Undead Print Publishing: Layar and the Future of Augmented Reality

Zombies eat brains, so I am sure you, dear publisher, will be A-Okay during this time of the apocalypse. In this life of print after the declaration of its death, it is much too easy to get nostalgic and believe we are beginning another Renaissance in publishing. wow. much potential. very scared. It is my opinion that we, the publishers of tomorrow, should stop looking for (or God forbid, try to invent) “the next printing press.” Let us discard notions of square pegs trying to fit in round holes (does no one see anything Freudian about this phrase?) and instead, let’s take a stab at anticipating what our readers want from their future reading experiences, and just give it to them.

If we can pretend for a moment that someone other than Steve Jobs famously announced, “no one reads anymore” in 2008, perhaps this bit of realism can offer publishers intelligent foresight into how today’s children will soon be interacting with disseminated knowledge. We are at a point in the conversation on publishing, that it is mainstream-safe to start splitting hairs and understanding that reading Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland in traditional book form is drastically different from reading a news headline and link condensed into tweet. However, casting them at separate sides of the spectrum of “reading” is assuming that readers of novels and/or tweets are completely satisfied with their reading experiences. In fact, as painfully evident from MPub class discussion sob stories/first world problems, we are constantly picking and putting down different devices as well as jumping into alternative methods of accessing content in order to satisfy what it is we want reading to achieve (e.g. intellectual stimulation, collecting text for later reference, directions on cooking spaghetti squash). So, instead of trying to build some kind a single device that tries to offer every kind of function (quantity detracting from quality), why don’t we consider allowing the reader to take the original creation (like a printed magazine, for example) and access additional layers of functionality by means of digital convenience? So instead of reinventing the wheel (a necessary component to fast mobility), why don’t we make it really easy to go from a minivan to a bike depending on what you need at the moment?

For the purposes of this essay, allow me to hone in on one publishing medium (the printed magazine) and one piece of digital software (Layar, the iOS/Android app for augmented reality) to illustrate how readers can have their cake and eat it too. Don’t worry, I’ll get back to the zombie part. The following is how Layar describes the concept of augmented reality (AR):

… cutting-edge technology that allows for a digitally enhanced view of the real world, connecting you with more meaningful content in your everyday life. With the camera and sensors in a smartphone or tablet, AR adds layers of digital information – videos, photos, sounds – directly on top of items in the world around us.

At this point, if you’ve never encountered augmented reality, you should look it up. Here’s a good introductory video on how Layar utilizes augmented reality across reading experiences. As we see in this video, the first thing the guy reads is a packaging label. Here’s a good example of how publishers can go beyond the real estate constraints of space. Keep in mind the guy may approach the same product with different reading objectives. In the grocery store, perhaps he wants to see what other flavours of green paste stuff are available before he purchases? In the kitchen, maybe he wants to make sure his friend with allergies can also indulge in green paste? If so, what recipes can be suggested to him on-demand? Let’s move on. The guy buys a magazine and scans an advertisement for a radio station as well as an editorial and something else. In an effort to keep things simple, the video only illustrates one function at a time (going to a website, listening to a podcast, social media sharing), but from my experimentation, it’s easy to mix and match multiple functions. I’ve created my own layar page that you can scan here. If that doesn’t work, try this. Then, things get creepy when the guy scans his surroundings, thus revealing embedded information about nearby cafes, restaurants, and shops. Sorry John, no time to talk about how creepy that is. Lastly, the guy scans his textbook and is immediately privy to a recorded lecture. Personally, I believe educational publishing has the most to gain from augmented reality, due to my concerns that if the brick and mortar institutions and curricula won’t or can’t manage to teach students in methods they best learn through, at least they can teach themselves through the materials they are provided with. The video closes with the ability to pull up all previously scanned content, which all link-out to wherever they are being hosted from (i.e. nothing “lives in the app.”). From my research and experimentation on an iPhone 5 (running iOS7 with strong Wi-Fi), all the previously mentioned functions are available and easy to accomplish with the exception of the “real world” scanning, in which you can bookmark the information of nearby venues. Further investigation into Layar’s Youtube channel shows opportunities with HTML widgets that allow for:

  • interactive puzzles and games,
  • stand-alone information like a Lonely Planet interactive map with short teaser text that links to further information,
  • points of sale that also allow you to view products in their other variations (ex. different colours of the same watch) and add them to your cart,
  • and walk-through tutorials based on the content you’re viewing.

If you’re wondering how popular Layar, here is what the company has advertised:

  • As of January 28, 2014, the app has over 35 million downloads, and there are 69, 171 users of the Layar content creator (the software as a service {SaaS} which creators use to connect AR content with real content). 28% of app users are in the US, while various European & Asian countries are between 2 and 8%, with Canada at 3%. No China.
  • In 2012, the AR industry was evaluated at $300 million. It is anticipated to rise to $5.2 billion by 2017.
  • There are 200,000+ interactive pages of content available so far. 36% of this content originated in the Netherlands, 15% in the US, and 11% in Canada. Notice how 11% of the content created is targeted at 3% of the app users.
  • Given targeted campaigns, 5-45% of readers scan interactive pages with Layar. However, the click-through-rate (CTR) is at an average of 87% (compared to 11% on social media, 0.86% on mobile banner ads, and 0.11% on facebook ads). Keep in mind, the sample sizes are vastly disproportionate.
  • Layar’s global online survey revealed the following: 56% of respondents said “yes” to being “familiar with or open to making mobile purchases” while 38% said “no, but I might someday.” 33% are frequent AR users who scan a lot, while 32% are infrequent. 32% of responding users are in the age range of 20-30, 25% from 31-40, 16% from 41-50, 13% are 13-19, 9% are 51-60, 4% 61+, 1% <13.

So, in order to steer this essay away from what John Maxwell refers to as a “gee wiz” paper, I will allow the reader to do most of the speculation on all the specific opportunities publishers, advertisers, and readers can benefit from by using Layar. Instead, I would like to ruminate on a few alternative functions currently not offered by Layar, though they are still realistic to consider as plausible, and how they will serve the demands of future readers.

The familiar joke with “smart technology” is that it’s not always that smart, and for good reason. No one can be bothered to actively educate their phones on what they want, but they can operate them long enough for algorithms to help technology make better guesses in the future. However, the real game changer is when one piece of smart technology will start talking to the other piece (the same goes for social networks). Currently, Layar is in its most static form of augmented reality capability. Think about what publishers could do with more dynamic content? Could Layar be the easiest solution for companies like BitLit that give readers mobile, digital content after proving purchase of the physical? How about if, after scanning a magazine page, you could toggle between what the publisher wanted you to see and what its competitors wanted you to see? Will copyright law prevent that? Or what if you could add a third-party patch that could provide you with commentary and critique from a personal source? When you scan this Layar Magazine page, it will superimpose new, updated information on top of outdated information. Is it possible that publishers will be able to write their content in invisible ink (with our phones or our Google glasses as the blacklight?)

The way I see it, published content will suffer two lives: we will see, smell, feel, hear, taste, and fall in love with the warm souls of our books and magazines and then we will take out our cold, heartless devices and resurrect a tortured spectre, because necromancers aren’t evil, they’re just misunderstood, right?
Why live once, my previous printed publication, when you can live foreeevvveeerrrr? 

2 Replies to “Undead Print Publishing: Layar and the Future of Augmented Reality”

  1. The idea that Layar can superimpose new information on top of old information is incredible. Combining the beauty and physical nature of a print book with the real-time updates of the web is a match made in zombie heaven. There will not be a need to spend $80 more on that 12th edition of the textbook because you can scan the table of contents and see what chapters you’re missing. Go online and purchase that new chapter as a single unit? Copyrighting individual chapters would make sense here. (Look at the policy class learnings sneaking in here.)

    In terms of products, I can see people using Layar to find out where and how the product was created. The shroud of mystery that exists between the source and the store could be unveiled. Not sure if you want to spend an extra $2 on the cheese made in Abbotsford? Scan the product and see where the product is made and what other tasty treats are recommended to serve alongside your fancy cheese. Advertising and informed buying decisions available in the palm of your hand! Plus, the Layer scan would definitely have photos of cute Canadian cows to convince you that you need to support these cows by buying that cheese.

    The LEGO store has an element of AR in it. Hold a LEGO set up to a camera that scans the box’s picture then produces the image of the built LEGO set on the screen. This is cool for sets that have multiple building options, so you can see exactly what you’re buying instead of just the one creation. A 7-year-old boy taught me how to use the system and I’ve never felt so old/utterly fascinated by the technology.

    Necromancers in the form of iphones are definitely misunderstood (and so are Blackberry phones).

  2. Wait a sec… isn’t the point of print that it provides a durable experience that does not want updating? It’s for things that last. For things that don’t last, or are ephemeral, or dynamic, we have the web.

    What I don’t get is the point of layering one over the other. It would make me view my beloved print material via my mobile device, and tethers my mobile/web experience to a printed page. Worst of both worlds… I’m not clear on why I would want either of those.

    I always thought the point of AR was to have readable overlays on physical (non-textual) things… like labels on a street, or metadata on objects. Layering text on top of text seems pretty cumbersome to me.

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