Third Life: Merging of the virtual and real worlds

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Norm Johnston, global digital leader at Mindshare Worldwide, explores the opportunities for advertisers in the ’Third Life’ virtual world.

Last weekend I took my three young boys to the Tate Modern Gallery for a quick tour of some of the world’s best modern art.

My plan to disperse some cultural wisdom was quickly quelled by their surprising knowledge of various obscure pieces of art. It was only later that I realized they had “borrowed” my Google Nexus One phone and had cleverly deployed Google Goggles to dazzling effect.

Google Goggles is a clever little application that enables you to simply take a photo of anything from a landmark building to a painting. Google then matches your photo to a vast image database and voila you get a detailed explanation of exactly what you are viewing.

It may sound of passing interest to most brands until they realise Goggles can also be used on bar codes, logos, and products; and instead of Frida Kahlo, the user will get product reviews, pricing comparisons, and any “likes” from your social graph.
Google Goggles is remarkable for more than just its ability to do visual searches; Goggles is yet one more example of how the internet is going through a massive transformation.

At the Tate my kids didn’t “log-on”, type a single word, or even follow a Web link. For them the Internet is simply there; all around us, in the air, up in the clouds, and easily accessible via dad’s Nexus phone. Google Goggles is one small example of how the internet has been freed from its previous constraints of keyboards, the World Wide Web, and PC’s.

In fact, it is becoming increasingly hard to determine what is offline and online anymore. Google and many others are in the process of seamlessly combining the real world with the online world into something entirely different.

Soon the Internet will be embedded into and weaved throughout everything and into everyone; an indistinguishable mashing of your real physical first life and the internet’s second virtual life into a “Third Life”, which is neither a necessarily on or offline.

Layar, an innovative Dutch company, has created an augmented reality application that lets you get useful information on your physical surroundings via your mobile phone. Simply look through your mobile and you’ll get virtual signs, images, and data layered on top of your real surroundings. This virtual Layar will help guide you to local restaurants, stores, and banks.

Both General Motors and Ford are integrating similar augmented reality technology into their windshields so your GPS directions will be layered on to the road in front of you, as well as directions to your local Burger King or HSBC branch.

However, it’s not just objects being integrated into Third Life. The recent wave of geo-location tools like Gawker Stalker, Foursquare, Loopt, Facebook Places, and Google Latitude let you virtually track your friends’ physical locations; essentially tagging, indexing, and mapping your social graph on to Third Life’s grid.

If you’re having trouble recognising someone you can also try new face recognition technology. Think Goggles for people. Apple recently acquired Polar Rose, a company that lets you to take a photo of someone and pull up their Facebook or Linkedin page. The Astonishing Tribe from Sweden are developing a similar Android application called Recognizer.

Brand marketers may be scratching their heads at this stage. Most are probably not even aware that this blended real and virtual world even exists. It is indeed early days, and Third Life manifestations such as augmented reality are very young and nascent. However, the next few years will see a rapid maturity in and adoption rate of these technologies as smartphone penetration rates go up. What can brands do now?
To start marketers need to experience Third Life and assess the implications of these technologies.

Simplistically, what do you want to appear when someone Google Goggles your brand, icon, or products? What data, messages, and promotions can you add to Layar to ensure your brand is best positioned in this blended real and virtual environment?
Starbuck’s Point and Find iPhone application superimposes directions to your nearest Starbucks on to your surroundings as well as providing coupons and promotions.

How can you better activate your own offline brand assets – posters, print, stores – to build positive advocacy and incremental reach in Third Life? For example, in Belgium, Nike lets consumers use their mobile phone to “Like” its products via QR codes and “Like” icons on its outdoor advertising.

So the next time your children start gawking through their mobile phone just keep in mind that they may be seeing something quite extraordinarily different from you.

While Third Life may be invisible to most of us, it is most definitely a very real, virtual growing world full of opportunities for as well as threats to your brand.

Is your brand a digital innovator? Enter Marketing Week’s Engage Awards 2011 now.

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