augmented realityUnless you’ve been living in a cave for the past few years, you’ve undoubtedly heard that Augmented Reality, the enhancement of the physical world with digital information, is the “next big thing.”

AR, as it’s called, is hot and big tech firms such as Microsoft, Google, Facebook and Sony, have all announced upcoming AR products ranging from goggles to games. Hundreds of other firms are also working on technology that will bring AR into every corner of our lives – home, work, transportation, education, you name it.

What does this mean to marketers? Are we looking at a future where everyone has “Terminator Vision” and we can float personalized digital ads across the sky or magically wrap a real building inside a virtual can of cold beer? Sorry, but no. As interesting as that sounds, it’s going to be some time before enough people are equipped with the AR hardware to make that possible. There is, however, one interesting AR application that is rapidly emerging thanks to the fact that nearly every adult is now carrying a smartphone. It’s called “context awareness” and it has the potential to transform marketing as we know it.

Contextual AR uses “who”, “what”, “where” and “when” to divine the “why” of a customer’s behavior and then precisely tailor marketing efforts based on that information. Of course, marketers have been attempting this very thing since the concept of “marketing” was first developed. From foot fall counters in storefronts to “click-throughs” on the web, we’re constantly observing, measuring, testing and re-testing in an attempt to more precisely understand consumer intent and make our marketing more successful. But these efforts have always had limited success because they rely on small sample sizes and disparate data sets that are hard to get real meaning out of.

Recently, however, new technology that can hear the “pings” people’s smartphones make when they’re out and about not only makes it possible to uniquely and anonymously distinguish nearly every individual within a physical location, but also add in granular digital details such as time, date, location, length of stay, visit frequency and more. One such technology company making headway in this space is Sysorex, which makes a product called AirPatrol. Using an array of paperback book-sized sensors to locate mobile devices within a building, AirPatrol logs the flow of people giving architects, property managers, retailers and the like insight into how building layout, store displays and other interior structures affect foot traffic patterns. This augmenting of physical information with the digital makes for a sort of “reverse AR” application that lets marketers abandon guesswork and assumptions and start working with concrete, verifiable data on the “why” of the customer’s visit.

Early adopters of contextual AR, tech forward industries like retail, banking and travel, originally used it to do things like determine how a merchandise display affected storefront traffic flow or how many people walked past a digital display board at a particular time of day. But now they’re pairing it with predictive analytics to serve up truly transformative new customer experiences .. Is a solo person walking quickly to the food court at noon? That’s a lunch visitor with little time. Give him the “quick lunch” menu. Frequent flyer from Toronto just walk into the airline’s VIP lounge in Sydney? Greet her by name and hand her a favorite beverage. The wait time in the checkout line pass three minutes? Send an employee to open another cash register.

These examples are only the beginning. As contextual AR continues to mature, the mind-boggling amounts of data about customer behavior collected and analyzed from both the physical and digital worlds will steadily eliminate the assumptions and guesswork that goes into the measurement of marketing programs. Along with it, the practice of marketing itself will evolve from mass messaging for extended periods into just the right message to the right individual at the right time. In fact, it probably won’t even be distinguishable as “marketing” at all. Just a well-timed suggestion.

Originally posted on the Canadian Marketing Alliance.