Blended Reality

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Since our last Technology report in 2009 the idea of connectivity has gone from an aspirational marketing idea to a very immediate experience delivered visually. And while connectivity will still be signaled with images of family, groups of friends, lovers, it’s moving in much more diverse and interesting ways.

It’s partly because connectivity is no longer simply the expression of a technological tool connecting us to each other, like wi-fi, the Cloud, or a network. Connectivity today is how we are in the world; it is embedded in our everyday behaviors. What’s driving this transformation is the idea of “augmented reality”, where our real-world environment is augmented by computer-generated input, constantly and live.

There were many visual signposts in popular culture on the way to augmented reality (AR). Everyone’s favorite is Minority Report where personalized ads talk to individuals in public spaces. It certainly wasn’t the first example of AR. Go back to the first Terminator movie, and the shock and excitement at the time of a Cyborg being able to call up information from a database directly into his vision. It seemed to be the very definition of alien, of technology that is so different it defines what it is to be non-human. The Terminator, and his AR, embodied what it is to be a machine.


But in 2012 the idea of a Cyborg-vision as used in Google’s Project Glass, no longer appears non-human, alien and ‘other’ but simply as a technology that ‘puts you back in the moment’. Advertisers, artists and brands are beginning to evolve a new visual language around it as the term itself is changing to reflect more accurately what this revolution feels like. In the language of the corporate research departments we are heading into the era of ‘Blended’ or ‘Mixed’ reality.

It’s worth looking at some great practical examples in this arena. There’s National Geographic, whose product has not just been stories, but whose selling point has always been pictures that inform and give the readers a sense of awe about the natural world’s power, beauty and danger. In 2011 Appshaker worked with Vertigo Digital and NatGeo to create a mixed reality experience in malls across Hungary, enabling shoppers to interact with images of dinosaurs, leopards, dolphins and astronauts.

It’s a technology which lends the audience that sense of wonder. The reaction of the shoppers is hugely instructive, you might think their sense of space, and time, would be unsettled by images of themselves interacting with dinosaurs and astronauts. And yet they couldn’t be more relaxed, as they play and perform with images, it’s an experience that’s both deeply personal and deeply social.

Lynx deodorant created a similar mixed reality in London’s Victoria train station, echoing the storyline of their ‘angels falling’ TV spots.

Brands are also playing with “analog” versions of mixed reality such as this launch event for the PlayStation Vita by TBWA in Brussels, which isn’t even selling the mixed reality aspects of the technology but surfs the mixed reality vibe.


The idea of “mixed reality” is rippling in through image-making and the culture-at-large partly, no doubt, because it reflects consumer experience of connectivity being broader than the marketing messages of technology companies. Everyone today is mediating their life through photography, GPS location, status updates, likes, shares etc, so the narrative of life becomes more intense, more real.  The idea of “real” is a core idea that is hammered away at in current telecoms communications for the very reason that the world of AR doesn’t always feel real. The defining graphic styling of visual imagery signaling connectivity is “layered”, “collaged” or “tagged”, giving the consumers an experience of connectivity, which is intensely felt because it is delivered on or by our phones.

Anthropologist Genevieve Bell, director of the Interaction and Experience Research Group at Intel Labs, believes interactions via our phones feel more intimate, partly because the phones themselves, unlike laptops, desktops, tend to be “on our bodies, they’re in our pockets, they’re in our hands, we sleep with them…”, and also because the things we do with them are intimate like talking to our friends, taking photos of people we care about, they are archives of our lives.

Yet the imagery and graphics used to market these are often very unlike the highly immediate, emotionally charged experiences we have with these phones. The best visual communications address this visual, emotional hit, head on.

The ad for SFR revolves around distance, both geographic distance and the distance between genders, with it’s at “What’s a Zizi?” It links pregnancy as a visual sign of our connectivity with nature (the baby in the womb) with the connectivity of technology; it plays with the different perspectives of male and female in discussing what they see on a smartphone image of a baby in the womb. The “Zizi” is the kind of information you can only get in an image.

The use of imagery will look more “blended” and what’s really interesting is that consumers are used to images that don’t have a single point of focus, but have interesting information on the periphery of the image. As we hold up our smartphones or our tablets to frame a picture, significant information appear from the edges, and the images themselves connect with others in unexpected ways.

Like this ad for the Nokia 808, all shot on the camera, zooms from the edge of one frame into another, one image blending into the next.

A perfect example of how we are going to perceive images echoing the concept of “blended reality”. A similar idea is delivered in this spot for the Amazing Everyday Nokia Lumia 800, the images are framed up by the flowing tiles of the Windows operating system while the images themselves express the strapline, “The Amazing Everyday”.  There’s skateboarding dogs, BMX bike tricks, maps, news footage, shiny rouged lips and an accordion.

It is indeed likely that this new era of “mixed reality”, of connectivity, may, like the 1960s, herald a trend in “spiritual” imagery as people respond to this new social image space.  We
are on the verge of a quantum leap in imagery, and the signs are all around us in the real-time, data-filled, images we see on our smartphones. Images are no longer just for looking at, they are gateways. 

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