As a result, precisely at the point where a new media-induced environment becomes all pervasive and transmogrifies our sensory balance, it also becomes invisible. — Marshall McLuhan, Playboy
McLuhan reminds us that all things new eventually become boring. Radio constantly proves this point. You get excited when you stumble on your favorite new song, maybe up to the point of singing or dancing in the privacy of your car or shower of course. Within a few weeks or months, because every radio station has played the hell out the track, you give up on the song.
Technology, unlike media, gains utility once it becomes invisible due to scale and awareness. Think of the fax machine or Facebook. Both technologies were essentially useless until other people joined the network. You cannot send a fax to yourself and Facebook in its infancy was nothing more than an empty sounding board. As the barriers of entry diminished (after all the first Facebook users faced a social cost) the technology matured to the point of utility. Remember too that technology gets replaced as the fax machine did via e-mail and the Internet.
Most printed pages, like the fax machine, will get replaced by some combination of technology. Until that point print’s longevity will hinge on interactivity with digital media and networks. Pages largely communicate through images and text. While images and text can convey a message in a visually impactful way, the interaction is limited between the reader and the material. For over 40 years, the industry has tried to extend the experience beyond the reader and the page by first using bar codes.
Bar codes have provided some level of interactivity for over 40 years and have mutated over the years to fit different applications. Mobile or 2d bar codes are the newest kids on the block that can contain embedded data, trigger text messages, or redirect the user to online content. Bar codes still have limitations. They are visually disruptive and require an application and scanning device to read. Mobile bar codes also require a defined strategy and supporting backend system (pURLs, databases, landing pages, content, analytics, etc.).
Another option to make the page come to life is Augmented Reality. In fact, news outlets were reporting the permature death of mobile barcodes last week after vendors made strides at the E3 show. Several companies are offering AR solutions for publishers. Generally these require the user/reader/viewer to download an app to their smartphone and then hover over the printed content. The app will recognize which page you are on and offer additional, online content to go beyond the page. Publishers such as Esquire and Instyle were early experimenters that direct readers to a movie of Robert Downey, Jr. and online landing pages respectively. The experience for the consumer, so far, has been nothing short of painful. First the user has to download the app, launch it, awkwardly point it toward the page, wait for the app to recognize the content, and then be direct to the content which, more times than not, is a complete let down.
McLuhan also famously said that “the message is the medium.” In the case of bar codes and AR, the medium sucks. Until the experience because effortless, seamless, and rewarding, the user will find the message through the more efficient medium. For this reason, the interactive print needs to be part of an object aware environment.
For instance, your smartphone would recognize the magazine you just sat down to read. The app auto downloads and launches offering different options. One option might be to read the magazine on the phone while another option might offer video summations of the articles to watch. You leave the magazine at page 32, but then later pick up where you left off on your phone. Much of this interaction could be accomplished today using near field communication (NFC) technology. For now this technology and application is just like the introduction of the fax machine or Facebook — it is waiting for the boring ubiquity.
Ultimately, to gain adoption, the whole experience has to be seamless and intuitive. Period.