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"The question is always, 'How do I stand out?'" Guldemond says. "Everybody's looking for the killer use case they can try on a mobile device."

But there are still several obstacles that stand between marketers and the mobile, augmented reality game world they dream about. For one, brands usually want to fold augmented reality into their own mobile tools instead of partnering with a third-party app, Guldemond says. The downside is that this approach can fragment audiences across many branded apps instead of helping create one popular augmented reality game with multiple sponsors.

"I think there's a little bit of an app fatigue," Gallaga says.

Another reason to question the potential scope for augmented reality gaming is the U.S.'s slow adoption of QR codes, those black-and-white icons that can be embedded with data and scanned by most smartphones. QR codes are downright simple compared to augmented reality. With little more than a few Google searches and a printer, users could create a whole game built around them in one afternoon. And yet the QR code remains a novelty in the U.S. marketing landscape.

In Asia, by contrast, these codes are an inescapable part of daily life. "In Tokyo, you can barely move for QR opportunities at most big retail outlets and on graffiti walls and fliers," says Northcott, who lives in Thailand.

It's not an issue of mobile adoption, he says. It's about a cultural willingness to try something new, even if it doesn't work quite as well as marketers might like.

When it comes to real-world gaming, U.S. marketers for sure have reasons to keep their distance: audience reach, slow adoption rates, partners that are little more than basement startups and investment returns that can optimistically be called "questionable."

But as businesses debate the obstacles versus the merits, real-world gaming will continue to grow, evolve and approach the potential for a mainstream explosion of FarmVille proportions. And when that day comes, marketers will be reminded of the one rule universal to all games: You can't win if you don't play.


Technology Rocks: The tools behind the gaming trends


GPS

Developed for military use in the 1970s, satellite-based Global Positioning System technology didn't get much public attention until it was added to mobile devices and car navigation in the 1990s. Today, GPS is the backbone for location-based applications like Gowalla, Foursquare and Yelp.

What's next: Facebook is finally rolling out its own location-based features, which could be a game changer in a field currently led by small startups.


QR Codes

Quick Response codes have been tremendously popular in Asia for years, but are just now hitting the American mainstream. Easy to create (just search for "QR code generator" online), these codes can link to almost any site or embed information such as phone numbers and e-mail addresses. Any mobile device with a QR scanner app can pull up the information.

What's next: Look for QR codes to start popping up on product labels, magazine ads, posters and just about anything else that wants to drive consumers to a site with more information.


Augmented Reality

One of the most buzzworthy tools in marketing today, augmented reality blends digital imagery with the real world. Using cues such as logos or GPS coordinates, programmers can make images and information pop up on screens in real time. So far, marketers have mostly used Webcam applications, such as Esquire's popular AR issue and Doritos' Blink 182 "concert on a bag."

What's next: Thanks to the addition of a highly accurate gyroscope and video upgrades, the iPhone 4 could be the first device to bring mobile augmented reality to the masses, creating endless potential for real-world games and virtual entertainment.



Games People Play: Hunts and giveaways generate fans and followers

GoSmithsonian Trek

When you think about cutting-edge fun, the Smithsonian Institution might not be top of mind. But in June 2010, America's premier museum kicked off a high-stakes scavenger hunt called The GoSmithsonian Trek, which allows visitors to compete to solve puzzles based on clues hidden throughout the Washington, D.C., complex. One question in the hunt, which is active through July 24, asks: "What animals were kept in pens behind the castle?" The winner on opening day received a $500 iPad, with two more to be given away to top scorers at the end of this month. The challenge was built using SCVNGR, a location-based game that can be customized by almost any business and played through free apps on the iPhone and Android.


Jimmy Choo Trainer Hunt

While brands like Bravo and Starbucks have leveraged Foursquare on a national scale, high-end fashion house Jimmy Choo went local in the spring of 2010 when representatives took a $600 pair of sneakers around London. The reps would post Twitter hints, Facebook updates and Foursquare check-ins, giving fans a brief amount of time to show up and claim the trainers at a city venue. After a month of playing hard to get with more than 4,000 online participants, the trainers were found and claimed. Jimmy Choo reported its own reward: a 33 percent increase in sneaker sales.


Red Bull Scavenger Hunt

In late 2009, Red Bull hid 9,000 cases of its new Energy Shots across the country, then posted hints to help more than 1 million Facebook fans track down the caffeinated caches. Everyone from college students to white-collar professionals scrambled to find the hidden drinks. Fans of the beverage weren't the only winners of the effort. Red Bull's social media presence got its own burst of energy. Within weeks, the Red Bull page had shot up to 1.5 million fans. Within six months of the stunt, the fan count had surpassed 4 million.


David Griner is a social media strategist for marketing agency Luckie & Company and a contributing editor to Adweek's daily blog, AdFreak.com.