Monday, July 22, 2013

Augmented reality advertising: Why Google should buy Cafepress

Google Glass
Google Glass (Photo credit: Stuck in Customs)
Because I am strange and my brain does not work the way most leading neuroscientists contend it should, I was of late pondering the long-term fallout of a failed 2002 lawsuit against Sony Pictures on the eventual revenue model for augmented reality applications. This led me to conclude that Google will eventually have to buy Cafepress, or something like it.

Deep breaths; I can explain.


In the Sony Pictures lawsuit, owners of certain key outdoor ad spaces in Times Square were furious that Sony had used CGI to replace those billboards and screens with other advertisers' messaging in the original Sam Raimi Spider-Man film. The lawsuit was ludicrous because Spider-Man was set in a fictional universe into which temporal advertising rights-fees do not extend, so a judge threw it out. But the precedent is interesting.

There will come a day in the not-so-distant future when Google Glass-like devices allow you to run an AdBlock-equivalent algorithm on real life, editing physical advertising out of your everyday experience.

We already know that at least one major ad-blocking utility sells info to advertisers, and we also know that completely editing posters and billboards out of a video feed is really difficult and expensive -- computationally and financially -- so it's easier to superimpose new images over the ads than to make those ads go away. Thus, there may be a very lucrative AdSwap application niche in the very near future, where you can trade out advertising in the physical world for other content, but the AdSwapper app gets the right to share what ads you "should" have seen with advertising research networks (and, naturally, the NSA).

These apps probably won't be straight-up ad swaps. The advantage of billboards to augmented reality systems is that they are, ironically, non-interruptive. This is space in the physical world in which we already expect to receive brief content messages. So, rather than tell you which exit the nearest Cracker Barrel is at, billboards could be co-opted to show your unread email count, the current weather forecast or the top reminder on your task list. It will be less intrusive than flashing a big floating block of letters into your field of view and it will have the advantage of retraining you to value the ad space in the physical world.

The free versions of these AdSwap apps will turn something like three of every four physical ad surfaces into a useful reminder, and the remaining fourth into an ad that AdSwap has been contracted to promote (more than likely some version of a creepy retargeting ad that latched onto you based on your viewing habits).

On the surface, this looks like a win for Google, as a whole new realm of ad spaces comes into play for the undisputed leader in algorithmic advertising. Hold that thought.

When the day comes that real-world billboards can be edited or blocked, the Sony Spider-Man suit is going to be referenced, and physical advertisers are going to go insane. The legal quagmire of deciding whether I, as an augmented reality user, have the right to control what appears in my field of view will be a big deal, one not resolved quickly or cheaply. A whole new set of opt-in and opt-out rights will need to be settled -- can advertising appear on "public" content spaces like stop signs and streetlights, so long as the core message isn't obscured; can competitors impose counter-messaging on product packages, disputing health or effectiveness claims; can racist apps legally retouch visible imagery so that interracial Cheerios ads become comfortably all white or all-black?

My guess? The courts will contend that only certain aspects of reality are "in play" for advertising messages, and that those spaces must be opt-in. Some legacy descendant of a QR code will declare that this sign, this screen, this wall or this shirt is eligible for augmented reality retouching.

That's right, the future includes pre-roll ads on retro-hipster YOLO t-shirts. But the only way the ad gets there is if the shirt is an opt-in space. I expect a whole new category of open source and Creative Commons licenses to crop up about fair use of my physical person for content distribution, but people will buy these ad-enabled items. (And before you tell me no one will pay for the privilege of  being a walking billboard, count how many people you see walking down the street with Nike or adidas or Tommy Hilfiger or Abercrombie & Fitch logo gear on; status consumption is still status consumption.)

To stay in the game, Google is going to have to get in the physical object business, which means building, buying or partnering with something like Cafepress. The Internet of Things, strange as it may sound, is going to be full of ad-supported possessions in the same way to the current web is dominated by ad-supported content. And you can't tell me you wouldn't accept a free or near-free t-shirt, hat or coffee mug that referenced your favorite TV show or sports team even if that free swag appeared with a little ad content to anyone looking at you through an AR viewer.

Wouldn't NASCAR fans buy a Dale Earhardt, Jr. shirt that updated some arm patches with his latest sponsor logos? Wouldn't Taylor Swift fans take a free shirt that constantly updated the tour date list on the back with upcoming shows? Wouldn't everyone at San Diego Comic-Con buy discounted opt-in, 3D-printed costume components that were supported by pre-roll ad messages for the comics and toys and games and movies featuring the characters they were cosplaying?

Augmented reality is going to replace physical screens with virtually editable physical spaces. Being in the ad business means having permission to use these new spaces -- and the best way to guarantee access is to be the provider of these spaces. If Google wants to own advertising in the augmented reality future, they'll have to manufacture more than just Google Glass itself. Google will need to make the objects that Google Glass retouches.

If I were Cafepress, I'd start planning for an acquisition now.

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(As to how I got started on this crazy train, I heard a Marketplace story about Google forcing people to advertise on mobile, which made me think about limited advertising real estate on mobile devices (which makes mobile ads ineffective, dragging down Google revenues, which in turn is why the ad-giant is going to force people to buy them if they want traditional search ads, too), which returned me to the notion that augmented reality solves the screen size problem by putting your whole field of vision in play for content, which made me consider the problem with interrupt-driven ads clouding your field of view, which made me think about how to integrate interrupt-driven ads with AR displays. Yes, I'm weird.)

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