What are the Ethical Considerations of Augmented Reality?


This time last year, I gave a talk on the ethics of VR at TOA Berlin. Because VR can be so immersive, I argued, we need ground rules about simulating situations that could be considered torture, and making sure we get explicit consent before putting people in headsets to show them content that could be triggering. This all seems fairly sensible and black-and-white, and there was a general sense of agreement in the room.

But what are the ethical considerations for augmented reality? As it stands now, that’s a trickier question — because AR is a layer on top of the physical world, at this point there is still some grounding for whatever the experience might be. Things will come to life and animate, but there is a still a sense that it’s make-believe; that’s not a knock against the tech, that’s just the way it is. But several recent conversations, as well as a talk I gave at Northside Festival last week and a great piece in Slate about augmented reality and property rights, are starting to raise some concerns.


At an ARCore workshop at Google last week, the moderators had us demo a fun app called “Just a Line.” You could “draw” in spaces in AR and then share those drawings with friends — seems harmless and fun, right? Ah, but this is the internet, my friends, and this is why we can’t have nice things. It’s super easy to imagine a world where this gets more popular, and you can’t walk by certain buildings without seeing hateful graffiti. Because the graffiti isn’t real, it’s almost more dangerous — we can confront things out in the open, at least, but if things are only visible to a handful of people in an augmented world, we have little hope of stopping them.

The Slate piece also raises an interesting point about consent and AR — if AR ads are projected on your home or office, for instance, what are your rights if you want them taken down? On the flipside, could you theoretically sell your blank spaces as territory for AR ads? And if AR ads are all individualized, as they might be in the future, what if you only want to show some ads and not others? Will huge companies outbid smaller players for this privilege, returning us to the status quo?


When Pokemon Go became a sensation two years ago, it had to grapple with some of these problems — people were playing the game at memorials and in cemeteries, as well as on busy roads. The team solved this by geo-fencing certain areas where the game wouldn’t work, and that seemed to repair things. But simply creating blocks won’t do much or address the bigger questions of how to remix the world responsibly as we move forward.

The worst case scenario is that of a digital Potemkin village, where people only see what they want to see, and can block out social ills. The internet and social media have pulled us in that direction already — we need to start having these conversations now so the AR won’t move us further in the wrong direction.

What Is Holding AR and VR Back?


Augmented World Expo was last week, and spending a few days wandering the halls of the convention center, you could easily come away with the notion that immersive media is the biggest thing since sliced bread. Talk after talk and panel after panel featured people rhapsodizing about the future of AR and VR, and on one hand, it certainly was exciting. It’s fun to hang out with folks just as passionate as you are about the next wave of storytelling and communication — but on the other hand, it can present attendees with a bit of a false positive. Because as much as many of us hate to admit it, AR and VR haven’t gone mainstream quite yet — and unless they start to move in that direction, we might be in deep trouble.

A few years ago I wrote a piece called the Music Startup Meltdown, where I posited the notion that music startup founders couldn’t grasp the idea that not everyone was as passionate about music as they were, because people tend of self-select social groups that reinforce their biases. And I feel like the AR/VR world is starting to go this way as well — there are so many events and conferences and meetups that it gets very easy to just hang with likeminded people and think everyone is as excited about the latest updates to ARCore as you are. But unless we start talking to the wider world, and getting them to buy in (and pay up), we’re going to get stuck.


At AWE, I was all set to give a talk about immersive storytelling, and at the last minute I threw my notes away and gave a talk about the two things we need to overcome to help AR and VR grow. The first is that we need to create a sense of urgency for brands around adoption of immersive tech — right now it is a “nice to have,” but not something that everyone needs for every campaign. This is a long process, although luckily there is a growing body of research that backs up the effectiveness of AR for advertising (VR for ads is going to be a much longer term play). We need to start defining real ROI and showing exactly how AR can pay off from a financial point of view. If we just stick to the art and magic side of things, I feel we won’t get very far.

The second thing that holds us back is bad content and people who don’t know what they’re doing. I gave an example of a project that cost a million dollars, took two years, and resulted in a few articles and some free downloads, but nothing of real value for the brand. Those of us who are experts in the space need to be much more vocal about what makes content good and get brands to listen — very few brands and agencies have any in-house talent at this point, and they need to start hiring now. If we create a bad impression and brands don’t see returns, they won’t want to continue creating in the space, and we’re all pretty screwed.


The bottom line is this: spending time with likeminded technologists and creatives is great and fun, but unless we start broadening the conversation, events like AWE will move from filling convention centers to the backrooms of coffeeshops. If we can’t convince brands and agencies to start investing, we’ll run out gas before we even hit the road.

Augmenting Art and Activism


Museums are now filled with people looking at art through their phones, but one collective in New York has taken the concept to another level. Visitors to the Jackson Pollack gallery at MoMA in NYC can download the MoMAR appand see a layer of virtual art on top of the iconic paintings — it’s the first in what will hopefully be an explosion of people using AR to remix classic works and add commentary as a digital layer on top of the physical world.

The idea of using AR for activism is still fairly new, but if the technology allows us to reshape the world we see, there’s no reason we can use it to try to educate others about social issues. Gabo Arora, best known as an award-winning VR director, created an AR piece that allowed users to learn more about a civil rights leader in Baltimore while exploring the neighborhood where she did most of her work. Other potential use cases could involve reclaiming spaces — if you can’t remove a Confederate statue, for instance, you could encourage people to use AR to overlay statues of more positive figures and share those.

As cities change and morph, AR could also be used to make sure history isn’t forgotten. Many neighborhoods have gentrified and those changes have meant erasure for some communities; using AR to allow viewers to project images of what once existed is a way to confront history. In New York, it would help preserve the identities of what were once vibrant arts and ethnic communities and are now a sea of Duane Reades and bank branches.


In terms of art, AR could almost be the seen as the next wave of the Guerrilla Girls movement, which used activist tactics to call attention to the lack of female artists in major museums. If you can’t get real art in a space, adding it virtually might be the next best thing. As more people use AR to customize what they see, patrons could potentially create their own museums out of blank spaces, and then curate virtual spaces for others.

Of course, the downside of all this is that AR could be used to spread messages of hate and intolerance. It’s one thing to remix art, but it’s another thing to alter the message or destroy it, even if the destruction is virtual. Graffiti on the side of a temple or mosque in an AR world presents a different challenge than graffiti in the real world, but those messages could be hidden and if most people don’t see them, the hate could keep hiding in the shadows.

Despite this, augmented reality provides real opportunities to bring remix culture to a mass audience. We’re more able to customize our realities now than we’ve ever been, and AR will take this ten steps further. In a few years it’ll be common for us to use AR to beautify and change our world, and hopefully usher in a new wave of education and growth.

Augmented reality — the next wave of reporting


The following is based on a workshop I did at the Associated Press a few weeks ago, and comments from a Matter.vc panel I spoke on last month.

While a number of media outlets have experimented with virtual reality and 360 video, far fewer have used augmented reality as a storytelling device. The New York Times has launched a few features, including a piece on Olympic athletes and another on David Bowie; the BBC launched a companion app for Civilizations; and USA Today built an AR experience around a rocket launch. But more news outlets should start playing in the space, as AR is far more readily accessible to the average consumer and can used to illustrate stories in a way that helps visual learners see data and helps further the understanding of complex topics.


Take a health related news piece, for instance a feature about heart disease. Although it is a topic that touches almost every family, too few people are educated enough to understand how the heart really works and how disease manifests, and words on a page and flat illustrations can only go so far. Now imagine that an image of the heart can be placed in a space, blown up, explored, and pulled apart and then put back together, with detailed descriptions of exactly how everything works. Especially for younger readers, who have grown up on far more visual content than printed matter, this can help tell the story in a new way.

A more data driven story can also find a new audience with AR features. Charts and pie graphs can make even the most compelling information seem deathly dull, and augmented reality allows readers to interact with the data and visualize it in new ways, especially if it can be presented as a layer on top of the physical world for context. Site-specific local reporting could be fascinating and have a long shelf life, and keep new people returning to a location and extend the reach of an article.


For many people, reporting on environmental issues feels far removed from their daily reality — we all complain about the wonky weather, but almost no one has been able to explore melting polar ice caps, for example. Allowing readers to put them in an intimate space and pull them apart to explore makes something that was once theoretical feel more tangible and real, and can spur action or more learning.

While the upfront costs of creating AR assets is an expense, many of them will wind up being reusable with minor tweaking — the equivalent of a great stock photo that gets used over and over. For now, these assets have to live in an app; given that many news sites already have a designated app where users consume content, this isn’t a major hurdle. In a few months, augmented reality will be able to be viewed via a web browser, and then anyone with a link and smartphone can partake in the content.

Augmented reality will fundamentally transform journalism as we know it, and we’ve barely started to scratch the surface. If you’re interested in learning more, reach out via the Friends With Holograms site.

Augmented Reality and the Death of the Billboard


If you find yourself with some spare time and want an odd challenge, try counting how many mass-consumer ads you see every day. Exclude the micro-targeted online ads that seem to defy logic (Amazon: just because I searched for garbage cans doesn’t mean I want to only buy garbage cans from here on out) and focus on the billboards and subway posters and ads on the sides of long defunct telephone boxes. The numbers start to mount quickly. Now, think of how many made an impression. Sure, there might have been one reminding you that a favorite TV show is coming back, or a new product from a brand you like is in stores — but the vast majority were just wasted space, visual pollution in an already crowded landscape.

For years we’ve lived with this because no other alternatives existed. But augmented reality now has the power to take all those online recommendations into the real world, and radically change the way we consume information and design cities. Imagine Times Square without the pulsing, glowing neon orgy of branding and consumption. Visualize a world with white space, nature, and public art, instead of ads for things you probably don’t want or need.


This transition will start on our phones and then explode as we shift to the AR glasses predicted to reach consumers in a few years. The way it works is pretty simple — as you use AR to navigate through your day, you’ll be served contextual, relevant, interactive AR experiences customized just for you. When you pass a store window, for instance, you’ll see mannequins that reflect your body type, price range, and style profile — so if you’re a thirtysomething professional woman, like me, you’ll see one set out of outfits, and the twenty year old club kid will see another.

Ditto for food products and restaurant recommendations. I haven’t eaten fast food in years and I’m likely never to again, unless I find myself trapped in an airport and starving. So McDonalds is wasting money every time they advertise to me, because I’m a lost cause. But there are plenty of other food brands I love and would be happy to hear about and consume, and they’ll have more of a voice in the new and scaleable world of AR.


When everyone is being served content they’re likely to respond to, ROI will be exponentially higher and consumers will be much more engaged. AR content already has an average dwell time of 75 seconds and much higher retention rates, so users are likely to remember what they’ve seen and act accordingly.

Beyond that, think of all the public space that will be freed up. Blank space will be made available as a spot to simply rest your eyes and take a break. There will be room for art and commentary and trees and flowers, places where people can relax and meditate and learn. We’re still a ways out from this new reality, but advertisers need to start preparing, lest they get left behind when the shift happens.

The Value of Virtual Reality as a Behavior Changing Medium

This is a high level overview of this topic — if you want a deeper dive, I highly suggest reading Jeremy Bailenson’s fantastic book, Experience on Demand.


If I knew more about football, I’d probably describe this better, but bear with me. It’s the fourth quarter, and the QB is about the throw the deciding play. He should feel overwhelmed, but instead he feels a sense of peace and familiarity — he’s seen this situation a hundred times before. He tosses perfectly and a touchdown is scored. But here’s the trick of the thing — it was a play he’d never completed in real life until that moment. Rather, he had rehearsed it over and over in a VR headset, seeing the play again and again until it felt like second nature.


Sure, you might be thinking, this is all well and good for the best athletes in the game, when the Superbowl is on the line. But many of us face stressful situations in our daily lives, and VR can help change our responses to these scenarios by creating a sense that we’ve been there before, and it’s really not so scary. The oft-referenced “cone of learning” ranks the best way to retain knowledge, with real-life experience topping the chart — but real life experience is often too dangerous or difficult to fully replicate.

For anyone who has ever worked in a service industry, there’s the dreaded moment of dealing with your first irate customer. Sure, you can watch videos or role play with your co-worker, but come on…you all know Janet from HR is the nice lady who brings cookies on Fridays and not the mean client who wants you to do the impossible. Likewise, sure, the best way to learn to drive a forklift is to actually drive one — but that’s also a huge risk for anyone in the warehouse who happens to be in the way of a first timer.


Interactive VR is great for these experiences, but even being a passive observer in 3dof headset can go a long way. Just watching a stressful situation happen around you and feeling close to it can reduce anxiety and create a muscle memory, so when you do face that situation, you have a baseline familiarity and can then work out next steps to dealing with it. Too often we put people in high-stress situations without the proper training, and that can have deadly consequences. Sure, getting yelled at by a customer for making a latte wrong probably won’t do much more than ruin your day, but if you’re a law enforcement officer dealing with a mentally ill person and it’s your first time in that situation, things can go very wrong very quickly.

VR can also be great for training people to deal with unfamiliar situations in a culturally sensitive manner, and getting them to see different types of people as fellow humans. Too often people are afraid of others because they’ve simply never encountered people like them — and allowing them to spend time in VR getting comfortable would go a long way.

I’m always loathe to dive into whether VR is an empathy machine, in the words of Chris Milk, because it can just as easily be twisted and used to create and reinforce biases. But there is a growing body of research that suggests it can lead to fundamental shifts in the way we behave.

Augmented and Virtual Reality are Gaining Momentum -- Don't Get Left Behind

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The moment we've been waiting for is almost here -- in two short days, the Oculus Go will finally hit the market. We had the chance to use the headset last week and were blown away by the quality and comfort, and the fact that it is all-in-one and priced at under $200 means that it was likely see quick adoption. Add to this the explosion of AR content hitting apps almost daily, and it seems like we're finally at the point where having a mixed reality strategy is becoming a necessity. 

For many, mixed reality is still a confusing topic, and that's why we are here to help. Friends With Holograms offers half, full, and multi-day strategy and ideation sessions, where we sit with your team to figure all of this out. We've already worked with companies like Verizon and Unity and agencies like Pace and McCann, and would love to add you to our growing list. The last thing you want is to be left behind as new tech starts to emerge, and we can help you be a first mover (and look brilliant in front of your bosses and clients). Visit our website to schedule a consultation today. 


This year's Tribeca Immersive festival was amazing top-to-bottom -- all of the experiences we tried were fantastic, and there was a real range and depth that we hadn't seen before. It was hard to pick a favorite, but we finally had to go with Lambchild Superstar: Making Music in the Menagerie of the Holy Cow, which really wins on name alone. The project is a collaboration between Chris Milk and Damian Kulash of OK Go, and allows users to create music by interacting with barnyard animals. And yes, some of the animals are more equal than others, at least in terms of the sounds they make. Cortney presented with Damian last December and he talked about using the project to make music creation accessible to everyone, and this certainly accomplishes that task. If you looking for something life-affirming for an activation in the near future, this should do the trick. 


We're hitting the road and heading to the west coast for much of May and June. We'll be taking meetings in Portland May 21-25, then going to the Bay Area for more meetings and a speaking slot at Augmented World Expo on June 1. We'll also be speaking at InfoComm on June 6, in LA June 7th for a special workshop with one of our partners, and in Austin June 15 for some client demos. If you're in any of those cities, feel free to ping us, and we're always glad to meet folks in our homebase of NYC as well. 

Looking for an 80% increase in conversions?


We've been beating the drum for the value of augmented reality for a while now, and last week a white paper was released that provided a wealth of strong initial data to support our claims. Among many useful nuggets of info, two stand out -- Modiface CEO Parham Aarabi's assertion that there is an 80 percent increase in conversions for consumers who use the makeover technology; and the fact that AR campaigns have an average dwell time of 75 seconds— 2.5 times the average of radio or TV ads.

With the wider release of WebAR coming ever closer, now is the time for brands and agencies to start thinking about and prototyping campaigns. We recently expanded our offering to include AR prototyping services, and would love to start working on some sketches to show off the power of augmented reality. 


Fast fashion retailer Zara recently released an AR app that hints at what retailers could do with the technology. The current app is fairly limited -- a user downloads it and points it at an empty store window, and sees models come to life for a few seconds. As is stands, there is no customization, but that could easily be the future. Imagine every person getting a custom window display based on their personal tastes, and even mannequins to match their specific body type, so you could see if something looked flattering on you as opposed to stick figure. It's great to see more retailers experimenting in the space, and hopefully points to more innovation soon.


First off, massive thanks to those of you who braved the rain to come to our panel at the NYC Media Center! We had a packed room and interest was so high that we got booted out of the space because we went so late. We are now working on setting up meetings during Tribeca, so if you're in town, please let us know. We'll also be speaking June 1 at Augmented World Expo if you're on the west coast. 

Is there a YouTube tutorial for something now? Then there should be an AR tutorial in the next year.


The VR/AR train just keeps chugging forward -- Ready Player One had a huge weekend at the box office, and even more brands and media companies are launching AR experiences, from Outdoor Voices site-specific mashup of hiking and shopping to USA Today's rocket launch. Some are even looking far into the future, like Leap Motion's virtual wearable -- it won't be on the market for years, but is a fascinating glimpse of what is possible. 

But many agencies and brands are still not sure what to do with the new technology -- and we are here to help. We are offering half-day, full-day, and multi-day workshops, embedding in your office to work with teams to educate them on the latest trends and help brainstorm actionable ideas that can be sold in to clients or the folks at the top. These are in high demand, but we are offering discounts for the first five newsletter subscribers to book a session. Reach out and let us know ASAP, and we look forward to hanging in a conference room with you soon.


Raise your hand if you've ever been driven to tears or considered breaking up with someone when you try to assemble Ikea furniture. We know we're not the only ones, and that's why designer Adam Pickard's prototype of an AR Ikea assembly manual made us jump for joy. Given Ikea's foray into the AR space with its Ikea Place app, we expect this will be a real thing soon - and customers will start expecting every brand to create AR manuals to do everything from simple car engine fixes to working an overly-complicated coffee maker. Think of it this way -- if there is a YouTube tutorial for it now, there should be an AR tutorial for it in the new few years.


The weather in NYC should be better tomorrow, so come see us on a panel at the NYC Media Center, talking brands and VR/AR with folks from Ad Week, Google, Isobar, and Spark Foundry. We'll also be speaking June 1 at Augmented World Expo if you're on the west coast. 

Finally, for those of you suffering through the snow here in the Northeast, a song to get you through the day. 

Big Trends for AR? Getting Civilized and Hitting SXSW.


After months in the deep freezer of NYC, we're excited to finally make our way to Austin this weekend for SXSW. Always a great place to scope out new tech and music trends, South By has been leaning heavily on VR the last couple years, with some splashy activations (virtually climbing the wall in a Game of Thrones piece) as well as a theater full of solidly curated pieces. This year's immersive Westworld experience sold out in record time, and we're hearing rumors of some cool mobile AR activations on the ground as well. The Friends With Holograms team will be there on the 11th and 12th -- we've got panels at 1:15 on Sunday and we'll be speaking as part of the NYC Media Lab event at noon on Monday on the East Lawn on the Four Seasons. Additionally, we're booking demo and meeting slots and would love to connect and show you what we've been working on.


The BBC recently launched Civilisations AR, which allows users to view a range of artifacts in 3D. According to a release, "At the heart of the Civilisations AR experience is a core ‘magic spotlight’ feature, which allows users to uncover annotations, audio and imagery that enrich to the story of each exhibit. An X-ray function lets users see through or inside an object, while a restoration feature can be used to rub through the layers of history. Users can browse the exhibition geographically, using an AR globe, or via the themes of the series, as new exhibits will be added as the series progresses." 

This is one of the smartest and most useful AR products we've seen recently. Merely placing an object in a space quickly loses its luster, but this gives users multiple opportunities for interaction and learning, keeping them engaged and excited. 

On the AR front, we're also excited about Google expanding its Lens product to more phones. Image search is the future of search, and this is a great way to create more AR content and get people comfortable with seeing information delivered as an overlay on top of the physical world.


We had a great time talking AR at the Mobile Innovation Summit in NYC last week. Cortney is hosting a talk with VR filmmakers Lily Baldwin and Jessica Brillhart tomorrow night -- alas, it is all sold out, but we're hoping to do another similar event in the future. We'll also be speaking at ISG Future Workplace Summit  on March 27 and at Augmented World Expo at the end of May (exact date TBD). 

Hit us up if you want to learn more or grab some tacos in Austin!

The Augmented Reality Revolution is Coming -- We Can Help You Stay Ahead of the Curve


First off, a big thank you to all the folks who responded to the survey two weeks ago -- your responses were really helpful. If you didn't have a chance to fill it out, it's still open; just click here to give us a piece of your mind. 

Now, on to the big stuff -- the coming augmented reality explosion, and how you can be prepared and make great content. Cortney was quoted in this fantastic AdWeek piece a few weeks back, and that's only one of the many use cases we've pinpointed for AR this year. We're coming to the point where any space can become an ad, and even more than that, a hyper-targeted ad that people actually want to interact with. It can power games and scavenger hunts that can spark huge viral conversations. And with the groundbreaking WebAR tech we've been working on, it can do that right from a phone's browser -- no apps required.

Needless to say, we're bullish on AR, and we've started offering an intro to AR session for our clients. Interested? Let us know.


Look, based on the name alone this was going to be the experience of the week before we even know anymore. But this is not just crazy cute -- it's also an amazing example of how AR might just be the thing that saves dying malls. This is a fun game, but the AR experiences for shopping could be so much more. For instance, a store app could allow you to scan a shirt, see options for complementary clothes and accessories, be directed to your size, and even click to buy if you like it. This combines everything we like about online shopping with the things are still great about spending time with friends at the mall. 


Cortney will be talking AR at the Mobile Innovation Summit in NYC on February 28 and will be moderating a panel on March 6th at Sonic Union with amazing female VR directors, including Jessica Brillhart. We're heading to SXSW for the first weekend -- Cortney is speaking on a panel on March 11 and we're also booking meetings, so please let us know if you're interested in connecting in Austin. We'll also be speaking at ISG Future Workplace Summit  on March 27 and at Augmented World Expo at the end of May (exact date TBD). 

As always, we'd love to speak at events or meet with your teams. 

Questions on AR and VR Post CES? We're Here to Help.


OK, we'll admit it -- we can be a little exacting when it comes to VR and AR content. We see a ton of it, all day long, and it takes a lot to impress us. So when we see things that make our jaded jaws drop, that means it is pretty special. We've seen two things that met that high bar in the last two weeks, and both were not only cool in their own right, but an amazing glimpse of what the future of VR for education looks like.



How To Prepare for the New Realities of 2018


Well, we've almost made it through another year -- and what a rollercoaster of a year it has been (although not a virtual rollercoaster, because please do not ever do those). Everything else aside, it's been a massive year for VR and AR, and 2017 will likely be seen as the year where the engines revved up and we all sped down the runway before taking flight into a new immersive reality.