Draw & Code’s Phil Charnock considers the argument of whether AR and its sister technologies are too gimmicky — or whether there is no such thing as too gimmicky.
In new technology generally — and XR particularly — there is an innate distaste of the word gimmick. It’s time to dispel the notion that gimmicks are bad and to question whether the developing mediums of AR, MR and VR are as saturated with them as some will make out.
OK, let’s open up the Oxford English Dictionary. It says that a gimmick is ‘a trick or device intended to attract attention, publicity, or trade.’ That does not sound inherently negative to me. Is this not how every TV ad or publicity stunt works? And that’s apt — marketing is one of the primary uses of immersive technology — and a vital one that has kept the creative end of our industry ticking over for the last decade.
Short-form, marketing-led uses of XR have enabled an awful lot of good to happen in this sector. Would the team who are treating PTSD using VR be a well-oiled machine without working on some fun, engagement-driving 360 content for a conference? Or the ground-breaking AR navigation tool that emerges from a team schooled on apps for retail brands? Maybe not.
Here’s a case in point where a fun and frivolous use of mixed reality turned into something altogether more functional. In spring 2019 Draw & Code collaborated with Philips Displays on a technically advanced Magic Leap experience that was intentionally made to be swift and succinct for the user. Designed to grab attention at ISE in Amsterdam — the A/V industry’s shop window event.
Early in this development we also started work on a SLAM-based app for the same team, however, it was a very different proposition. Called Philips ARc, it was a tool to enable Philips’ agents to spec screens according to the constraints of the space — and to see a live visualisation of them in-situ. The realistic-looking 3D models of screens neatly appear to hang on the wall, creating an accurate and useful real-time visualisation and measurement tool for the display industry. Without the event-based mixed reality app, would we have been invited to create something that can be used daily by Philips retailers?
Let’s rewind further, all the way back to the debut of the App Store in 2008. The week it opened its digital doors saw iBeer take its place as one of the top 10 iOS apps. For those who were slow to shift from a Blackberry, this app was essentially just a glass of beer on the screen that appeared to drain away as the phone was tipped. And that was it — a two second experience that will have found its way onto an alarming percentage of early iPhones.
I still vividly remember when future Draw & Code co-founder John showed me the iBeer app. It brought our office to a stand-still. We poured over it (pun intended) and something clicked. Or rather it didn’t click — this was the upstart device with barely any buttons to click. The idea of multi-touch technology married to gyroscopes, web connectivity, GPS and a camera was new to us — as it was to everybody. With iBeer we saw the world of possibilities that John was already fixated upon. This playful, throwaway app had engaged us, albeit for mere seconds, but it led us to declare that the era of the multi-touch smartphone was upon us — and we needed to be a part of it. I doubt we were the only creative types to be fascinated by the possibility of early App Store apps, even those as fleeting in their appeal as iBeer.
Fast forward to today and the original team at Draw & Code are a decade deep into exploring the world of XR — not that it was called that when we started dabbling with it. During that time we’ve frequently advocated short, sharp and impactful immersive experiences. This is new technology, often presented in an event setting, so a quick-fire format can be very welcome indeed.
The Ready Player One-esque vision of elongated or always-on sessions with a headset on has not, as yet, transpired — for most of us at least. Maybe it yet will — if you had told me that one day computers would constantly be running in our pockets and we would need to legislate against people still using them behind the wheel of a car I may have raised an eyebrow before going back to trying to find my way down the street with a paper map so complex that once unfolded it would never be able to be flattened again. Of course we’re edging closer to an all-encompassing headset future with smart glasses in industrial environments and a new generation of wireless VR that boasts ever more well-conceived user experiences, but there is a lot of ground to cover — and enjoy — along the way to that.
Look at Snapchat’s lenses; each is throwaway in isolation. However, they add up to become something much larger. Indeed, we crunched some stats a few years ago and found that in a single day there are more people engaging with AR that is created on Snapchat than the total number of daily users on Twitter. Stop and think about that for a minute. Oh, and if you’re wondering, we took active user stats from both platforms then took away the amount of bots on Twitter to reach this conclusion.
Should we, in fact, embrace the idea that short and instantly accessible is the form that AR is likely to take? Snackable content (that title goes through me but it works here) happens to be the way many mediums work at their best. The three minute pop song. The arcade game. The haiku. Memes. It’s OK to enjoy short, punchy and ostensibly simple content — let’s celebrate this nascent era of experimental and ‘gimmicky’ spatial computing instead of lamenting it.