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

By | February 24, 2014

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.

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5 thoughts on “AR: Showered With Praise, or The Doors of Perception…

  1. Margie Dana

    Hi, RR!

    Great post and thanks for your excellent points. I nearly didn’t include the digital version of Coastal’s catalog, because it doesn’t do the printed version justice, and I don’t think the AR value is or can be realized online in this product.

    The beauty of this interactive catalog is in its function for the shopper/browser. AR embedded in a printed catalog in this way can be really, really good for the user, as it was for me. I hadn’t downloaded the Layar app until the catalog arrived, and it works like a charm on the printed piece.

    In the past, most of my attempts to launch AR apps in printed magazines failed miserably. i try two or maybe three times and after that, I give up. I feel the same about QR codes, which have to make sense to me as a user or else I blithely pass them by.

    A big part of the appeal of this printed & interactive piece is the beautiful production value. The size is magnificent; the paper, so luscious!; and the printing just superb. I love it. I’ve received samples in the past that didn’t impress me, and so I never shared those in a tip or other blog.

    I totally agree with you about not needing or wanted AR in books. It’s like watching a movie and being interrupted by ads. But that is a totally different thing: reading books vs. shopping.

    Thanks again, Richard. Very well done.

  2. Al Bagocius

    Hi Richard,

    Our mutual friend, Margie Dana of forwarded me the link to your blog this morning.

    I’m the sales team member of Drummond that printed Coastal’s Catalog and would invite you to consider this.

    It’s my understanding that you didn’t have an actual production printed piece to try Costal’s AR…you tried it off the virtual copy of your computer screen.

    Like you, I have a love for printing as well as packaging, that, for me has lasted for over 33 years professionally and still going strong.

    Let me “share the love” with you and send you a few copies of Coastal’s Catalog for you and your associates to try, the right way…then let’s further discuss on your blog.

    Best regards,


  3. Patrick Cobb


    Thank you for providing your feedback and the experiences you’ve had with AR technology with regard to print applications. With your permission, I’d like to ship you a print version of Coastal’s 2014 Shower Enclosure Buyer’s Guide and see if this opinion remains steadfast. I can understand your frustration trying to digitally scan the digital screen as I too had the same doubts… Once I saw the real thing, it worked just as envisioned. It’s important we take it for what it is, and not reach for “magic”. By far the #1 intention of the software is to help make relevant information on a subject more readily available for those who desire it without flooding information into those that don’t. Have you ever seen an ad for a sports car in the paper which inspired you to research further. Why not have a 3d model floating in front of you?

    Please let me know to where I should address the catalog.


    -Patrick Cobb

  4. Gina Testa

    From hybrid books to augmented reality features, print has become more cutting-edge and interactive and still plays a huge role in advertising and communication. There’s a meaningful connection between print and digital, and this will be especially true in the future as devices like smart phones become even more ubiquitous. But for a person looking to disconnect and unplug—printed materials can help deliver that experience. When I sit down to relax and read a book on the weekends, I prefer the physical experience of print. I don’t always need the fancy and sometimes complicated features that go into interactive print.

    But you’re right—it’s important to remember how far we’ve come with printed technology. Now, a printed map can be complemented by the capabilities of a tablet or smart phone, integrating display technologies such as augmented reality or providing instant access to electronic content. Print can help to be the conduit, creating unique and valuable user experiences through the combination of both media—and this is something that we all can benefit from. The fact is, print has changed and technology printing professionals are becoming more creative to make sure that print doesn’t become obsolete in today’s digital world. — Gina Testa, Xerox US Graphic Communications Operations, @GinaTesta

  5. Nancy Scott

    Dear Richard… Yeah, I feel this too. It’s kewl, but why do we need it? It’s amazing, but who has time? It’s futuristic, but I’ve got a deadline in two hours. It bedazzles, but I need some quiet time. Sometimes I think every person on earth who’s an adult in 2014 lives with a swimming head. I realize that this comment doesn’t contribute a single thing to the professional conversation, but reading your assessment stirred my love (and hate) of the amazing times in which we live. I had to say thank you for doing that so well.

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