Weekly Update

Esquire Gives Augmented Reality a Bad Name

Picture 3It’s too bad Esquire magazine chose to make such a big splash with its augmented reality issue. Mainstream audiences that get their first look at AR from Esquire’s promotion are more likely to see it as another web-based time-waster than the cool commerce tool it could become.

Esquire’s editor-in-chief, David Granger, appeared on the “Today Show” last Tuesday demonstrating an upcoming issue with AR features built in to its cover and several pages within (including an ad). When asked about the biggest challenges in this achievement, Granger cited foremost, “You have to have the ideas for how to use this technology.”

Clearly, that’s something Esquire struggled with. Hold your copy in front of your webcam, and it launches a prerecorded video of that issue’s cover boy, Robert Downey, Jr., who seems to erupt from the page itself but without anything interesting to say. An inside page launches a video of what Granger promises is “an extra funny joke” by actress Gillian Jacobs — which AR technology does nothing to elevate from the experience of just watching a regular video clip on Esquire’s web site. (Was Granger implying that AR made the joke funnier?)

It’s a shame. A fair amount of attention has been given to augmented reality as a specifically mobile app, but its potential value as a desktop app deserves some more limelight. Yes, it’s fun to imagine its implications for gaming, for example, but it has a lot of down-to-business utility as well. One of the handiest commercializations of desktop augmented reality so far may be the U.S. Postal Service’s AR app, which lets you determine which size box you need for the thing you want to ship.

It’s also easy to see AR’s usefulness in home or office decorating: See how an IKEA couch would look in your living room. Now see how it would look against the other wall, in another color. The same concept could even be applied to online clothes shopping (try on virtual clothes or jewelry in your own home, with Robert Downey Jr. ogling you strangely all the while). And it could be invaluable in all sorts of technology support applications (check out BMW’s AR goggles, which guide you through engine repair, and imagine that applied to countless do-it-yourself technology-installation or home-improvement tasks). AR could also greatly aid distributed product development; I could design the vacuum cleaner’s engine in Seattle, and you could design the handle and rollers in Houston, and we could use AR to see how they fit together.

The biggest challenge in using AR is not coming up with ideas to use it, contrary to what Esquire’s Granger said. In the short term, the biggest challenge AR may have is overcoming the bad impression of it left by a high-profile dud pitch from someone who didn’t understand its promise.

Question of the week

What’s your favorite killer app for augmented reality to the desktop?