By Todd Wasserman
January 23, 2013
January 23, 2013
It's 2015 and you've just arrived back in New York City from a weekend trip. You're standing in Times Square when it occurs to you that you're hungry. So, literally in the blink of an eye, you call up information about all the nearby restaurants. You realize, however, that you could also use some companionship so you say "friends nearby restaurants." Just then you see that a pal of yours has checked into Fannelli Cafe in SoHo. You quickly text him and arrange to meet. When you call up directions, you get an offer for $2 off your first Guinness. All thanks to Google Glass.
No, that's not an officially sanctioned use for Google's ambitious pair of Internet-connected spectacles. In fact, Google has stressed repeatedly that there will be no ads on Google Glass. "There are no plans for advertising on this device," says a Google rep. "We’re more interested in making the hardware available."
But ad execs can dream. Those who make their living via augmented reality have even more vivid dreams. For them, Google Glass isn't some weird 20% project, it's the future of advertising. "Stop thinking of [augmented reality] as a business. It's a browser," says John Havens, founder of the H(app)athon Project. "If this was 1992 and I told you there was something called a web browser that was going to change advertising, would you believe me? Yet that's what happened."
That may not be just wishful thinking. If Google Glass and its imitators take off, it could literally change the way we see the world and the way we interact with brands. Just as the Internet completely overhauled marketing over the past 20 years or so, so can the "Outernet." In the process we'll move a step away from the arms-length relationship we consumers have had with brands and a step closer to a consumer-brand mind meld.
Is this possible? Those who are bullish on Google Glass point to the revved up adoption rates of new technologies. As Flurry Analytics reported last August, smartphones have taken off 10 times faster than the 80s PC revolution, two times faster than the 90s Internet boom and three times faster than the social networking revolution. "If we go back look at how fast things are adopting lately compared to 10 to 15 years ago, we're looking at [mass adoption in] 2015 or 2016," says Andrew Couch, CEO of Candy Lab, an AR provider.
Before we explore the fever dreams of AR ad execs though, a few caveats: One is that the idea of everyone in the late 2010s walking around with Sergey Brin's favorite piece of eyewear seems a little unrealistic. Who, beyond hardcore techies, would want to sport such a look? And even if Google Glass inevitably becomes indistinguishable from regular glasses, who would want to go through life surveying the world like the Terminator? Another is that Google hasn't given out much information about Google Glass. The company plans to launch an API for the device at some point and Google is looking to include phone functions, email and calendar features, but that's about it.
For argument's sake, however, let's assume that Google Glass does take off and that it has everything advertisers are looking for. Now that the Outernet has really become a thing, how will we be carrying out our lives? How will brands inevitably colonize this new frontier? Here are a few potential scenarios:
The idea of using Google Glass to scout nearby friends for an impromptu lunch date isn't fantastical at all. In fact, the technology already exists. Last June, Facebook released a "Find Friends Nearby" feature that it quickly took down because of copyright concerns. That may not be the only reason, though. Another issue with the feature is that it could also be a tool for stalking.
But Couch says Google can get around such privacy concerns if people opt in like they do with Foursquare check-ins. And one motivation to opt in would be discounts. Imagine, for instance, if you get a third meal free if you bring two friends. As the Guinness example shows, such offers can be triggered by a search for directions. The result would be something of an ideal scenario for advertisers — getting in front of a consumer just as they're ready to buy your product or a rival product.
In their current incarnation, billboards are a blunt instrument. An ad for a female-skewing product like makeup will alienate about 50% of the population. An ad in a high-traffic area like an airport is likely to be aimed at a broad group of people who fit under the heading of "business traveler" even though you don't fit that description.
But what if the ads you saw were different than the person next to you? What if, like the ads you see online, they are based on a composite sketch of you created by all the searches you've done and the websites you've visited? In other words, what if you looked up and instead of seeing an ad for something you would never buy — like women's shoes — you saw an ad reminding you of that Amazon search you did a few days ago?
Dave Elchoness, co-founder and CEO of Tagwhat, takes the idea further: "You can even monetize vertical," he says. "You'd see something different if you look up at a 45-degree angle than you would if you look straight up." (As Havens has previously pointed out, there's currently no restriction on such "virtual air rights;" two or more brands can occupy the same space, though what you'll see depends on who you are and what technology you're using.)
Elchoness acknowledges that these kind of literally in-your-face ads may not appeal to everyone. "With the current approach, you can sort of ignore a banner ad," he says. Another obstacle is that behavioral data. Apple's iOS doesn't allow for tracking of third-party cookies, meaning that an advertiser can't follow your path on the web. Google allows for third-party tracking, but the technology is new and advertisers are still just figuring it out. Still, consumers might decide that they don't mind being tracked if they're served up more relevant ads. On the other hand, they might find the whole thing creepy.
Where does this leave traditional billboards? Likely they'd remain as they are for some time, just as newspapers coexist with the web. However, over time, they'd become less relevant and effective. After all, you don't need a physical billboard to project the AR ads that Elchoness refers to.
Game-ification of Everyday Life
It's one thing to play Mario Bros., but what about living it? "What if you were Mario?" asks Couch. In this scenario, you might be walking down the street when you get an invitation to open a box or grab a medallion. Doing either allows you to earn points in a game to, say, get a free coffee at the Seattle's Best coffee shop, which happens to be just a few feet away.
As far-fetched as this may seem, Cachetown, a unit of Candy Lab, is already offering such games. However, with those you have to use your smartphone or tablet. The video below outlines how such programs work. Though it takes creative license at one point and lets the girl see the objects without a phone, tablet or Google Glass, Couch says that with Google Glass it would be pretty much the same. "Take the tablet out of that girl's hand and have [Google Glass] on her face. How much more fun would that be?"
One interesting Google Glass feature is the ability to record what you're seeing. You can shoot video with your smartphone too, of course, but recording from your eyes' vantage point will conceivably result in more professional-looking videos. So not surprisingly, Vivian Rosenthal, the founder and CEO of GoldRun, another AR firm, sees a day in which user-generated videos become more common and more useful. One possibility is that instead of a Sponsored Story, you can shoot a quick video of yourself raving about that new Toyota you bought, which can be distributed to your Facebook friends in return for a discount. (This is assuming that a rival, Facebook-friendly alternative to Google Glass emerges. Another possibility is that Google introduces a similar product for Google Plus.)
Havens also thinks that Google Glass could redefine the focus group. Instead of an antiseptic environment with two-way mirrors, Havens pictures the following vision: You and your friends are talking about that hot new HBO series. Remembering an offer you got from HBO, you ask if you can record the conversation. In return, you say, everyone will get DVD copies of the show's first season.
Of course, that treads into some murky waters. Is this still a real conversation? Are you using your friends for marketing purposes? But just as Google Glass could eventually blur the line between reality and the augmented kind, it can also ironically provide less transparency between marketing and your natural behavior. In short, once you look through Google Glass, you may never see things the same again.