VR vs AR – for the OOH world

For the last couple of days I was at Siggraph in Los Angeles, California. It’s hailed as an interdisciplinary educational experience in the latest computer graphics and interactive techniques. It’s true, that is what it was. Virtual Reality was the star of the show, with a whole quarter of the exhibition area devoted to it.

But I am a real-world enthusiast – ironically with a deep running digital DNA. I love virtual reality, and I get a kick better than bath salts (I imagine) every time I put on an Oculus – doesn’t matter what cheap 3D Wolfenstein sequence I watch. But, I have devoted myself to a career in real-world media, and VR, with all its awesomeness, just simply doesn’t sit well with me.

Why, you ask? Well let’s look at it.

If you’ve ever had the privilege of enjoying a virtual reality experience with Oculus, or some of the post-millennial alternatives that have emerged lately, you will note the complete immersiveness – but before you get there, you will not be able to avoid the inevitable 3 hour queue.

Yes, that’s right. If you’ve experienced Oculus, you’ve waited in a queue. Unless you’re developer, you’ve made the decision to wait in line to see what all the fuss is about.

That’s okay, it’s new; people are interested in emerging technologies – of course the seminars you’ve been to that feature virtual reality headsets will have a long line of geeky enthusiasts. But to me, that is a problem for the future, not just the now.

When I experience VR, I think two things. 1) OMG, this is going to be the future, this is going to replace the TV and the console. Everyone and their mother will get home from work and slap on their headset and you won’t see them again until the next morning.

But 2) I think about our loyal brand advertiser clients, and what value they might gain from this important revolution. I think of the money they will spend investing in custom VR 3D or live-action experiences, and of course, at the very core of it, I will think of the eyeballs they acquire – which, as anyone in media knows, is the raw currency of advertising.

Building a 3D world of Pepsi or Coke that allow users to sail a boat down a waterfall of caramel sparkling liquid glory sounds incredibly immersive and engaging – and no doubt it is – but it won’t come cheap. Creating an experiential event that allows people to adorn a headset and immerse themselves in this psychedelic world sounds like a branding home-run, but what about the devoted souls who are waiting in line?

Let’s make no mistake. Virtual Reality is a one-to-one medium. Just like online. As much as I’d like it to be an Out-Of-Home media experience, it can never be. VR has its place in the home, and while I hope to see an Oculus headset in every household, it is going to be a medium that reaches the individual on a deep and personal level – no different to a gaming console today.

So what’s the good news? Well, there’s the very close cousin of the virtual variety of reality – and that is the world of Augmented Reality. They seem so closely related, yet they are quite different.

Yes, they both involve headsets (which are actually on their way to becoming not the clunky 80s space helmet, but something no different from a pair of Gucci shades). Simply put, VR involves the complete hijacking of a user’s senses and replaces them with an artificial or computer-generated world. AR, on the other hand, uses what you see naturally and overlays augmentations that enhance and adjust the world around you.

These are fundamentally different. Don’t take my word for it, just go and see what our beloved uncle Microsoft is doing with the Hololens. You really need to forgive Microsoft for Windows Vista and Internet Explorer 6. We all make mistakes. Donald Trump didn’t mean what you think he meant – he was talking about her nose!

Microsoft Hololens

The Hololens is where it’s at. An increasingly smaller headset allows you to view the world as normal, but overlay digitally generated features. Just like a smartphone; stretch a video screen onto a wall and watch a TV show, place a holographic ornament on your desk, or read your email on the refrigerator. This is a fundamental and majorly significant difference.

It means, and I’m going to say it, your smartphone will be redundant in a few years. That’s right, the little magical rectangle that captured your imagination and practically owned your very existence when it was invented in 2005 is now facing extinction if you can soon wear its emerging nephew on your head and interact with all your apps in the real world around you.

If the headset is small enough, it won’t look stupid if you wear it to work and sit with it in your living room. If all of your apps like email, Skype, Facebook and video player is positioned neatly on your walls and around you, why ever take it off?

And if you use it like that in your home, what about when you leave the home? What if you walk down the street and see a huge billboard with a gorgeous animated Pepsi advert in a placement where no physical billboard currently exists?

If people are walking around with these headsets like they do now with their phones in their pockets, then the real world becomes the same rich canvas that the internet currently is now – with possibilities for advertisers that massively improve on any channel they currently have at their disposal!

If you are in outdoor media – or in any media for that matter – then Augmented Reality is the future – no question. The billboard today will still be there, only it will be digitally generated. You, your mother and your pet Spaniel will all have these headsets in a shockingly few number of years, and Pepsi – if you are listening – let’s talk about what that means for you right now.

Cannes 2015 Outdoor Roundup

So this year I went to Cannes. That’s the quaint village on the French Riviera where they have the Cannes Lions awards for creative in media and advertising.

Aside from some scary moments with my Uber and an angry taxi driver, it was a very interesting week.

I was specifically interested in the ideas in outdoor. A lot of unique concepts and case studies, and the winners were all deserving.

The judges must have really loved the Shot on iPhone6 campaign you might have seen everywhere because it won a Grand Prix. Apple searched online photos that people had posted to social networks and selected a few that were in were in just the right conditions to look good when blown up. Then they put them on outdoor placements around the country for all to see. The very nature of outdoor media itself made each static photo an explicit showcase for the quality of the images. There never was a better reason to advertise in outdoor.

Samsung Safety Truck. This was a great example of when outdoor media becomes functional. Almost one person in Argentina dies every hour from traffic accidents – 80% of them are on the roads – and these mainly from trying to overtake. An always versatile marriage of digital screen and front-facing camera provides following cars an HD view of oncoming traffic so they can decide better whether to overtake. If you want to win a Cannes Lion, figure out how to make advertising also help people. No judge can resist.

You might have seen this, Holograms for Freedom. In Spain, would you believe, there is a gag law preventing people from protesting. So they filmed people on a march, and then projected the video in a holographic blue lustre onto transparent screens outside the parliament building in a slick act of defiance. You could also upload your face onto one of the protestors if you wanted to participate also. Solve problems with technology in media and you have an instant winner.

Nazis Against Nazis. I guess this isn’t really outdoor but it involves Nazis getting owned so I thought I’d slip it in. Some people in Germany still haven’t received the memo and routinely march in support of their misguided ideals. To combat this annoyance, a group called EXIT Deutchland started a campaign to donate €10 for every meter the neo-Nazis marched to a cause aimed at steering people away from the cult and bringing those already in it back to Earth. Now they’re actually funding their own demise. Keep on marching folks.

Life Time Clock. Also in Germany, there’s been a drop in organ donations. People are dying as a result, so they put up this powerful giant hourglass for a guy called Kevin. The sand runs out in a few months, which is how much time he has left to live because of a fatal heart problem. There’s something both chilling but also riveting about seeing the sand of someones life slip away. It got national media attention and made an impact on the awareness of organ donation.

So some worthy winners and interesting ideas, and a lot of good being done for the world thanks to the creativity and ingenuity that media allows. If winning Lions is what you want, the method can be found in the artful application of technology, preferably in pursuit of some social good. Outdoor is rich with emerging possibilities, so expect some more wonderful ideas in the year ahead.

Brand loyalty is an actual thing. Who knew?

I’ve been in advertising my whole life. Even when I was teen, I worked part time at a local sign-writing company designing and also mounting the shopfront signage for local brick-and-mortar businesses.

Ever since then, it has always been me – and them. Me being the advertiser trying to get noticed and sell my stuff, and them being the people who need to be coerced, manipulated, persuaded and even scared into buying it.

Throughout all of my meandering through agencies big and small, in all these different countries, I always had the belief that advertisers were their own breed – incapable of themselves being affected by advertising messages of any kind. Because, after all, we are on the inside and know exactly the game that is being played with the minds of the public.

I’ve never gone as far as installing an ad-blocker on my browser, because I still want to be exposed to what others are doing – but never did I stop to wonder what it must be like to truly be “them”. All I know is that advertising works, and people do look at them, respond to them and act on them and that’s why I have a job.

But then, recently discovered to my shock, what I thought was indifference to the fruits of my own craft turned out to be simply that I don’t really care much about stuff. I realized that if I did care about stuff, I would be just as affected and influenced by even my own advertising as the next consumer.

I love SkechersThis epiphany all started with a pair of shoes. Skechers to be exact. I put them on for the first time and not only did I feel better than James Brown, but I could also see more clearly than Johnny Nash. All the science I had learned about consumer psychology, brand loyalty and customer retention suddenly emerged from the dusty bookshelves of theory and I could feel what it was really like to be the primary focus of my clients’ hefty annual media spend.

Skechers are right in every way. I am someone with little time, little care for self expression and little patience for airport security. I despise laces with a passion; because they’re stupid, time consuming, old fashioned and also people hang themselves with them in prison.

I travel a lot, and if you added up all the minutes I’ve saved not having to bend down at airport security untying and tying my shoes while my name is being yelled over the PA system for last calls, you would have by now about 3 months. Ok, I’ve not used that saved time for anything constructive, but that’s not the point.

The black slip-on “Mens Work” ones I wear can easily straddle between casual, smart casual and formal (depending on the lighting at the place) so now I have a standing order with Skechers to get the same pair, over and over again every 3 months and that’s all I ever need to think about when it comes to footwear.

Now I get weirdly excited when I see a Skechers store and also a little disappointed that it’s not 3 months yet. I watch the Skechers online banner ad rotate a few times before getting back to my article – maybe just out of pure appreciation. If they did YouTube ads, I wouldn’t click skip. I’ve also joined the very generous loyalty club that gives you a whopping $10 back for every $100 spent. Skechers, you do too much.

Maybe it’s sad that I’ve never liked a consumer product as much (except for my Gibson Les Paul, but that’s my child, not a thing), but at least it proves that there’s a real point to my craft, and that advertising really is just a spotlight on what the people actually love.

Media dollars are best spent when we can predict with some certainty whether the consumer who views it will actually care about what’s being sold.

Touch, taste and feel: the estranged senses

Sometimes I like to get physiological when describing new marketing techniques. Brands always talk about driving engagement, or creating a connection with consumers or whatever, but what does that really mean? You could say it involves showing them something they enjoy seeing, and if your brand is in the picture then the positive connection is made.

But that tactic is at risk of being exhausted, and the perpetual desensitization of consumers to everything that you throw at them forces us to remain chained to the tactical drawing board.

musicMedia has shifted towards online because of the perceived advantages in measurement, but it has done so while shortsightedly sacrificing the many pleasure sensors consumers possess other than sight and sound. You can’t invent an 8th color in the rainbow, or a new musical note past G.

But the way to truly connect with a consumer has and always will be through our most primal vessels. That is our senses and instincts. We see colors that indicate the presence of food, and we become excited. We hear the sound of rain and are soothed because of what it means for our crops. There’s the sensory reward from sex because our species needs to bribe us with pleasure to propagate itself. When we taste sugar, we get an endorphin release notifying us that a rare ingredient in nature that boosts energy has been found and we should covet it. (Unfortunately for the nation’s health, that ingredient is not quite so rare anymore.)

So how can we start tapping into some of these senses and achieve the same direct association with the brand that is strived for with an amazing TV ad? Well, there are some companies who I think are doing that in an interesting way.

Vengo Labs is an innovative new approach to the ancient art of product dispensing. There’s a satisfaction like little else when a few quarters are flicked through a slot and the turny thing ejects a candy bar into the waiting bin below. Even though you scrape the skin off your wrist reaching into its bowels to retrieve your item, it is pain you barely notice because of the irresistible magic just witnessed. The connection we just made was between ourselves and a locked cabinet with a glass front – not a brand. Even the candy branding itself is lost because the wrapping has faded into the amorphous white noise of our daily surrounds.

Vengo have created a generic product dispenser with an engaging and interactive digital screen on the front. It’s fairly compact and designed for small stuff like candy, cosmetics and small consumer electronics. The interface for browsing and selecting your product can be completely bespoke, and allows brands to create a much deeper link between themselves and that primal joy of getting something tangible in return.

Online engagement and social experiences have traditionally been leveraged by brands to create meaningful connections with consumers, but this can only ever go skin deep. The idea of delivering this same engagement but with the immediate payoff of something real and satisfying is a sensible way to tap into new and, I think, even more potent sensory channels.

Vengo is not just a vending machine, but a powerful new way of engaging with consumers, and explicitly linking a brand with the primal instincts that govern our choices on a daily basis. It seems no matter how smart we get, it’s still sight, sound, taste, smell and touch that dictate our decisions in life. When brands get on the good side of these senses, it results in a rather well spent media dollar.

Digital Signage Expo 2015 Roundup. #DSE2015

Las Vegas, Nevada. Home of the Digital Signage Expo 2015.

It’s the world’s largest and longest running trade show, exclusively dedicated to showcasing innovative digital communications and interactive technology solutions. Launched in 2004, DSE was the first event dedicated to the digital signage market and has been a significant contributor to the growth of this fast-paced industry.

With the world of Out of Home media being gripped by the rise of digital, in both large and place-based formats, the DSE was a great place to see emerging technologies and learn about how marketers are taking advantage. Every kind of screen was on show, as well as more niche forms of signage such as holographic displays, transparent LEDs and some rather interesting configurations.

Aside from the impressive and engaging possibilities of multi-touch displays, allowing up to 10 fingers at one time, or the mesmerizing effect of transparent hi definition digital glass, there were also some really cool demonstrations of interactive 3D projections that had me captivated for quite some time.

An interesting outfit: Screenfeed. They are a comprehensive one-stop curator of live data-feeds that I’ve seen and an excellent facilitator for digital place-based campaigns – which are made ever richer and more relevant with live updating content. They have all the weather, stocks and news as you would expect, but also infotainment, sports, local events and an amazing variety of health and illness related content.

There was an impressive Smart Shelf branded by book company, Harelquin. Each product has a mini digital screen beneath which can be used for special offers or just to attract attention. But each product also has a motion sensor which detects when it is lifted off the shelf. The digital screen beneath it flips over to some more detailed information about the product, like a book synopsis or nutritional information in the case of a confectionary item.

The shelf is equipped with a camera sensor that tracks all manner of the customer’s positioning in front of the shelf, whether they walked past or stood for a while examining the products.

As you would expect, there is a comprehensive dashboard showing all of the customer activity during the day. Realtime stats tally up which products are being picked up and who is nearby. Then as if that wasn’t enough, check out this really neat heat-map showing which product are most popular and were picked up the most during the day. This gives insight like never before into precise consumer behavior and how they are interacting with your products.

Check out the interactive clothing mirror from Memomi. Stand in front of it, wave your arms to select colors. Try on different outfits, and even turn from side to side to see how they might look on you. I would imagine this is good for the clothing retail space, but you could get creative at a special event and make people look like superheroes.

The rest of the vast Expo floor showed off a wide variety of digital screen suppliers, each boasting an ever-increasing pixel resolution, and some or other improvement on the year before.

However, as marketers and advertisers, we’ve come to expect that screens will always improve in quality, that touch will become more responsive and that prices will eventually fall down. So what does all this really mean for us, and do we even need to care about the advances in digital signage?

The answer is very much a resounding YES. Ever since the first digital sign appeared, the media-buying world was only ever concerned with where it was placed, who owned it and how much it costed for the duration of a campaign.

LED boards are now flexible, and can be built to any size. It is now possible to place large format, immersive and interactive digital experiences in some of the world’s highest traffic and most populated places – but do so in the same manner as we would traditionally for a special build or experiential event.

What’s great about this is that we can spend more time dreaming up amazing experiences to interrupt, surprise and delight consumers on the go, and less worrying about whether the ideas are even possible in our market.

Thanks to the rapidly evolving world of digital signage, the sky is not even the limit.

We are all creative – we just don’t know it.

Here’s a talk I did at CES 2015 in Vegas. The transcript is below it.

People think that you get creative people, and you get non-creative people. That the best ideas are generated by people with the word “creative” or “conceptual” in their title.

Most of us are familiar with that feeling of drawing a total blank when we are challenged with coming up with an idea, especially when we are busy with the daily grind of buying OOH media. When this happens, we excuse ourselves by saying: “I’m not a creative, I’m a suit”. When we are given a request to “come up with something innovative” without anything to go on, it can be daunting.

Derren Brown, a magician TV host from the UK who specializes in the power of suggestion, did a great episode which I think proves how everyone can be creative. It is only what we start with that determines how good our ideas are.

Here is a video which shows two creative executives being challenged with a task. They have to come up with branding, name and a new logo for a taxidermy business.

Derrin places his own designs on a piece of paper in a sealed envelope in plain view and he gives them 30 minutes to do their ideas.

They start their designs, crumple up a few and get busily to work. It’s tough even for them, a creative director and conceptual designer respectively. But eventually something starts to form.

Then the big reveal. Derren lifts the paper to show a bear playing a harp, and a logo with zoo gates surrounding by angel wings, and the name “Animal Heaven”.

They try to justify how they came up with this out of the air: “Well, we came up with this idea of Zoo gates, sort of like all the animals are in a zoo but like a zoo animal heaven.”

But then Derren takes out the envelope and shows them his design. They are shocked. Inside is almost exactly the same design. A harp playing bear, zoo gates, angel wings and his name “creature heaven”.

Then it shows their journey to the brainstorm room. They drive past the London Zoo gates. And past a bunch of kids wearing the logo on their shirt. Angel wings drawn on a sign outside a coffee house. Irish harps in window displays.

The point of all this is that all of the best ideas that we can remember from 2014 were not the result of highly talented creative people, but a single spark that allowed them to build on for the right idea.

Getting practical, I found this tiny chip on Kickstarter. It detects wetness. That’s all it does. Apply it to one of our clients and you have this concept: an app that lets you know when your baby is wet and needs changing.

Then I found some technology in the form of a tiny piece of microfilm. You stick it to your smartphone which then detects your blood/alcohol level.

One of our clients are doing a campaign to raise awareness about DWI. (Driving while intoxicated). Here, you can approach a screen, breathe on the circle and see a result.

The result is your blood alcohol warning and a number to get an UBER to collect you from the bar. A very good idea – if I do say so myself – but the point being it’s not because I am super creative, just that I took something that was already there and applied it to our business.

These sparks are everywhere, all we need to do is look at them and go through a simple exercise of applying it to our medium. Therein, the best ideas will come.

Instant Free: just add ads.

One of the things I noticed after arriving in America from the UK was that ATMs charge you a fee, and not a small one either. If I want $20, I have to pay $3. In Vegas recently, I had to pay $6!

Annoyingly, even your own bank stings you with the very card they issued you – without any goodwill for their loyal customers. That’s very unusual in the UK where most of the ATMs are free, except for a few private ones in convenience stores.

American banks complain that their overhead for providing the privilege of easy cash to their customers is simply too high to offer it for free – yet ATMs play a crucial role in the circulation of currency, which rolls up to the greater health of the local economy. So important is this, in fact, that UK banks underwrite the fees so as not to deter customers from making impulse withdrawals.

Held to ransom for unnecessary ATM fees that other countries do not charge.

Held to ransom for unnecessary ATM fees that other countries do not charge.

In the meantime, back to America: where I have found it to be lagging behind other countries as far as the variety of available payment options is concerned. Americans love their cash, and also that magnetic strip on their ATM cards just won’t die even though the UK has had contactless debit cards for years and chip-and-pin for several more.

Well, I recently met two passionate young entrepreneurs who hope to put a stop to this opportunistic fleecing of the public. Their name? You guessed it, “FreeATM“.

Founders Clinton and Eric challenged the necessity of these fees, that everyone else had just accepted, and decided to apply the age-old freemium model to the machines – that is offer the service for free but show ads on screens.

It’s not rocket science; the ATMs display ads on them. From the advertising revenue, stores take a share and FreeATM takes a share. But what Clinton and Eric have done superbly is apply their appreciation for slick technology. Here are some of their approaches:

  1. A crisp hi-res screen on top. This screen is roughly at eye level, in front of your face, when you approach. You can’t miss it. Full color video ads are displayed. You can see them when you walk by even if you’re not getting cash, and this equates to added impressions.
  2. Ads built into the ATM interface itself. If you’re looking for cash, you will be staring at this area for a majority of the transaction. Ads are strategically placed at the start and during the momentary wait for the cash to be dispensed.
  3. The receipt comes out with ads or coupons printed on the back.
  4. NFC and QR code integrated into the physical unit to enable the scanning of devices for content or special offers – and these are built on a platform to always ensure the content you receive is linked to the ad playing.
  5. They’ve integrated with the Kinetic Active Exchange meaning that advertisers can now include them in programmatic audience digital out-of-home media buys.

Probably most valuable of all is the data they have access to. FreeATM are among the few folks who get to see how much cash is being drawn, what denominations, near what stores and how frequently. With studies to show that a majority of cash drawn from ATMs is spent almost immediately, it can offer day-parted insights into what kind of customers are shopping, and how much they are spending.

Not to mention impressions and dwell time that are measured more accurately because we know precisely how many transactions were made. I am attracted to good data like a moth to a flame, and am always excited to find companies who innovate here.

Particularly if you reside in New York, keep a look out for these free ATMs around town, now nearing 50 and growing rapidly. See their locations here: http://www.freeatm.com/#!locations/c1mm5

Manhattan, Brooklyn and Queens are where they are now, but expect a rapid expansion across the country in the months to come.