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By Mark Havenner

The curious power of modern computer technology has allowed us to view the world around us through our webcams and iPhones, and in so doing, we have been able to super-impose images, video and sound over our view of reality. The result: augmented reality.

This new trend of entertainment technology has led to some remarkable applications.  For example: face-recognition technology uses your webcam to put a Transformer’s head on you; it allows you to try on virtual sunglasses as well as translate street signs by looking at them through a mobile device, or bring animated characters to life on your desktop with a webcam.

While this entertainment technology is very entertaining indeed, what are the implications for marketers? There is currently much discussion on the potential marketing value of augmented reality technology, what with new mobile applications and online programs popping up everyday, but there is little clear regard for measurable and useful marketing tactics.

Certainly, the use of augmented reality to develop viral social media campaigns is viable. According to Businessweek, it has been done by Kia Motors, Nestle, Frito Lay, and Wise Foods however with mixed results.   Still, it is expected that $170 million will be dumped into mobile augmented reality advertising within the next 5 years.

Viral videos, tactically, are only one slice of the augmented reality pie. Take for instance what iPhone apps Layar and SekaiCamera are doing. Both apps have taken augmented reality and geo-positioned this together into a whole new virtual universe, where consumers can hold up their iPhone, see information about the business in front of them, as well as its phone number and Wikipedia article. SekaiCamera takes it further, and allows users to post their own comments (virtually) on that business or location. Already a huge success in Asia, the SekaiCamera phenomena could potentially transform the world into a series of post-it notes visible to anyone who holds up their iPhone or Android. The ability to slap a comment on a restaurant’s physical location makes Yelp look like child’s play.

The marketing potential for an app like SekaiCamera trumps imagination. Coupling geo-positioning and augmented reality is a great way to get the word out about one’s brand. In one sense, the whole wide world can be an advertising platform wherein companies can post messages in physical locations right where their audience is. Creative campaigns could even include treasure hunts, whereby customers who uncover particular messages in particular locations, get free prizes or discounts. Or companies could award discounts to consumers who post in the sky about their product. Brick and mortar locations could encourage customers to post virtual tags all over the wall, telling other customers of their positive experiences there.

The overarching point is that the online world has now come full circle and the once global universe of social media marketing is now being transformed into a geo-located virtual reality  — right back in the middle of your target audience’s physical location.

While it will take time for SekaiCamera and other apps like it to catch on in the U.S., location “check in” apps like FourSquare are already transforming the market. The trend is inevitable: mobile technology and augmented reality will bring customers back into the real world and away from their global social media safety net. Online or off, it is still about location, location, location.

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