The future is coming, and it wants to sell you something


THERE WAS A TIME, not so long ago, when you were almost obliged to regularly remark that the ads on TV are better than the programmes these days. You don’t hear people saying that much any more, but I was reminded of the phrase recently.

I was attending the Web Summit, the huge tech conference at the RDS, in Dublin, and got talking to Dan Sodergren, a gregarious and smart “brand ambassador” for an English start-up called Blippar.

What does it do, I asked. “You work for a newspaper, right?” Sodergren replied, with a hint of mock seriousness. “Blippar is going to change your industry. It will revolutionise the print media. Print advertising is going to be turned on its head. Blippar is going to offer magazines and newspapers a lifeline, my friend.”

You hear a pitch like that, you’re going to be sceptical. But then Sodergren asked that I download the Blippar app, and he produced a fashion magazine. What followed was the most jaw-dropping display of technology I have ever witnessed, proving Arthur C Clarke was absolutely right when he said that any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.

The cover of the magazine featured a photograph of a team of synchronised swimmers, arrayed in a circle, mid-routine. “Blipp me,” ran a tagline in the corner. I held up my smartphone, opened Blippar, and within a second it recognised the photo. Then the magic happened. On my iPhone’s screen the swimmers began to continue their routine, swimming in a circle and rising out of the water. The still image on the page had come to life in the screen of my phone, still bounded by the borders of the page they were on, but alive.

It didn’t end there. A dinosaur leaped out of a Jurassic Park ad; a two-page ad for trainers became a 3D grid of footwear hovering above the page; a lingerie catalogue became, well, you get the picture. This felt like the future, Minority Report stuff, and I was playing with it.

Blippar is not magic, of course; it is just the skilful marriage of cutting-edge image-recognition and augmented-reality technology. But its ingenuity turns the limited old print ad into something new entirely – something to be played with, delighted by, interacted with.

A well-designed Blipp, as the company calls the specially created ads, is a piece of entertainment in its own right. Suddenly, Sodergren’s suggestion that Blippar could offer the print industry a lifeline didn’t sound so far-fetched – but the old line about the ads being better than the programmes will be retooled for newspapers and magazines, too.

The humble print advertisement is about to be reinvented, and we will be enthralled – at least until the inevitable moment when Blipps reach such ubiquity that we become jaded by them, at which point they will fade into the background of our perception, like most advertising.

Increasingly there is no background for them to fade into. Economists once considered modern advertising to promote monopolies by serving as a barrier to entry for new competitors. Now, however, it is the most tangible lifeblood of the free market.

Whereas once only the media relied on advertising money for its business model, technological innovation now depends on it too.

The starkest example is Google. The US tech colossus is actually the world’s largest advertising company, and all its search engines and email services and global mapping technologies and Android operating systems are paid for by ads.

Google is far from alone, Facebook’s stock has begun to climb with the news that it is finally “monetising” its mobile users with targeted ads. Confirmation, if any were needed, that the world’s biggest social network is really an ad network.

But it’s not just technology. Think of all those architectural marvels that are springing up around the world, their names occupied by big brands with sponsorship budgets to spend. The Olympics felt like a vast marketing exercise masquerading as a sporting event. And advertising is really pushing boundaries too, literally in the case of Felix Baumgartner’s jump from the edge of space, which behind the feat of human endeavour was effectively a giant energy-drink advertisement.

So that phrase about the ads being better than the programmes already feels a little dated, but not for the reason we think. Part of me suspects we’re on an inexorable path to the point at which the comparison is moot.

The distinction between advertisements and almost everything else – programmes, journalism, architecture, sporting events, smartphones, social networks, space missions, what have you – will become so blurred that attempting to distinguish one from the other will be futile. And perhaps, in the future, everybody will be sponsored for 15 minutes.

Shane Hegarty is on leave