Augmented Reality - Hybrid Billboards

Augmented Reality – Hybrid Billboards

Digital Personal Space – the evolution of Human Interaction.

Of all the established media platforms, nothing is more effective for outdoors or out of home (OOH) advertising, as the ubiquitous Billboard. Whether on a bus shelter, a unipole or indoor locations such as malls and underground tubes or metro stations, the billboard is the single most effective way of attracting public and consumer attention.  However, just as people have accustomed themselves to “tuning out” to television adverts, many people today, automatically tune out to billboards, while walking on a city streets. Unless the billboard is of a sizable display, it does not easily catch the attention of passers-by.

Advertising and Marketing agencies are soon finding out that people’s lives are greatly influenced by all things “Digital” and this is where advertising and media delivery focus has shifted to. It makes complete sense that if eye-balls are glued to either a laptop screen or some other such personal digital display, such as cell phones, then Digital Advertising has come off age. The key phrase here is “personal displays”. As technology gets cheaper and more widely accessible, another interesting phenomenon gets noticed, the concept of “personal space” takes on a whole new meaning.

It is interesting to note human behavior in a typical city today, from walking on the street, to riding a bus or metro. People who are not tethered to a digital device such as an Ipod or a cell phone or their net-books, are the only ones who look around them, at other people and may maintain that invisible little boundary around them – personal space. Meanwhile people who have a pair of headphones on, or are accessing some sort of information on their smartphones or laptops, effectively tune out to the world and the older concept of personal space, and switch on their Digital Personal Space.  In effect they do not mind as much, being jostled around a bit on a crowded bus, and do not mind crowds whizzing past them on a street – as long as their Digital Personal Space has not been invaded or disrupted!

Successfully breach this digital personal space, and you have a chance to get their attention, or eyeballs.

Mixing Reality  – Injecting Digital Advertising IRL:

To borrow a term from the initial days of social interaction on the internet, when “chat” was not as advanced as the multimedia voice and webcam sessions of today, IRL was the term used to abbreviate “in real life”. People were very aware that there were two distinct worlds. The online world was where internet relay chat rooms (IRC) allowed people to communicate faster than email and in real time, and IRL was when the computer was shut down and people returned to real life. Back then there were no Smart phones and 3G and wifi were not common household terms, therefore there was no real connectivity once you shut down the PC and the modem connection.

As we know today, there is a very blurred line between Digital and IRL. We are connected, or tethered 24/7 to the internet. IRL and the Digital world has seamlessly blended. Social Media and applications such as Facebook have made social interaction a completely different experience.  People get satisfied getting a virtual Birthday cake or virtual teddy bear, bought with real dollars, on facebook. These virtual gifts have become as fulfilling as would their IRL namesakes.

Yet people live in the real world. They (still) walk in the real world, but as we are witnessing, spend the better part of their time “connected” to the digital world while in the real world. What does this mean to the smart Advertiser? How does a Digital Advertising and marketing agency take advantage of this Digital dependence? One clever way is to inject Digital Content into the real world. Use Digital Advertising IRL. This is the foundation that Augmented Reality is based on and what Mixed Reality experiences are all about.

Mixed Reality Advertising – Case Study Seed Ideas:

Does all this sound too Sci-fi? Digital Advertising depends on one thing – access to connectivity. Internet access is getting cheaper by the day in civilized and non monopolistic societies. There are cost effective flat data rate and mobile broadband packages that let people be connected while on the move. Smart phones such as the IPhone and Google’s Android are set to be essential tools when going outdoors, just as comfortable shoes are needed to get around a town or city. These devices are what allow people to define and enable their personal digital space.

Advertising and media agencies, previously smug in the fact that they knew everything about Media  and delivery are today realizing that established platforms such as Television are being usurped by Digital technology such as time-shifted live Tv, that lets users skip by advertising. Magazines and newspapers are being replaced by twitter clients on smart phones for up to the minute news headline delivery and mobile television now allows people to be entertained while on the move.

The last media delivery platform still holding some ground is the Billboard. Though as mentioned, people have learned how to tune out to these as well, but it is this very established media platform, that can be revamped and “infected” with Digital content IRL, that will make people want to occasionally shift gaze from their personal digital space and re-fuel as it were their craving for digital content, from outdoor billboards. There is no denying that traditional and even Digital Advertising Agencies need a dedicated Think Tank. Such a department in the ad agency can come up with innovative ideas of how to inject Digital Advertising into the Real world billboards, via Augmented Reality.

Outdoor Billboards – Fuel Stations for Digital Content:

How would this be done with Billboards?

Take a typical Billboard on the side of a Bus Shelter – These billboards are visible to people passing by the bus stop and people waiting for a bus at the shelter. They are almost invisible to a commuter who has his/her Personal Digital space turned on.  i.e, someone using an ipod or smartphone. The idea is to allow people to re-fuel on digital content that they can “consume” while waiting or passing by such a Billboard.


A free, limited radius Wifi Access point and router can be embedded in a weather-proof casing and powered the billboard lighting circuit. The radius can be set to be any distance around the Billboard tself, so as to maintain signal strength. People within this radius can connect for free to the router, but access to the wider internet is limited to what the marketer/advertiser sets.

Each Billboard can have a unique AR identifier or marker as part of the design of the AD printed on the billboard. This allows digital content to be consumed by a person, by aiming their smartphone camera at this marker. Any kind of content can then be streamed depending on the advertiser, directly to the smartphone for consumption by the user. Some ideas for content:

  • A flash based menu – with graphical buttons that the user can click on with their finger to choose digital content, such as starting a music stream if the advertisement is for a music artiste (inviting human interaction with the advertisement and thus brand recall)
  • A PDF file of a product can be downloaded, such as an automobile being advertised on the Billboard
  • An entertainment video (short film) can play – The AR marker or even a Quickcode can trigger such a video by aiming the smartphone camera at the Billboard.
  • Using in-built sensors such as the digital compass on Iphones or Android phones, complete graphical visual directions of bus routes can be overlaid on the live camera view of the phone so tourists can visually see routes in context to their location.
  • Unique promotions can be run based on location of the billboard, for example people would have to take a snapshot of the Billboard and the AR marker on the advert will superimpose a 3d visual graphic of a discount coupon based on random discount amounts. These snapshots can then be shown at the product/service outlet to avail of the amount seen in the snapshot. This makes people interact with the advertisement displayed on the billboard and builds brand awareness and provides metrics of audience engagement.

The future of Mixed Reality Advertising:

As mentioned above, Media owners can breathe new life into their outdoor Billboard locations, or OOH billboards in other public spaces by using nothing more than a cheap note book or smartphone and enabling wifi peer connectivity to establish a private network within a set radius around the billboard. All media files and content can thus be stored offline on this “server”, and powered by the same power line that back-lights the Billboard. This saves data connection charges to the end user.

Typically today, there are no established standards for accessing the mobile camera in smart phones, so the same private wifi network if setup can automatically offer the smart phone user a small application to download to start the experience depending on the smartphone operating system identified by the AR Billboard.

If needed, and depending on the intention of the advertiser, content such as free music album streaming, can be made to stop if a person goes outside a certain radius of the billboard IRL. Further, DRM can be used to protect content, and increase stickiness of people visiting the outdoor advertising location.

With the start of the year 2010 and a new decade in digital advertising, injecting digital media into the real world has only just begun.

Dirrogates – Transhumanism and The Singularity:

Can Virtual assets enhance the real world? For example a Virtual talking avatar manning an information desk on location and responding to voice requests from the user, while being seen via the smartphone camera and augmented over the real world is already possible. Can such a scenario be applied to an Animated tour guide pointing out places of interest for tourists in situ and on-location?

The possibilities for usefulness and branding are limitless. Ideas from this article have made their way as settings and in the plot featured in the fiction novel Memories with Maya.

Digital Fuel Station:

When Krish visits Dan, they stop by a Petrol Station a few miles outside the Airport. Dan asks Krish to connect to the Digital Fuel pump to “tank up” on music.

We pulled into the gas station a few miles outside the airport to tank up.
“I miss the peri-peri cheese sticks from in there,” he said, pointing to the 24-7.

“Let’s get some,” I said, “but first get your cell-phone out and connect to the wifi hotspot.”
Krish connected to the station’s wifi. The welcome page said: Digital Fuel. He clicked it, and his phone’s camera turned on. He located the augmented digital fuel pump overlaid besides the real fuel pump.

“Your idea?” he asked.

“Yeah. Trial run for Kelly’s dad. He has a soda company as the client sponsoring it.”

“All these tunes are free?” asked Krish as he scrolled a playlist of down-loadable songs from the fuel station.

“Yeah, sponsored,” I said. “The idea is to tank up on digital juice while you wait.”

“Sure as hell makes that long drive to your place worthwhile,” he said.

What is a Dirrogate? A Digital Surrogte of a living (or dead) person. Read the hard science novel “Memories With Maya” to learn more about how Augmented Reality, combined with AI wil change human relationships in the coming decades.

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  • gyakuzuki

    Good article, however WiFi connectivity is unlikely to be the winning wireless technology since it is very power intensive for both the smartphone as well as the billboard/kiosk/storefront, with batteries often draining in a matter of hours. In addition, WiFi is great for connecting things that are both standing perfectly still, but if someone is acquiring data from a billboard while in a car or acquiring data from a passing bus, WiFi simply won't work. Technologies like DASH7, which is super-low power (batteries last for years), cheap (a few dollars per device), can operate while the user or the media is moving, and has a range of several kilometers or more is likely to prevail. Look for AR pilots in 2010 using DASH7.

  • clydeD

    Report: Mobile Augmented Reality Enabled Smartphones to Reach 197 Million by 2012
    – Paid access article, but it was brought to my notice on a discussion forum and may be of use to people looking at things from an ROI point of view:

  • I like how you captured the essence of the behavioral change and the importance of the Digital personal Space. Having said that, I am not entirely sure that I understand your POV on DOOH and why /how they can change that and effectively capture consumers' attention.

  • clydeD

    Hi Gorecki36,
    Thanks for the kind words and taking the time to comment. What I was aiming for is to highlight how advertising has/is changing, in the way it is going to be exposed or presented to the consumer. Today's generation have tuned out to any form of printed material and even signage displays. This is evident if you see the younger adult gen as they walk into malls, the subways and music stores such as Virgin, HMV etc. It's as though digital Signage screens, may as well be part of some wall paper or brickwork on the wall.

    I believe that the way advertising is going, you have to “make” them want to get something, or experience something (in this case walking to the “fuel station” that is the billboard), so that they can connect and check out the content which is of value for them. This is where you can slip in the advertising or brand the content.

    We are soon to be in the midst of a shift from passive Media Platforms, to ever moving ones like social networks.

    Put differently, you have to breach their Digital Personal space, and then capture their attention (that to briefly). If they like it.. it goes viral. – viral will be the new “broadcast”.

  • I agree with the overall trend of “microboring” (i.e. our personal digital bubble, checking email while waiting the bus etc).
    To overcome that we need to educate consumers to expect more value from DOOH, otherwise we will never get their attention. So part of the investment will go beyond network installation, to establish these “digital pit stops” in the minds of the consumers. This sounds a bit tricky but its an interesting idea. I could see a “layar” application for this. I would also be interesting to see your POV about other emerging applications of DOOH, that could be implemented without significant additional investments on hardware. For instance you write about 3G on your blog, I am wondering if this needs a new network (hardware) or not. What does it take to have a 3D image of a product (without animation)? Also, what other experiential applications do you see feasible?

  • clydeD

    Hi Vassilis,
    Thanks for stopping by the blog. The idea of having a private network embedded in these billboards, is to offer the DOOH experience, around a fixed radius near the Billboard. Also this affords the consumers the easiest (and most cost effective) way for them to “want” to interact with the billboard. 3G is not needed for this, and is only put in as an option for more compatibility, i.e for devices that may not have wifi connectivity. This is getting rare these days, so will surely be redundant soon.

    I have more ideas, but can't post all for free! :-) Hoping to meet with the right people to take all this further!


  • Clyde, just a heads up that your article inspired me to do some additional research on Digital Signage.
    I have created a slideshare presentation that -among other things- includes one of your quotes. You can find it here:
    thanks again for the inspiration.


  • Anonymous

    Smartphones are the next evolutionary step in technology, devices that combine the functionality of a laptop with the portability and battery life of a mobile phone.

  • coco1212

    Smartphones are the next evolutionary step in technology, devices that combine the functionality of a laptop with the portability and battery life of a mobile phone.

  • That’s the great article! I just pass ‘n read it, two thumbs up! 😉

  • Marcus Boyce

    This is the reality that what technology could give to us. With the use of the smartphones that we have, we able to make our business to grow in an efficient and simple. It makes our different aspects of life including business works become more convenient and effective, most especially in the outdoor advertisement that we try to do.