District 9 creates augmented reality

A promo for the District 9 movie

TEXT OF INTERVIEW

KAI RYSSDAL: There's a movie opening today that, to be honest, I'm not sure I'm going see. It looks a little scary, and as I think I've said, I don't really do scary movies. The advertising campaign, though, for "District 9," that's the movie in question, that is something to see.

"District 9" trailer: It's gonna be quick. It's gonna be clean. Best of all. It's gonna be quiet.

Sony, the studio behind "District 9," hired a Hollywood marketing firm called Trigger. They're using something called "augmented reality" to get people pumped up about this movie.

What is augmented reality, you ask? Yeah, I didn't know either. So I called up entertainment journalist Claude Brodesser-Akner and we went to find out.

Ryssdal: Claude, we are obviously not in the friendly confines of the Frank Stanton studios.

Claude Brodesser-Akner: No, we are not.

Ryssdal: Where are we?

Brodesser-Akner: We are at Trigger, of course, in West Los Angeles, which is a youth marketing company, as if anybody wants to market to anybody else.

Trigger's offices are filled with toys and gadgets and free food and drinks. There's a handful of young people working quietly at their computers. Trigger producer Evan Fisk explains the nuts and bolts of what brought us here.

Evan Fisk: Augmented reality is basically a way of overlaying images information on a video screen or a display or a monitor. So, as far as someone sitting in front of a PC, they could hold up a card in front of their webcam.

All right, so let's decipher that: Evan is holding up a postcard that has the District 9 logo on it. You might have seen it on billboards -- the outline of an scary beetle-like creature. Evan puts the card in front of the camera that's attached to his computer. Out of nowhere the scary beetle thing shows up on the screen and bingo, you're controlling it in an augmented reality game.

Fisk: I can actually click buttons, I can make him fire a gun, jump up and down and attack a perfectly harmless human and throw him up against the wall.

Ryssdal: Equipment needed for this is a webcam and a computer basically.

Fisk: Yeah, a webcam, a computer, and if you don't have a card you need a printer to print out the image. But that's about all you need.

Brodesser-Akner: And just a few million dollars in Sony marketing money to get it off the ground.

Speaking of Sony's marketing budget, we have a Sony digital marketing guy here. Joe Epstein runs Sony's digital marketing group.

Joe Epstein: More and more we're experimenting with it, because what it does is it turns every poster, every billboard, every icon on the side of a popcorn bag into a potential digital engagement opportunity.

That's corporate-speak, of course, for marketing to us at all times on all of our digital toys. Claude Brodesser-Akner points out that because most cell phones have webcams nowadays, companies can use this augmented reality to help sell to us wherever we are. Say, walking past a poster for "District 9" with that scary beetle thing on it. You hold your cell phone up, the web browser in your phone recognizes the image and off you go into a game. You're being marketed to and you're enjoying it.

And as Claude says, the technology is only going to get better.

Brodesser-Akner: The GPS function within the augmented reality game is going to unlock, if you will, a level of the game that you can only play when you're at McDonald's. And when you succeed in that level, you then get a coupon for a dollar of a Big Mac.

There's all kinds of business to be done with augmented reality. The postal service has an application. You hold something you want to ship up to a webcam, it shows you on your computer screen your package inside the right-sized box.

Trigger's Evan Fisk says pharmaceutical companies have been calling and others.

Fisk: We're talking with some nonprofits who want to make it help users connect to see where their money's going. So if you're donating to someone to help women in need in some poor third world country, you can see in virtual way how your money is going to help them. You can see the new bicycle they're going to be able to buy with the money that they're going to make from this or the new job that they're going to get.

Still, is augmented reality going to get me into the theater for "District 9" this weekend? I don't think so.

About the author

Kai Ryssdal is the host and senior editor of Marketplace, public radio’s program on business and the economy.

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