You’re half-way through a gaming session and the world is breaking apart around you as you run from attacking aliens. Firing as you go, you turn a corner and suddenly your view is filled with the sight of a brand new sedan. You see a cute dog at your local coffee shop. When you lean down to pet the dog an ad pops up next to your hand inviting you to buy puppy food. Sounds dystopian? No, it’s just the latest in advertising technology guidance from the Interactive Advertising Bureau.
Augmented Reality (AR) and Virtual Reality (VR) are exciting technologies, but they are far from mature. Early adopters have paid a lot of money for expensive devices but the future of both the hardware and software for AR and VR is still uncertain.
New Advertising Opportunities
This murky future hasn’t stopped the IAB from pushing out guidance in its latest “#IABNewAdPortfolio” on advertising formats for both platforms. The enthusiasm for new advertising opportunities is understandable. However, these new ad formats could easily kill off these infant platforms.
Worse, it is unlikely that early AR and VR advertisers will strictly adhere to the IAB’s guidelines. The reality is most ads have a tendency to step over the already permissive restrictions laid out in IAB documents. It seems likely that will also be the case with AR and VR.
The IAB has specified ad formats that could turn their hosting technologies into a wasteland. Advertisers could display any ad format onto a virtual wall or billboard. Considering the current state of display ads, that alone is a troubling concept. The IAB offers almost no restrictions on interactive objects, only recommending that a branded can of soda shouldn’t take up the whole view. One innovator in VR advertising provided their own horrifying example of a virtual landscape infested by Despicable Me’s Minions.
Disruptive, And Not in a Good Way
According to Crunchbase, this mission to create a world where every flat surface and vehicle stares at you through the dead goggled eyes of a Minion garnered over 5 million dollars in funding, surely a sign of the future to come.
The IAB guidance specifies an opportunity for interstitials as well:
360-degree video placed as an interstitial ad between different VR scenes. 360-degree video MUST completely fill the VR scene with video ad.
It is hard to imagine a more disruptive experience than being in one world and turning around into a 360 ad embodying an entirely different one. Such an ad format would be easy for less ethical content providers to exploit, with every virtual head turn or gaze providing a chance to fall into an ad.
I’m Looking at You, AR
Then comes the horror that is the IAB’s ad guidance on Augmented Reality experiences: AI that watches everything you glance at and triggers ads accordingly. Here’s the guidance on what happens when Orwell meets Ad Executive:
For example, a brand may choose to associate a product or service with dogs. When the AI system on a device “sees” a dog using the device lens, the AI system can associate the familiar concept with the previously known concept of a “dog.” The unknown visual of a dog that the AI system scans may be either an image of a dog or the three-dimensional animal. Once recognized, the system can trigger the display of brand content.
This is a terrible concept. First, eager marketers would likely train AI to trigger on even vaguely associated objects. Second, the guidance allows for display ads to be either attached to physical objects or stuck to your viewport until… I don’t know, you go crazy? The concept is so obviously terrible that it was satirized 17 years before the IAB even came up with it.
Tracking the Trackers
This doesn’t even touch on consumers increasing opposition to the tracking currently deployed in display and video ads on the web. Ads run by AIs that track every gaze would only compound that invasion of privacy.
Considering the low-quality technical performance of ad tech and the heavy battery use of AR devices, the platforms themselves would probably not be capable of supporting the ad space effectively. Endless popups assaulting an Augmented Reality user’s view is sure to destroy any chance the technology has to make it into the general consumer market. While current ad tech may have damaged the viability of publishers on the web, this may be the first time ad tech destroys a whole technology category with its urgency to monetize.
Slow Down and Get it Right
If AR and VR are to bring advertising dollars, it isn’t by replaying the mistakes of the last decade on new formats. The first step will be severely limiting the possible locations where—and amount of time when—advertising can appear. The next, in any guideline or best practice we must recommend against the invasive tracking of ‘Advertising Intelligences’. This is not the world we want to build and we cannot open the door for this type of tracking tied to these platforms.
This does not mean that there aren’t opportunities. Product placement is, without a doubt, a clear trade-off that most consumers have already accepted. Another option is that sponsors of VR and AR experiences could provide opening areas before users encounter the content, a more appropriate type of pre-roll. If the technology is given the opportunity to mature, many other opportunities will certainly emerge.
Whatever the future brings, if we wish for it to include AR and VR in our everyday lives—and in the lives of the consumers whose trust is essential to our success—we can’t allow these types of proposals to go unchallenged. If we need ads to fund these platforms, we will have to find more creative options, ones appropriate to the technology and user experience. No matter what business model supports AR and VR, we don’t want to create an untenable experience before these emerging formats have had a chance to develop and capture audiences.
Aram Zucker-Scharff is the Director for Ad Engineering in The Washington Post’s Research, Experimentation and Development group. He is also the lead developer for the open-source tool PressForward and a consultant on content strategy and newsroom workflows. He was one of Folio Magazine’s 15 under 30 in the magazine media industry. He previously worked as Salon.com’s full stack developer. His work has been covered multiple times in journalism.co.uk and he has appeared in The Atlantic, Digiday, Poynter, and Columbia Journalism Review. He has also worked as a journalist, a community manager and a journalism educator.