AR: Showered With Praise, or The Doors of Perception…

Anomaly-smLast week, Margie Dana’s Print Tip discussed Augmented Reality (AR), and how Coastal Industries used AR in its Buyer’s Guide—essentially a shower door catalog. Augmented Reality, for those not in the know, is a technology that aims to, among other things, make print interactive, or bridge the gap between print and electronic media. An AR app like Layar, you scan a printed page with your smartphone and interactive content pops up on the screen. A few months ago, I was sent a graphic novel called Anomaly which also included AR content to “bring the pages alive.” However, accessing the AR content was not exactly seamless; you had to go online to get a list of which pages had AR content, download a special app, and then fiddle with getting the lighting and the angle right to make the AR work. It was really a fair amount of effort for minimal payoff. And if something is written, illustrated, and/or printed well enough, the pages can come alive without any extra help.

The online version of Coast Industries’ catalog also features AR, and you can ostensibly scan the computer screen with your smartphone—let’s think about that for a minute…—but perhaps because of the lighting or glare from the screen, I’ve been unable to get it to work.

Now, complaining about how flakily a fairly new technology like AR works is probably a bit premature. When you think about it, it’s pretty amazing that this stuff works at all. Perhaps we’ve become so accustomed to—or spoiled by—new technology that we often fail to appreciate how far we’ve come in what is really only a short period of time. I mean, if you took the latest iPhone model back in time to even as recently as, say, 1990, and showed it to the people living then, they’d probably look at you as if you had just beamed down from the U.S.S. Enterprise. (À la the famous and I believe accurate quote from Arthur C. Clarke: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”) So I’m not going to heap too much shame on flaky AR apps!

That all said, when I think about the notion of “making print interactive,” there is one question I keep coming back to, which is: to what extent does print need to be interactive? And is this not somehow an apology for the fact that print is not electronic media? I find that a large part of the beauty of print that it’s not interactive, that it’s simple, at least from the user’s standpoint. You don’t need tech support to use print, you don’t have to fight with devices, you don’t need to search out a WiFi connection, batteries don’t run down, and you don’t get error messages. In other words, you never see this:

Error Message

Now, I like the idea of AR, and things like the shower door catalog and some other applications are very cool, but for my money, I think print is already as interactive as I want it to be.

One AR-ish application I find myself using a lot, especially when traveling, is incorporated into the location app Yelp!. It’s called Monocle, and when you point your mobile phone in a given direction, on the screen will pop up a list of the businesses nearby in that direction. It works very well, and it’s functional. Sure, you could add AR tags to a printed travel brochure or map, but it seems like that would be redundant.


Each medium has its own strengths and weaknesses, and while there is some level of “multifunctionality,” we should be careful to not try to make one too much like the other. Magazine and newspaper apps for tablets that mimic the “look and feel” of print are rarely successful, and printed materials that try to ape the “look and feel” of interactive media are also rarely effective.

One way I like to think about it is that, today, there are not a lot of reasons to print out a Web page, but every once in a while it can be useful. Likewise, I rarely need anything I have in print to be electronic or interactive, but once in a while it can be useful.

So we should use each medium for its own inherent strengths. Unless you need to be shown the door.

This labelling news was spotted at The Digital Nirvana
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