The British Science Fiction writer Arthur C Clarke once said: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”

In my opinion, one such technology is Augmented Reality. Or just ‘Augmented’ or even ‘AR’ to the cognoscenti.

I saw a powerful demonstration of AR (by Brand Attention) at the recent London Online Marketing Show. It reminded me how far AR has come.

The basic idea is to overlay something onto the real world (using a webcam) to provide more information than meets the eye. E.g. you walk down a street and view a building through your mobile device; you see a ‘heads-up display’ (or HUD, a term familiar to gamers who play First-Person Shooters) telling you the history of the building you are viewing, its current occupants, and even its price if it’s for sale. We’re talking about adding context to our physical environment. So: it’s reality, but augmented. You get the idea.

AR has been around a while but the technology is only now getting good enough to deliver the experience reliably and at a cost which makes it viable for a mass audience. A static webcam (e.g. the one built into most new PCs and laptops) is currently still best, but as we know mobile devices are getting more and more powerful and mobile will be the key driver for AR to take off.

AR has many applications beyond marketing (yes, there is more to the world!) e.g. museums/ galleries, medicine- for surgical operations, car mechanics/ engineers, tourism +++. Reassuring to know that an idiot-proof overlay will in future remind the car mechanic which tube is the brake fluid hose and the surgeon which is the pulmonary artery …

We, however, are looking at marketing applications of AR: e.g. you scan a printed marker using a static webcam or the one on your mobile device and you see something in ‘3D’ (and in some cases ‘animated’) which in some way enhances the image of the real thing you’re looking at; providing more information i.e. a richer experience. It can bring products, places, things to life which can make people buy. It’s really powerful in-store or at conferences /exhibitions to create compelling, engaging brand experiences. Increasingly, AR will be everywhere that we and our mobile device are; i.e. all around us.

This is a great demo from GE

Just print out the marker/image, switch on your webcam and follow the instructions…

This one is also good, but better if you understand German.

When I first read this article by Faris Yakob last year it really stopped me and made me think about AR and lots of other things (which I guess is the definition of good journalism and good strategic marketing thinking; i.e. have something to say and say it well).

To see AR in various situations, take a look at these:

On a mobile in Amsterdam

Damian Ryan, of Results International (a company which has bought and sold many marketing and digital companies), and co-author of the excellent book, Understanding Digital Marketing (Kogan Page) also delivered an interesting presentation at The Online Marketing Show entitled “Winning in the current climate”. When asked ‘what sort of digital business would you start right now? He replied without a second’s hesitation “Augmented Reality- it’s the next big thing.” And he should know.

So look out for Augmented Reality. It’s going to be big. Right now, it’s surprising. Soon it will be commonplace; then the challenge will be to write better software so that the effect is even more stunning.

My personal AR wishlist includes:

a) An instant translation of road signs and notices into the language of your choice (plus extra content, road safety permitting)

b) A clear 3D image of what my daughter’s self-assembly wardrobes might look like when I’ve finally finished with the drill and screwdriver

c) Meeting people at conferences and exhibitions. Visible Twitter Bubbles (last 3 tweets) plus LinkedIn and Facebook profiles. Instead of sending an IM, you could just walk up to them and…speak, with your mouth! (shocker).

(Unsurprisingly, I know the speed-dating industry is looking closely at AR for their live events; because we all have hidden talents…)

I’d welcome your thoughts on any more possible AR apps, and not just marketing; feel free to comment below, or follow me on Twitter and send me a direct message (DM).