NEW YORK Augmented reality is the latest tech trick brands are deploying on their sites. Until now, however, it has been employed mostly in the service of creating cool 3-D brand experiences.
Enter the U.S. Postal Service. The USPS is using the technology not to immerse consumers in a brand experience, but for a more prosaic purpose: to help them determine if objects will fit in shipping boxes.
The USPS has deployed augmented reality on its PriorityMail.com site. With the Virtual Box Simulator, users hold objects in front of their Web cams. They are then shown on-screen holding those objects -- along with a 3-D box. The technology allows customers to turn and manipulate the boxes to see all angles and figure out if the items they wish to mail will fit inside.
"When any new technology comes along like this a lot of people gravitate towards it," said Garry Pessia, senior account director at AKQA. "There's definitely a buzz factor. At the end of the day, it all boils down to is it useful to consumers and can they get use of it. We've seen that going way back with the first uses of Flash. That stuff goes away if there's not an actual utility."
The experience does not come without some effort. It requires visitors to print out a USPS icon, then set up a Web camera before activating the box simulator.
The tool is the latest in a series of examples of brands jazzing up their Web sites through augmented reality. General Electric launched a well-received Smart Grid site that lets visitors get up close to its solar and wind technology. Verizon and Nokia teamed up to bring Star Trek fans a 3-D trailer experience via augmented reality.
AKQA developed the box simulator as part of USPS's "A simpler way" campaign to promote its new flat-rate shipping boxes. It created "Al," a mailman character that greets site visitors when they arrive and directs them to fill out the priority mail form. He reappears depending on where visitors are in the process. For example, if a visitor is idle for too long, Al will prompt them to continue. If a user answers that he ships a large amount, Al has a quip.
"We wanted to have a little personality there and engagement rather than fill out a random form," Pessia said.