable based on the connecting device's IP, location, or previous marketing cookies (remarketing). Everyone knows what to do when they see a QR code. How will they know a hypothetical unique printed image is AR-enabled? When the smartphone operating system developers (Apple, Google, etc.) incorporate AR into their native camera apps, it will be trained to recognize objects (reverse-image lookups) and display general Google-esque search information about it. A marketer will have less control over that experience than they think.

As a "millennial" myself, I would say that what's important to digital natives is ease of use and speed. A printed piece is good in a physical environment because it is quick and easy to consume. I can scan dozens of packages on a shelf in a store in mere seconds. I'm not going to pull out my phone, load the correct AR app, point it at the image, and then wait for it to load all to view some static content prepared by the manufacturer - that's a waste of my time. I might pull out my phone to check the online price of a particular product that's caught my eye to compare, or to read reviews - but it's hard to imagine how vendor-specific AR marketing would help much in that arena.

AR has huge potential in markets where you currently have to "imagine" what something will be like once you buy it. Furniture was a good example. But it's hard to link that back to print in my opinion.
  • I'm not convinced that people are going to want the digital interaction more and more. The technology has been here for at least 15 years now. It's the technology vendors (and tech pundits who need content to broadcast) who want it to try to convince marketers (and hence their print supplier customers) to buy into it. From time to time, ou'll see one-off examples like the augmented reality Esquire magazine of 2009 (
    ). 2009! ten years ago. Did that become a regular feature of Esquire? Nope.

    If there was a standard for these types of apps and the reader so that the tech could be embedded in any phone's camera app then maybe there might be some traction. But until then it just give vendors something to talk about while listening to the crickets.


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