What Nonprofits Can Learn Looking Thru Google's Glasses

Augmented Reality (AR). Photo by epredator

The news from Google that we’ll soon all be wearing glasses with a small screen displaying digital content has ratcheted up talk around augmented reality or AR. AR is when digital content is layered over the physical world to enrich the user’s experience. Wearing our Google glasses, for instance, we could scan deals and specials at nearby businesses without going into them, or see the road we’re on as it looked a century earlier.

Google Glasses. Photo by Google+

Glasses aren’t the only way the digitally enhanced world will be displayed. Smartphones and tablets will probably be more common and accepted AR devices. (I can’t help but think that adopters of Google’s glasses will be as welcome a sight as Bluetooth users with their earpieces.)

I first learned about AR when I was writing my book, QR Codes for Dummies. It’s very cool technology. If you’d like to see how an AR world will look on your smartphone you should check out this video from Layar, a European company that’s working to bring AR to the masses.

But as the co-founder says in the video, “The medium [AR] is in its infancy….We’re in the 1994 of the Internet.”

Umm… let’s hope we don’t have to wait that long.

I’m optimistic that AR will be here much sooner. The work of Layar and others is proof that AR experiences are already happening, and Google is reportedly set to ship its glasses by the end of the year. But it could be two to five years before AR really takes hold. Maybe longer for nonprofits that can be sometimes slow to adopt new technologies.

The good news is that there are practical ways nonprofits can get started now with augmented reality and producing a more enriching experience for stakeholders.

AR uses things that are already available and widely used.

AR will rely heavily on two things: your camera and your location (GPS). Viewing the real world through your smartphone or tablet camera is what will trigger the overlay of digital content. Your location will determine the type of content you see and generate personalized results. For now, nonprofits can capitalize on the preference and growing dominance for anything visual by telling their stories on YouTube, Pinterest, and Instagram. Nonprofits should also be focused on delivering custom results for supporters based on interest and location. The type of information a supporter gets after they check into a Feeding America food pantry on Foursquare should be different in Boston than it is in San Francisco. Nonprofits needn’t wait for AR to be compellingly visual or location-centric.

AR begins with QR Codes.

The idea of using mobile technology to connect the physical world with digital content begins with QR Codes. Many people view these black and white mazes as clumsy, ugly, and poorly used. They have a point. But remember QR Codes are the modern equivalent of stone wheels on carts. They’re not sophisticated but if you want to transport a lot of stuff quickly from one place to another, they do the job well. (Unlike a regular barcode, you can encode just about anything on a QR Code.) Instead of waiting around for someone to make a better wheel, I suggest nonprofits get going with QR Codes. When AR does roll around, they’ll be further down the road than those that chose to wait.

AR will be strong with retailers.

As a cause marketer, I know the importance of department stores, supermarkets, restaurants, etc. to nonprofits. These businesses underwrite our events and market our causes to their customers with joint promotions. Cause marketing will be a key part of nonprofit marketing in the years ahead and will smack right up against AR, which is already showing promising signs with retailers. AR gives a whole new meaning to window shopping. One London retailer last year used AR screens to let shoppers try on watches without going into the store. Sales of that watch increased 83 percent during the promotion.

AR will play a major role in other businesses, including real estate and gaming (and nonprofit themselves), but none of them will be as important as retail where causes will raise millions from smartphone-toting shoppers. If your nonprofit needs another reason to start building win-win partnerships with retailers, add augmented reality to the list. It will be a reality before you know it.