You'll remember that scene in Star Wars when bun-headed Princess Leia appears in holographic form to tell Obi-Wan Kenobi that he's her only hope. Fantastical sci-fi, back in the Seventies. Not any more; today it's a reality, of a sort, and it's the latest hot thing in marketing. Welcome to the world of "augmented reality", or AR.
Now, I know that describing something as the latest hot thing in marketing will have cynics assuming this is just another bit of commercial candy floss, all hype and no stamina. History, dear cynics, is on your side (does anyone remember Second Life?). But AR will literally change your world. Think Minority Report meets Star Wars, but not in a galaxy far, far away. In your street, at the shops, certainly at work.
First, though, the basics. Really, this whole Augmented Reality thing is pretty straightforward as long as you try not to think about how it actually works. AR is a way of combining real-time images with computer-generated ones to create a new version of reality in full 3D. So you can sit in front of a webcam and watch yourself on your PC screen, playing with objects that only exist as computer graphics. And computer graphics can be projected out to appear in the real world, just like Princess Leia 30 years ago.
Lego is already at it. In some of its toy shops you can now pick up one of the special Lego boxes and hold it up to an interactive kiosk to see yourself holding a 3D animation of what the fully constructed toy will look like. Point of sale promos have never been sexier. But AR sits comfortably with advertising too.
I've written before in this column about the AR campaign created for BMW's Z4 by Dare. It's probably the best example yet of using AR to get consumers closer to brands. It's easy to take part: you print out a 3D pattern recognition symbol from the BMW website. Then, using your computer's webcam (which interprets the 3D symbol as an image of the car itself), you can create an AR that allows you to drive the car around your desk.
If all this AR activity seems a little playful when set against the harsh realities of recessionary marketing, with its focus on price and special offers, then don't underestimate the seductive power of allowing consumers to actually interact with ads and brands in a virtual-real world. It's a fantastic way to engage people and engagement is the first step to a sale. It is particularly potent for brands targeting a youth audience hooked on gaming, but its marketing potential goes much deeper than play appeal. Combining AR with GPS location technology on your mobile opens up a whole new highway of possibilities for marketers. Web-based interactive communications can be overlaid with real-world data and tailored to where you are in space and time.
Nokia is already working on applications that allow you to point your mobile phone camera at a building to see information about what's inside, overlaid on the image of the building itself, so AR can let you know when a store has special offers or sales and where to find the bargains.
The time will come, too, when you won't need a cumbersome screen to converge all this real and virtual information and imagery; it will be projected directly before our eyes by special visors or contact lenses, or even (don't imagine it's not a possibility) wired directly into our brains so that the web becomes to all intents and purposes a part of the real world as we experience it. Who needs RD2?
Best in Show: Evian (BETC Euro RSCG)
There's some pretty nifty computer work on display in Evian's timely new ad from the French agency BETC Euro RSCG, to rather eerie effect.
Remember the gorgeous Evian synchronised swimming babies? It was terrifically cute. Well, this time they've gone for roller-skating babes to persuade us to "live young". Cute, it ain't, but it is wonderfully mesmeric. Babies in nappies do skating stunts to a hip-hop beat and it's at once both hilarious and disturbing. The CGI isn't perfect but the ad is actually more weird and engaging for that. I defy you to not watch this campaign over and over and over.