Using Augmented Reality for Social Good

August 16, 2016 Brian Isaac

Although augmented reality (AR) has been around for a few years now, it's not yet become a mainstay of marketing campaigns - least of all in the charity space. Many brands understandably prefer to go with tried and tested communication techniques and assume AR to be the more expensive, riskier option. But while custom-built AR apps can indeed be costly, dipping a toe into the AR space doesn't need to blow your budget.

What's more, the immersive experiences and surprise-and-delight moments that AR can add to your campaign can build a deeper emotional connection with your supporters and deliver some serious return on investment. Not sounding quite so risky now, is it? Here's the lowdown on AR and how to use it to promote your cause.

So, what is augmented reality anyway?

Augmented reality uses technology to mix the real, sensory world with other media. Video, imagery, sound (or a mixture of all three) are overlaid over the real world to 'augment' the user's experience. AR experiences are most commonly executed through smartphones and handheld devices: the user downloads an app and then holds their device over an AR enabled space or piece of content in order to activate the experience and bring it to life. By contrast, virtual reality is a more immersive experience that seeks to transport the user to a different world or perspective completely, often through the use of VR-enabled headsets. 

What makes augmented reality so useful for nonprofits?

AR is already being used by a number of forward-thinking organisations to raise awareness for their cause. Here are four ways in which AR can help you better communicate with your supporters.

It can elevate your storytelling. AR can help you deliver your story and message in an innovative and more impactful way. This example from The Wimbledon Foundation raised awareness for Water Aid by literally bringing posters to life. Static images transform into poignant video stories when viewed through the user's smartphone, communicating the challenges faced by children living in parts of the world where they must travel up to 16km a day just to access fresh water. 

It can take your experience to a much wider audience.

AR is increasingly being used by art organisations to give people a taste of exhibitions and performances they would otherwise be unable to experience. We love this concept from The Louvre in Paris, which transformed a Los Angeles warehouse filled with empty picture frames into the world's most famous art gallery.

It can provide useful information in a more engaging way. Another tactic which is being adopted by the arts industry is using AR to overlay information when held up to a particular artwork or exhibit. It's more novel than a physical sign and less clunky than an audio guide - and it's gaining traction everywhere from the British Museum to Brisbane's QAGOMA.

It can promote empathy. Virtual reality has often been referred to as an 'empathy machine' because of its ability to place users in someone else's shoes. While less immersive, AR also has the ability to enhance understanding of the issues your cause seeks to address. Imagine if, just by viewing the world through an app on your smartphone, you could see how certain objects or experiences appear to someone with a visual impairment or a mental illness? These are now very real possibilities thanks to AR technology. See this example from the National Autistic Society:

How to integrate AR into your next campaign

If you've got a small budget. You might be surprised to learn that creating enhanced print materials is actually very affordable - particularly if you already have existing resources (like video content) that you can repurpose. Use AR technology to overlay video content over a flyer or poster to transform something run-of-the-mill into a highly engaging brand experience that provides big bangs for your AR buck.

If you're willing to take a punt. For brands that want to make an AR play but don't have a limitless budget, there are a number of white-label AR apps worth checking out. These apps use image recognition and geo-location to enhance the user experience - for example, by adding notes and information to a particular object or turning a flat image into something three-dimensional. It's nowhere near as big an investment as a custom-built app but will still deliver that "wow" factor. If money is no object.

For those lucky few who have marketing budgets most of us can only dream about, custom-built AR apps and experiences are the way to go. For this reason, customised AR builds are typically the realm of big consumer brands and theme parks think (Universal Studios' immersive Back to the Jurassic experience"). Nonetheless, it's exciting to see just how far this technology can go.

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