Print marries digital

This year, the number of smartphone users around the world is expected to hit 1.75 billion. Currently, 88 per cent of smartphone users use their phones to research an online purchase. And mobile use now accounts for 51 per cent of time spent online.

To say we are – particularly in the West – a society increasingly glued to our phones, is, then, an understatement. From tweeting our every move to ordering groceries, the number of tasks performed on these devices is ever proliferating.

And if proponents of image recognition and digital watermarking technology are to be believed, another task soon to be regularly and unthinkingly performed by our beloved gizmos, is scanning print.

The prediction for the future is that when you are leafing through a magazine and see an ad you think is interesting, the first thing you will do is get your mobile out and skim it.

‘Skim’ refers here to offering users the ability to access extra digital content when scanning pre-programmed print with their smartphone or tablet camera.

QR codes, according to tech-savvy printers, have failed to take off due to a number of issues. The codes were considered intrusive by many designers, the online content was often poorly thought out and not mobile-optimised and, crucially, the content could not be changed, or the print re-authored, once the code had been created.

Companies that are developing new mobile solutions, such as Ricoh’s Clickable Paper, say the technology they have adopted dispenses with these issues, and as such poses the first interactive print viable enough to make this trend really take off.

Other strengths of these new technologies is that content is downloaded when the user installs the app, so the user is not reliant on signal strength. The download and the video starts playing instantly. That is key because people do not want to wait for content to load.

Dependent on a printed logo for activation, some technology fits into the digital watermarking category of print-to-mobile software, which typically connects the user to live web content. This is the kind of technology advocated by the likes of Linkz.

The other category of interactive print technology currently emerging works by recognising the shapes of a page’s artwork rather than a logo. This is the technology behind Ricoh’s Clickable Paper software, now being trialled and due for commercial release later this summer.

Endless opportunity

Potentially spanning direct mail, flyers, posters, magazines, newspapers, books and packaging, the applications for interactive print technologies are endless, say those in the field.

Clickable Paper is also being trialled at a magazine publisher, where both ads and editorial have been authored to take readers to extra review, video and e-commerce content. It has also successfully implemented the technology in a boat firm’s brochure and a fishing book.

Proponents say there is no limit; this is as good as your imagination. Applications are myriad, schools with yearbooks, tourism attraction owners, packaging with its limited space for printed information.

Some would point out, though, that print-to-mobile technologies have been around for a while without spurring a revolutionary groundswell of interest. Indeed, the majority of interactive print applications cropping up over the past few years have featured, slightly confusingly, the more complex application of augmented reality.

Projects such as the Ikea catalogue, which now allows customers to overlay furniture onto their room and to use an X-ray mode to view inside furniture compartments, proves that the technology can do much more sophisticated things than just link to video content or websites.

So will printers who are now getting involved experience the boom they are anticipating?

Proponents say it is a resolute yes. They argue that the climate is exactly right, in terms of smaller brands, publishers and marketers’ engagement with digital content, and consumers’ willingness to scan.

“The huge wave upon us now is this idea of objects connected to the internet,” says Pete Pierce, co-founder of print-to-mobile software vendor Onprint. “Google is saying with that Google Glass, objects are going to talk to us. And if Google are going there, we are all going there.”

He adds the example of Amazon Flow, an app launched this year that links consumers – through image recognition technology when they photograph a piece of packaging on a smartphone – to similar products on Amazon.

Enhanced 4G and eventually 5G internet speeds and GPS capabilities will inevitably also boost uptake, says Gareth Parker, Ricoh UK strategic marketing manager. “The main trend I think will help adoption is smartphones with slicker, quicker GPS capability and GPS tracking as standard on smartphones. With that you can start making a user’s experience really targeted to where they are,” he says. He says GPS tracking is one of the latest features to be added to Clickable Paper.

Take responsibility

Most crucial, however, will be making sure that consumers are directed to content that they are likely to appreciate. An imminent interactive print revolution is a huge opportunity for printers, says Linkz founder Robert Berkeley, but printers need to take this opportunity seriously and the responsibility that it brings.

“I think the future will depend on how the players out there handle this; it is easy to put consumers off,” says Berkeley.

He explains that if a consumer has a difficult or uninspiring experience, they are unlikely to bother scanning the next time they see an interactive print call to action.

Onprint confirms that printers will be integral to widespread adoption. Pierce says, “For me the printer should be playing a central role in this. Until printers pick up this technology, you are not going to get this at scale.”

These kinds of platforms, though not something every printer will want to get involved with, are actually relatively straightforward to work with from a back-end, technical expertise perspective. Ensuring effective use of the technology is the real challenge.

Although taking a customer to an m-commerce environment is obviously a key potential application (and with the opportunity for companies to avoid the cuts taken by the likes of Amazon, an exciting one), those in the know warn against the technology being used in a shamelessly commercial way. Ads are the worst thing you can be taken to. Then you are having the same experience as you have in your digital, internet experience of being bombarded with ads. What has been shown so far, with a lot of AR projects, is a lot of gimmicky stuff, trying to wow. Developers are now trying to focus on useful stuff.

Peter Lancaster is chief executive at Documobi, the company behind iPR and iAM print recognition systems. He adds that printers considering interactive print software should seriously consider the importance of a package capable of taking users to personalised content. He says, “The ability of software to remember previous interactions with an app and tailor suggestions accordingly will be key.

“We partner with DirectSmile whose software can be integrated with CRM packages like Sales Force. That is to stop someone being taken to an ad for a blue jacket when they have already bought one, for example,” he says.

A software package’s ability to report back on how many scans a piece of print has received and which routes people have chosen from a list of extra content options, is key, says Parker.

“The one thing people tend to miss when shopping for visual recognition software is the metrics and the reporting. But that is the killer,” he says.

This capability is crucial, he says, not only in finally proving tangible ROI for print, but because printers will be able to charge for drawing down and analysing data. The next stage where you can earn money is the reports.

Ultimately, of course, the ability to analyse what is working and what is not comes back to ensuring that the whole proposition takes off by providing genuinely useful content.

The warnings are clear: newly emerging interactive print technologies will only ever be as good as the creative uses they are put to. First adopters taking users to the uninspiring sales pushes and badly optimised websites that sadly characterise much QR code activity, will quickly create similar levels of disengagement.

The gauntlet has been thrown down. Interactive print technology has the potential, along with the internet of things generally, to really explode. And it could do wonders for boosting the power of print. But the ability to unleash this power lies in the hands of printers.

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