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The Sci-Fi Future of Personalized Advertising

A company called Blippar is using augmented reality to stretch the rules of brand engagement.
The future of ads? (Photo: encontrado/Flickr)

The future of ads? (Photo: encontrado/Flickr)

From a company's perspective, the best types of advertisements don't come across as advertisements. Good ads captivate without interrupting; they entertain without annoying. They also make some kind of lingering emotional connection with the intended audience. In Latin, the root of the word "advertisement" means to "turn toward." Bad ads encourage people to turn away, either by changing the channel or closing the tab.

If a start-up called Blippar gets its way, one day most ads will be good ads. People will see, hear, touch, and feel only what they want, when they want—but not with traditional ad instruments. Blippar's medium of choice is augmented reality. Unlike virtual reality, which is totally divorced from the physical world, the technology aims to enhance the physical world in a manner that, say, certain drugs might.

Founded in 2011, Blippar currently has nine offices in three continents. Clients include the biggest of big-name brands: Coca Cola, Kraft, Disney, Budweiser, IBM, Conde Nast, Procter & Gamble, and so on. This past summer, Blippar acquired a similar company called Layar, making Blippar the largest player in the field with more than 50 million users. One report estimates that by 2017 the market for augmented reality apps will reach $5.2 billion.

"Our ambition is to make the physical world into a content experience."

TO FIND OUT MORE, I visited co-founder and CEO Ambarish Mitra at Blippar's New York offices, located in Midtown Manhattan. On a long table in the conference room, cans of Pepsi, bottles of Heinz ketchup, and a box of Trix cereal were scattered about. All products are Blippar-friendly, meaning they're capable of unlocking a hidden world through augmented reality.

If you're unfamiliar with the technology, here's how it works: A user downloads the Blippar app onto her smartphone. When visiting her local grocery store or breakfast place, she points her phone's camera at a box of Trix. The app recognizes the image and launches into song as the screen fills with 3-D-looking pink and yellow confetti. Users have the option of sharing the experience on Twitter or Facebook, or visiting a digital universe called the "Silly Channel," where a seemingly endless amount of memes, games, videos, and puzzles awaits. Point the phone at the back of the cereal box, and a Where's Waldo-type search for the Trix Rabbit becomes interactive.

When used with certain CoverGirl promotions, Blippar opens a program that helps users match their skin tone with the right foundation, which users can then purchase immediately. Being the good marketers that they are, Blippar is trying to define this foray into augmented reality with the verb "blipp" or "blipping."

"We firmly believe a brand's biggest identity is their product," Mitra tells me, noting that most people don't watch television for the commercials or browse Facebook for the banner ads. The guiding principle, then, is that brands would be better off offering people more content and services through their products than dumping a bunch of money into static, conventional advertising. With Blippar, the product itself becomes a medium through which people, by their own volition, engage with the brand. For advertisers, that by their own volition part is crucial. "No one is forcing you to point your camera at a product," Mitra says.

BUT IF NO ONE is forcing you, why do it at all? The answer, Mitra tells me, is twofold. First, people already pull out their smartphones to do a bunch of things throughout the day, such as take pictures, answer texts, play Candy Crush, download directions, etc. Putting an electronic device between our face and surrounding environment is the norm. Second, the content Blippar intends to deliver is either entertaining, useful, or both. As a recent CNBC segment featuring Blippar put it, the advertising of tomorrow might not be something people try to avoid or skip. It might actually be the main attraction.

Last August, I wrote about an ad campaign called Art Everywhere U.S., which aimed to promote the beauty and spectacle of outdoor advertising at a time when more and more people are staring down at their phones, unaware of the world around them. As I reported then, the gulf between the money spent on outdoor advertising and digital advertising is widening, with the latter far outpacing the former. Augmented reality, however, introduces a third option. It serves as a bridge between the physical realm and the digital, allowing the public to travel rather seamlessly between the two.

What Blippar does, essentially, is make our every action quantifiable. It's a means of collecting valuable customer data that was previously hard, if not impossible, to gather, because it happened offline. When I was a kid, for example, General Mills had no idea how long I'd occupy my morning trying to solve the crossword on the back of a cereal box. With Blippar activated, participating brands know where users are, what they're looking at, how long they're engaged with the product, and at what time of the day this engagement occurs.

REASONABLE PRIVACY CONCERNS ASIDE, others worry that augmented reality might amount to nothing more than a passing fad. At a recent conference on digital advertising in San Francisco, Stephen Clements, executive creative director of the agency AKQA, argued that each individual campaign, no matter how innovative, must fit with a brand's overall strategy and appeal to consumers' needs. "The red herring is just to use technology for technology's sake," Clements said.

Mitra, naturally, doesn't see his company as a gimmick. With the coming of Google Glass and other wearables, he envisions his company as the primary lens through which we all blipp not only products, but trees, buildings, and people, too. Blippar, Mitra says, will become a browser of the physical world—a world in which nothing remains unconnected to a domain name. "Users will start generating the content for us and start tagging 'the real world,'" Mitra recently told a reporter. "Our ambition is to make the physical world into a content experience."

In the 2002 sci-fi film Minority Report, stationary cameras in futuristic cities scan people’s eyeballs as they walk by to deliver a bombardment of personally tailored commercials and messages in holographic form. It's an unsettling glimpse of what could happen if we allow big data to run amok. And yet Mitra remains optimistic: "Our reliance on machines will only continue to grow and everything we contribute today only helps makes machines grow smarter," he said late last year. For him, and others like him, the future remains bright. Whatever it holds, let's hope that the by their own volition principle lights the path.