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Augmented Reality
ILLUSTRATION: MARK FISHER
Q.
We'd like to add either an augmented- or virtual-reality experience to our exhibit. How can we customize this activation so it reflects our brand and products, as opposed to being a technology stunt? And at what point in the idea-development process should we loop in a supplier?

A.
Choosing to engage with these technologies is an excellent way to immerse your customers in a truly memorable brand experience, as well as differentiate your company as an innovator. What's more, your concern about avoiding technology-stunt status is spot on. My company is a creative-technology agency, and we often encounter potential clients who approach us for VR or AR experiences with little knowledge of how this technology works, what its potentials are, nor how to integrate it into their exhibits. Doing it just to do it may lead to a memorable experience, but it likely will fall far short of being a memorable brand experience. In this case, your high-tech encounter could be an expensive gimmick – and a missed opportunity.

So to make sure you don't end up with a high-priced, off-target stunt, it is important to first understand the differences between the two technologies. VR immerses users in an entirely new realm. This can be done as a sit-down encounter, a standing 360- degree experience, or (our personal favorite) a world in which individuals can physically explore. With VR, people can be shrunk to the size of cells or blasted into deep space. Not even the sky is the limit.

AR is a technology quickly gaining steam in the tech sector. Instead of presenting a whole new world, it adds a digital layer to an existing space. This is done either by markers that tell the computer where a digital object exists in a space or by positional tracking that scans the room and makes a 3-D map within the computer. In this case, the 3-D images are reacting to physical walls, surfaces, architecture, etc. For example, aliens can burst out of walls, two people can play a game of holo-chess, or an anatomical skeleton can hang suspended in midair.

It's also important to know the distinction between computer graphic imagery (CGI) and 360 video within both of these mediums. CGI is created by 3-D programmers, while 360 video is captured using a rig of cameras that stitches the footage together and wraps it around the user. CGI imaging is by far more three dimensional than its video counterpart, which suffers from resolution and perspective issues. CGI can feel so real that we've seen people walk around things that weren't there, duck under what appeared to be low beams, and attempt to lean on tables that didn't exist. Whereas 360 video can be good for giving attendees a tour of your headquarters, they will never really believe they are there.

But to get back to your main question, using these technologies to their full advantage and as an augmentation of your messaging is the secret sauce to an effective experience. To get that sauce right, consider a few examples. Say you're a developer of large farm equipment. You could create a VR experience where users can get a real-life view of the equipment in action at actual size. Another low-hanging fruit would be to create a full-size vehicle that can be configured to the user's delight and then taken on a virtual test drive. Or, if you're a box company, you could create an AR application that allows users to hold up boxes of different dimensions next to actual objects to determine the best fit. Similarly, a furniture company could easily demonstrate how items might look in attendees' homes.

These are basic-use scenarios, but the beauty of VR is that you can get your message across in countless ways. Let's say you're a telecommunications company and want to showcase your vast network and its minimal cabling requirements. You might fly users to space so they can look back at the interconnectedness of your network across the globe. Or users could control time to see how that network has expanded or shrunk. You might also grow users to 1,000 times their size and allow them to lift buildings and houses to see how the grid works underneath them.

One of our favorite projects involved placing NASCAR fans in a virtual pit-crew scenario where they raced to rush the driver back onto the track. In this instance, the McDonald's brand wanted visitors (most of whom were NASCAR aficionados) to know that they are part of the McDonald's team.

In terms of AR, most often the technology creates a digital layer that can only be revealed by looking through a tablet, phone, or headset. In a sense, an AR experience can double an exhibit's footprint by adding another dimension of digital content. AR can bring still images to life, add video explanations, reveal miniature scenes with characters, display relevant statistics, or change the surrounding walls and floors to paint users in an entirely new environment.

If your head is beginning to spin with possibilities, you're not alone. It's exciting technology that's limited only by your imagination and your – or your technology agency's – creative capabilities to link it directly to your exhibit-marketing objectives.

When it comes to working with suppliers, we recommend reaching out to one the minute you start to brainstorm applications. Only experts in the field can steer you past the landmines and provide best practices.

Keep in mind, however, that true AR and/or VR pros won't force the technology to fit your application just to make a sale. For example, we make it clear to clients when an AR or VR experience is a questionable route to take. Bottom line: Before you dedicate a budget toward something, you need seasoned, professional feedback as well as myriad application ideas to really hone the experience to your needs. VR and AR are fun to ideate with, but without a guide, many people get lost in the jungle.


— Mark Matthews, experience strategist, Next Now Inc., Chicago
Help Wanted
Send your tough questions about exhibiting to Linda Armstrong, larmstrong@exhibitormagazine.com.

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