AR You Ready?

Augmented reality has arrived in the sign industry. Can it find its breakthrough moment?
Augmented reality has arrived in the sign industry. Can it find its breakthrough moment?

I was one of the first generations to grow up consumed by computer and video games. For birthdays and holidays, my brother and I were gifted various consoles and games. We’d spend our allowances enhancing our stockpiles, devoting entire days and nights to immersing ourselves in alternate realities. During the summer, one of us would spend half the day playing video games in our basement while the other would do the same on the first floor on the family computer. After lunch, we’d switch spots until dinner. GoldenEye 007, RollerCoaster Tycoon and EA Sports’ NCAA Football were among my obsessions for passing time and earning bragging rights over my friends.

Over the past decade, virtual technology has expanded its reach into the working world, with major corporations devoting millions of dollars into research and development of interactive experiences, including augmented reality (AR). AR has carved out a niche in the sign industry in recent years, too. But now that signage and AR have intersected, just how well do they coalesce?

WHAT EXACTLY IS AR?

Technology moves at a supercharged pace in 2019, and it can be hard to keep up. So, if AR is a new concept to you, don’t worry! On a base level, it’s simple: AR occurs when 3D graphics and images are overlaid into your current reality via a device, most often a smart phone’s camera. Let us also separate augmented reality from virtual reality.

Augmented reality differs from virtual reality in one essential way – in virtual reality, the user’s reality is completely overtaken by a computer-generated simulated environment. The user is placed inside an alternate reality, usually through a headset device, rather than having 3D elements projected into their present environment, as is the case in AR. Moving your head in a virtual reality experience will cause your entire simulated world to move. In augmented reality, the technology is limited to seeing and interacting with the 3D elements added to your sensory perceptions. Here’s a pop culture example: An article on Medium associated Tony Stark’s heads-up display in the Iron Man suit with augmented reality, and likened Neo’s point-of-view in The Matrix films to virtual reality.

The sign industry has begun to invest in augmented reality, and in many different forms.
The sign industry has begun to invest in augmented reality, and in many different forms.

Augmented reality is activated in two ways, per Alen Paul Silverrstieen, CEO of Imagination Park (Vancouver, BC, Canada), which designs AR products for businesses to create and implement AR campaigns. One method is marker-based activation, which requires a target image – a sign, a logo, a mural – that users can scan with their phone. The scan brings the content to life. The other way is location-based activation, which does not need any markers, as the content is overlaid based on the user’s GPS-based position.

At present, augmented reality has not established itself as “The One” for the sign industry – or any segment of the global economy. But even if the technology hasn’t quite cracked the mainstream, sign industry manufacturers have begun to invest in it – a nod to its immense potential.

WHO’S DABBLING IN AR?

The most recent AR product unveiled by a sign industry manufacturer is SA International’s (SAi’s) VirtualSign app, which uses augmented reality to create a visual representation of a sign, and is free to the company’s Flexi subscribers. In essence, this new product acts as an alternative and/or a companion to a hi-res pdf proof; a sign company can accurately project what a sign, banner, etc. would look like on the wall, building or space onto which it will be potentially installed. With that in mind, SAi intends for VirtualSign to help signshops accelerate project approvals. 

Earlier this year, Signs of the Times profiled a similar technology from Wrapmate, which has a self-titled app that lets users visualize a potential vehicle wrap design on a 3D image via augmented reality. Looking through the camera lens of their phone, users can stroll around a digital version of their wrap, while adjusting its size and position. In a similar vein, Durst’s SmartApp takes print files produced by the Durst SmartEDITOR app into augmented reality, as users can visualize their designed print products with their phone’s camera.

AR can also be used as a marketing tool. 3M’s Augmented Reality App lets users interact with the company’s printed advertisements, posters and packaging wherever the 3M Augmented Reality logo is present. Ricoh touts a similar product, RICOH AR. In this app, users can view various Ricoh printers in 360°, and use the Space Measure Tool to see if their signshop has the requisite space to fit one of Ricoh’s printers. Ricoh also offers Clickable Paper, which connects print and digital by creating “hot spots” on a sign, poster, vehicle wrap, etc., to take readers from 2D printed content to online content. And LexJet has also experimented with different AR possibilities, such as troubleshooting technical problems with an iPad or crafting tradeshow experiences with a proprietary app.

WHAT’S NEXT?

Will augmented reality ever be an industry-altering technology or movement akin to the rise of digital printing or introduction of LEDs? Research and Markets, a business intelligence firm, valued the AR market at $11.1 billion in 2018, and projects it to grow to $60.6 billion by 2023. “Apple, Google, Facebook, Snapchat, Microsoft are spending hundreds of millions dollars in AR,” Silverrstieen said. So, there’s too much potential revenue at stake for everyone to stand on the sidelines, even if they can’t create the next Pokémon Go.

“They talk to retailers. They do brochures. They’re doing signs. They can activate all that as an additional revenue stream without having to print anything different." – Alen Paul Silverrstieen on why signshops and sign companies should engage with AR

One of AR’s sign industry destinies is as a brand and/or marketing extension for manufacturers, similar to what 3M and Ricoh have produced. BJ Barlow, owner of 18 Oaks Sign Co. (McMinnville, OR), believes AR will have an immediate impact “in the sales and design world,” too. This endgame features an AR product like SAi’s VirtualSign functioning as a closing agent for the sales arms of sign companies. A third possibility for AR is as an educational outlet for the labor force, though Barlow foresees regulation as an obstacle in this scenario. “If you have AR come in and replace or assist an individual with a task and remove the need for that journeyman,” he said, “your labor unions, training institutions and licensing institutions will be up in arms saying, ‘Wait, wait. This individual was required to do a four-year apprenticeship program; test; and do X, Y and Z.’ Now, you’re suggesting that somebody is able to have an immediate source of [knowledge] they’ve honed or developed.”

Signshops and sign companies already have the built-in relationships to find success with AR in Silverrstieen’s eyes. “They talk to retailers. They do brochures. They’re doing signs. They can activate all that as an additional revenue stream without having to print anything different. There’s no additional overhead to do it from their side,” he said. “It’s matter of offering it as incremental income and furthering the differentiation of their business in the market.” Michael McGar, president of QuantumERA (San Antonio), an immersive content company that uses AR to produce experiences, says brevity is key for AR signage to attract desired levels of engagement. “In another life I was an illustrator and part of what I did was billboards – not much time to get your message through, so it had to be compelling,” he said. “AR in signage should be seen the same way.”

The company that can crack the money-making AR code will convince a consumer to regularly use an AR experience that also generates revenue for the developer. That’s no easy task, despite how addicted we all are to our phones. It’s uncertain who will develop AR’s version of GoldenEye, but additional AR products and technologies for the sign industry are certainly on the way.

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