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While enjoying a game at Yankee Stadium, you take out your smart phone and point its camera at the field. If the resulting image on your screen shows a giant Quiznos toaster floating above the grass, does that make you more inclined to go get a Quiznos sandwich?

How about if you were at Mount Rushmore and you saw the four carved presidents sipping cola from Quiznos cups? Would that influence your lunch plans? Or what if you were on Wall Street, and aiming your smart phone at a real-world statue of a bull yielded an image of it enjoying virtual nachos?

To users, augmented reality (AR) can seem like magic. When they hold up their phones to their surroundings, the program uses the phone’s camera, GPS, compass, and Web connection to superimpose digital images and information on an on-screen view. For example, a building’s name might float over its image, or virtual arrows might point the way to a subway station. The digital information changes in real time as the camera moves.

Though this technology has been around for a while, it has largely been confined to computers with webcams, or to special goggles and headsets. But with the exploding popularity of sensor-equipped smart phones, marketers are trying to use it to sell everything from lunch to concert tickets.

For the Denver-based Quiznos, the idea came about when the number of mobile users visiting its website skyrocketed from 20,000 to a million in a year. Tim Kraus, Quiznos’s interactive-marketing manager, wondered how he could turn those visits into additional real-life trips to one of the chain’s 5,000-plus stores. He heard about Layar, the company in the Netherlands that created the most popular mobile AR app, with more than a million users worldwide. He decided that AR promised to add a “cool factor” for a new mobile store locator. The Mount Rushmore, Yankee Stadium, and Wall Street images were just a few of more than a thousand location-based virtual objects incorporated into the application.

But since Quiznos launched the AR campaign in June, fewer than 2,000 people have user the layer, says Kraus, and he is unable to link the campaign to any increase in sales. Undaunted, he calls it an early-stage experiment to discover what works and what doesn’t. Aside from the fun and novelty factor, “there’s actually some utility in there,” he says. “I definitely think it’s a platform that’s going to grow.”

Walt Disney World turned to Layar to promote La Nouba, an upcoming Cirque du Soleil performance, with an app that captures the “wow factor” of the acrobatic show, says Disney’s art director, Matt Stewart. “We really wanted to take people by surprise,” he says. Now viewers at select shopping malls in Florida can use their phones to make five images of the performers appear. They might see a virtual dancer leap across the mall’s water fountain or walk on a tightrope overhead.

The campaign is too new to be credited with any boost in ticket sales, says John McCall, a Disney staff writer who helped manage the campaign. But McCall notes that the show’s online purchase page saw significantly more hits, and Cirque “was very excited about the numbers.”

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Tagged: Business, Business Impact, The Mobile Enterprise

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