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.
“My prediction for the future is that when you’re leafing through a magazine and see an advert you think is interesting, the first thing you’ll do is get your mobile out and Skim it,” says Timon Colegrove, director of Hunts Paper & Pixels.
‘Skim’ refers here to the offering Hunts launched at last month’s MarketingWeek Live, enabling users to access extra digital content when scanning pre-programmed print with a smartphone or tablet camera. Hunts is just one of several UK printers on the brink of bringing a new interactive print technology to market.
QR codes, according to these tech-savvy printers, 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 couldn’t be changed, or the print ‘re-authored’, once the code had been created.
Printers such as Hunts claim the technologies they’ve adopted dispense with these issues, and as such pose the first interactive print technologies viable enough to make this trend really take off.
Colegrove declines to reveal the specific software Skim is based on, but says its USP is that all content is downloaded when the user installs the Skim or branded app, so the user isn’t reliant on signal strength.
“You Skim and the video starts playing instantly,” says Colegrove. “That’s key because people don’t want to wait for content to load.”
Dependent on a printed logo for activation, Hunts’ Skim technology fits into the digital watermarking category of print- to-mobile software, which, unlike Skim, typically connects the user to live web content. This is the kind of technology advocated by Linkz, which currently works with five UK printers, including Berkshire Labels and Paragon Group UK.
The other category of interactive print technology emerging works by recognising the unique shapes of a page’s artwork rather than a logo. This is the technology behind Ricoh’s Clickable Paper software, currently being trialled by Norfolk-based Barnwell Print and due for commercial release later this summer.
Potentially spanning direct mail, flyers, posters, magazines, newspapers, books and packaging, the applications for both technologies are endless, say those in the field. Barnwell has so far rolled Clickable Paper out to a local magazine publisher, where both adverts and editorial have been authored to take readers to extra review, video and e-commerce content. It’s also successfully implemented the technology in a local boat firm’s brochure and a fishing book.
“There’s no limit, this is as good as your imagination,” says managing director Julian Barnwell. “We’ve been talking to schools about their yearbooks; I’d hope to get the majority of our tourist attraction customers onboard with Clickable Paper; and I can’t wait to get started on packaging where you’ve got limited space for printed information – that’s a huge opportunity.”
For Barnwell, the key challenge in getting this to really take off is just having enough time to get in front of people.
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 the increasing numbers of UK printers now getting involved experience the boom they’re anticipating?
From them: a still resolute ‘yes’. They argue that the climate is now exactly right, both 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 Google Glass, ‘objects are going to talk to us’. And if Google are going there, we’re all going there.”
He cites too the example of Amazon Flow, an app launched earlier this year that links consumers – through image recognition technology when they photograph a piece of packaging on a smartphone – to similar products on Amazon.
Of the kinds of digital assets most print customers now have at their disposal, Barnwell says: “What I’m excited about is that most web designers, if they’ve done their job properly, should have a lot of this kind of content in place. What we don’t want to be doing is creating a lot of extra costs for businesses.”
Enhanced 4G and eventually 5G internet speeds and GPS capabilities will inevitably also boost uptake, adds 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 users’ experiences really targeted to where they are,” he says. He reports that GPS tracking is one of the latest features to be added to Clickable Paper.
Most crucial, however, will be making sure that consumers are directed to content that they’re likely to appreciate. An imminent interactive print revolution is a huge opportunity for printers, says Linkz founder Robert Berkeley. But printers need to take seriously this opportunity and the responsibility it brings.
“I think the future will depend on how the players out there handle this; it’s very easy to put consumers off,” says Berkeley. He explains that if a consumer has a difficult or uninspiring experience, they’re unlikely to bother scanning next time they see an interactive print call to action.
Pierce confirms that printers will be integral to widespread adoption: “For me the printer should be playing a central role in this. Until printers pick up this technology, you’re not going to get this at scale.”
Barnwell adds that 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. He agrees that ensuring effective use of the technology is the real challenge.
“I’m keen that Ricoh’s marketing message be all about quality when you’ve clicked. Otherwise the whole thing just falls flat on its face,” says Barnwell.
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), Hunts’ Colegrove warns against the technology being used in a shamelessly commercial way.
“Adverts are the worst thing you can be taken to. Then you’re having the same experience as you have in your digital, internet experience of being bombarded with ads,” says Colegrove, adding: “What has been shown so far, with a lot of AR projects, in my view is a lot of gimmicky stuff, trying to wow. What we’re trying to focus on is 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 be seriously considering the importance of a package capable of taking users to personalised content. The ability of software to remember previous interactions with an app and tailor suggestions accordingly will be key, he says.
“We partner with DirectSmile whose software can be integrated with CRM packages like Sales Force. That’s to stop someone being taken to an ad for a blue jacket when they’ve 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, adds Parker.
“The one thing people tend to miss when shopping for visual recognition software is the metrics and the reporting. But that’s the killer,” he says.
Barnwell agrees that this capability is crucial. He reports that such capabilities will be important, not only in finally proving tangible ROI for print, but because printers will be able, like Barnwell is doing, to charge for drawing down and analysing data. “The next stage where you can earn money is the reports,” he says.
Ultimately, of course, the ability to analyse what’s working and what’s not comes back to ensuring the whole proposition really takes off by providing genuinely useful content.
As Barnwell’s and Berkeley’s warnings make clear, newly emerging interactive print technologies will only ever be as good as the creative uses they’re put to. First adopters taking users to the sorts of uninspiring sales pushes and badly optimised websites sadly characterising much QR code activity, will quickly create similar levels of disengagement.
The gauntlet has been thrown down, then. 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 very much in printers’ hands.