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Augmented reality comes to Africa – what is it and what can it do for the continent?

Like a lot of technologies, augmented reality has long roots, going all the way back to the 1970s and 1980s. But the arrival of the smart phone has really started to put it on the map and generate a significant user base. Russell Southwood talked to Brett Levy, Managing Director, Rapid Blue Digital about how it’s been using the technology.

Augmented reality allows a user to look at a view in front of them on a device (whether something as large as a screen with a projection on it or as small as smartphone screen) and see something in the image that isn’t there in real life. 

For example, there is a company called iButterfly that puts flying digital butterflies into the air near retail outlets: you catch enough of them with your virtual digital net and you get prizes. Or it can be something as everyday as a translation of street and shop signs or additional information about the view you’re looking at. It can be anything from retail incentives to educational information about buildings.

Those who are enthusiastic about the technology see it as the eighth mass media (see the video briefing clip link of mobile analyst Tomi Ahonen at the end of this story) but even if you don’t buy this entire bill of goods, it is – along with gesture recognition and motion control – going to play a serious role both in interfaces and in content delivery. 

Why might this be relevant for Africa? The challenge for Africa is to produce low-cost smartphones that have interfaces that go beyond the usual tree-and-branch menu structure with type it in instructions. Gesture is natural and as children will show you, it’s also exploratory. Once you’ve figured out how the gestures work, it’s easy to make things happen. You don’t need to type www.whatever…..

Brett Levy, Managing Director, Rapid Blue Digital is not the first to use augmented reality in advertising campaigns but is among a small group that has also included a campaign for Cadburys. But he does think that they’re probably the first people to use augmented reality on a large screen (3 x 6 metres) and it was a campaign for a telecoms client, South Africa’s incumbent Telkom.

The user steps on an x marks the spot point on floor and at which point the continuously playing commercial stops and elements from the commercial hover at the person’s chest level. They are then given instructions to lift their arms and in so doing, the different elements separate and they then can touch all the different elements. 

It then turns into a game in which they have to push away different things that are coming at them until it gets too fast to do so. The point being made by the client is that you can’t escape convergence which is Telkom’s pitch for an offer that includes fixed line, Internet, mobile and cloud services. (It might be quad play if they had a video service to sell but that’s another story).

The screen has toured a number of major shopping malls like Sandton City (where the footfall is 200,000 a week) and this week will be in Johannesburg’s international airport.

According to Levy:”We’ve positioned ourselves as leaders in this field and have probably done more augmented reality than anyone else on the continent.” The company has used the Aurasma engine and there are apps available for both iOS and Android phones (see here ) Already 2,000 people have downloaded these apps. The standard apps don’t work on Blackberry phones so they have used Wikitude to provide the location base for those handsets.

These apps can be “white-labeled” for other companies and Rapid Blue Digital has done work with 8ta, Nedbank, two national newspapers and gaming company Alienwave. In terms of bandwidth, it can work on EDGE but it works best on 3G, Wi-Fi or LTE.

So if you see butterflies floating across your screen….it’s just the future beating its wings.

Video briefings on this topic and related issues like gesture recognition and motion control:

Mobile analyst Tomi Ahonen on augmented reality as the 8th mass media

Niall Austin, OmniMotion Technology on using gesture recognition and motion control 

Leonard Ah Kun, Cobi Interactive on augmented reality, Leap Motion and Google glasses

Also videos on winning apps that have a relevance to Africa:

Dr Kosala Liyange on Prognosis – Your Diagnosis on his doctors' learning app that uses case studies

J P Ellis & Agatha Simanjuntak-Ellis, Harpoen - digital grafitti app that leaves trail of images and memories

Oliver Koch, QTom on its music playlist software that can suit the mood you're in – looking to expand to territories outside Germany

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