Augmented reality is becoming a larger and larger part of the brand landscape now. Before we get too deep down the augmented reality (AR) rabbit hole, let’s do a quick vocabulary lesson, because they’re somewhat-similar terms that often get confused.

First, let’s distinguish between AR and virtual reality, or VR. AR is the blending of virtual reality with real life; developers create images and applications that blend in with the world around the user.

The best known example of augmented reality at work in 2016 was Pokemon Go, which broke almost all Apple download records and created a rush for more brands to interact with AR.


Turns out users love seeing a Pikachu in their landscape.

Virtual reality, by contrast, is the creation of a virtual world that users can interact with. By definition, it’s going to be different than augmented reality and not contain many elements from the world we see every day. Virtual reality is a little farther off in terms of driving business and brand behavior, but Oculus Rift (a well-known VR platform) being purchased by Facebook was a step in that direction.

The final component is artificial intelligence, or AI. This refers to machines who learn from experience and repetition. Presently, you’re seeing this mostly with chatbots — but in the future, AI will shape much of how business is done.


Chatbots (like this one by Sephora) are well integrated into popular messenging app Kik.

Back to augmented reality. While the market is small now, it could grow to $90 billion by 2020. Brands are rushing into the space, in part because of the huge success of Pokemon Go, and in part because it’s a next logical step in our continued digital evolution.

Here’s how brands are working with augmented reality right now:

In your iPhone camera. Apple is working on this with teams from several startups it recently acquired. This would allow, for example, a view of a city street to be overlaid with directions, price points for nearby restaurants, coupons, or–wait for it–some type of animated creature to make you giggle.

On your face. At the same time Apple is working on integrating augmented reality into their phone cameras, they’re supposedly also working on “smart glasses.” This isn’t necessarily a surprise, as the biggest tech companies out there are working on the same. Facebook has one in the pipeline, and SnapChat’s Spectacles are already out. (In a nice hipster throwback move, Snapchat made Spectacles available in vending machines.)


Style and AR, all in a pair of SnapChat Spectacles.

The smart glasses concept for brands will be the next tier of “making sure you’re on Google Maps” from 5-10 years ago. Now you’ll want users to be able to engage with you through augmented reality. That could be information about your store/product, coupons, offers, or random fun characters you sprinkle near your brick and mortar to encourage people to come in.

At your favorite game/match. Think about live sports for a second. The advent of HDTV has driven down incentives for people to drive to a stadium, park, and buy food/drink because the views are so stellar at home. (This is mostly true for football, but applies to other sports as well.) But what if augmented reality comes to stadiums, and fans can overlay the field with characters, images, and real-time stats? It might be coming soon to Gillette Stadium, home of the Patriots. It was possible at Gillette because of a Wi-Fi upgrade, which would be a necessary condition at other venues.

Sports is a specific type of branding, but this idea can be extrapolated out to any number of other concepts. Trade shows could be made more informative and entertaining. Lifestyle brands could offer real-time makeup tutorials. B2B sales people could walk prospects through a demo (and pricing) more effectively. Research in the last few years has shown that customer experience is more valuable than traditional branding now, and augmented reality is a great chance for brands to increase CX.

At your office. This is more an internal (focused on employees) idea rather than an external (focused on customers) one, but it’s nonetheless valuable. Microsoft’s augmented reality offering, HoloLens, has partnered with an elevator company to help train 24,000 technicians. They can see problems ahead of arriving at a client site, and less experienced techs can be guided by more-veteran ones. The techs can also pull up tons of information about the elevators in question via HoloLens.

From $0 to $90 billion is a giant market jump, and augmented reality is here to stay for a while. Understanding how it could help you deliver on your brand promise is crucial to the next 5-10 years of business.

Excited about AR? Ask yourself:

How could AR make some piece of my user’s journey easier/better? Users might not be asking for it yet, but if you see an opportunity to incorporate AR into an existing part of your user’s experience, start looking into it. (Same goes for an internal app!) You could see better user engagement, or push them further through a conversion funnel.

Do you have the resources to do it well? So you’ve done your research, and you know there’s real value in AR for your organization. Can you invest the resources to make it easy to use, and consistently work well? It’s exciting to try something new, but if the experience is clunky or gimmicky, you won’t get the user engagement or business value you’re looking for.

What other applications of augmented reality have you seen and liked?