Over the holiday break, I had what I’m pretty sure was my first “civilian” encounter with augmented reality. At a New Year’s Eve party, a friend of the family showed me a bottle of wine from Rabble Wine Company which, when viewed with the company’s smartphone app, reveals an AR-powered animation that’s three-dimensionally mapped onto its label. You can see it in action in this video.
Not too bad, right? For a clearer view, this video clip displays the same animation, flat.
To my somewhat mild surprise, Rabble’s bottles are hardly unique. A number of wine and spirits companies have employed AR technology to bring their labels to life. Here’s another attractive (if more salesy) example, this time for Gentlemen’s Collection Wines.
In fact, both of these AR designs are among several projects for alcohol brands created by Tactic, a San Francisco-based studio that specializes in immersive media experiences for brands. And of course, neither Tactic nor the beverage industry are unique in deploying AR in this way: Ikea, Tesco and Kate Spade are just a few of the brands experimenting with this medium.
What I found notable though was that it wasn’t until the very last day of 2018 that I had any kind of a real world conversation about augmented reality with someone who is not a technologist or designer or somehow directly involved in the tech industry. Given the relentless drumbeat around augmented reality, this is surprising. If it’s inevitable, as futurists and technology pundits have claimed for some years, wouldn’t it be reasonable to expect more “organic” conversation about augmented reality outside of tech circles by now?
Muted genuine enthusiasm for AR is less surprising when you consider the friction involved in accessing this kind of content. I looked over that bottle of Rabble Wine and couldn’t find a single hint on the label that the “experience” of it could be complemented by a smartphone app. Even if you go to the Rabble website and follow the link to buy a bottle, there’s no mention of AR there at all either. So a customer would need to not only know, somehow, that the app was available, but he or she would also have to have the wherewithal to actually download and install the app.
In our app-friendly society, that probably doesn’t sound like a tremendous hurdle, but it’s already too many steps for the average person to bother with. To some extent I’m impressed that my friend went through the trouble of acquiring the app and then showing it to me at all. Still, I doubt many people would bother to do the same. If decades of tech product development have shown us anything, it’s that with each step that a user is required to undertake in order to use something, the potential audience is diminished exponentially.
What’s more, the Rabble app and others like it are essentially single-purpose pieces of software—there’s nothing else you can really do with them if you’re not pointing them at very specific bottles—and even then, the value they offer is extremely narrow. A technology with few purposes and few opportunities to take advantage of those purposes makes for pretty limited “virality,” as they say.
All of which suggests that the use case for augmented reality, at least in these examples, still seems poorly imagined at best. This kind of implementation frankly has no answer to what the media theorist Neil Postman described as one of the most important questions that should be posed of any new technological innovation: “What problem does this solve?” It’s clear that augmented reality, which I happen to personally believe is rife with potential, is still waiting for its iPhone moment: the debut of a product innovation that makes it not just technologically possible but useful, easy to access—and worth talking about.