Relatable AR: How to Use Augmented Reality to Tell Better Stories – WhatTheyThink

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What is the value of augmented reality in the world of marketing? For Joe Zeff, president of Joe Zeff Design in Pittsburgh, it’s to help his customers tell better stories. Heidi Tolliver-Walker looks at some of Zeff’s recent AR projects.

What is the value of augmented reality in the world of marketing? For Joe Zeff, president of Joe Zeff Design in Pittsburgh, it’s to help his customers tell better stories.
As a former graphic journalist at both Time and The New York Times, Zeff’s responsibility was to distill the week’s news stories into visual representations. Today, he takes the same skill and applies it to the world of marketing.
Clients include AT&T, Nike, and American Express Global Business Travel, as well as one company very much a part of the news these days—Astrobotics, Inc., which created the landing module for the Artemis rocket.

Zeff has also been the designer and developer of some of the world’s first iPad apps. Zeff’s passion for technology has put him squarely in the middle of a world that would eventually become the heart of much of his business.
Zeff became interested in AR about five years ago while working with Bigtincan, an AR platform he used to create complex AR scenes. One of Bigtincan’s clients was (and still is) T-Mobile. Zeff was asked to create a proof of concept to show how sales associates could present in-store products to customers, as well as provide a way for customers to learn more about products on their own.
As part of this project, Zeff created an AR experience to promote T-Mobile’s Family Mode connected service.
When the salesperson hovered over the package with their iPad, the box would come to life with interactive buttons and video. As the iPad hovered, the buttons would play like a slide show—“set limits,” “schedule downtime,” “set bedtimes”—and the user could touch each button to bring up more information, including a video.
Since then, Zeff has used Bigtincan to develop AR experiences for other clients.
Many of these experiences have been used to engage booth visitors at trade shows and conferences, where people’s attention is short and it takes that “something extra” to draw them in. AR provides the opportunity to open what are often “black box” technologies and better tell the story of what is behind the curtain.
Zeff gives an example from HIMSS19, a global health conference and exhibition, where AT&T was showing its connected devices.
“To tell their story, AT&T had brought several IoT devices that were powered by AT&T transmitters, antennae and equipment, but you wouldn’t know that simply by looking at the devices sitting on that table,” Zeff said. “I created an AR experience that allowed AT&T employees to point to one of these objects and let people see beneath the surface. They see where the transmitters existed, where the accelerometer was placed, and how those devices connected to things outside of the room.”
AR took the technology from being a “black box” to telling a compelling story.
In these early days of AR, all of the experiences Zeff created used Bigtincan. Today, he also uses two mobile-browser-based platforms, ZappAR and WorldViewAR from RealityBLU, both of which use WebAR, or mobile-browser-based AR, to access AR experiences via
QR code.
“The ability to give AR without an app was game changing,” Zeff said. “Suddenly anyone could access these experiences. If you can scan a QR code, you can engage with augmented reality. That has opened up an entirely new world of marketing.”
Zeff uses RealityBLU for creating holographic twins (holotwins), 3D objects and virtual portals that transport viewers into different times and places. He uses ZappAR to bring posters and other printed materials to life.
When it comes to living posters, Zeff points to a project he created for Advanced Construction Robotics, which was looking to increase engagement at Automate, a robotics industry conference held by the Association for Advancing Automation. For the conference, Zeff created a life-sized cut-out of Danielle Proctor, CEO of Advanced Construction Robotics, that when scanned, came to life and started talking.
But one of the most exciting projects Zeff has had the opportunity to work on is for Astrobotics lunar module.
As part of the pre-launch publicity, Zeff had the opportunity to once again work with Time magazine and use RealityBLU’s WorldViewAR platform to help tell the story of Astrobotics’ Peregrine lander (June 2022 issue). The article describes the lander, packed with 24 instruments and other payloads from five different countries, and its journey to the moon. To round out the story, Zeff created an infographic about the lander with a QR Code that, when scanned, lets readers use AR to place a 3D model of the lander in the room with them. Once the AR object is placed, readers can walk around the model, look underneath it, and examine it as if the lander were right there.
“Not only can they read about the lander, but they can interact with the 3D model, helping to deepen their understanding and connection to the technology,” Zeff said.
Zeff’s passion for holotwins is reflected in his own use of holotwins to promote his business.
Zeff has created holotwins for multiple clients, including a proof of concept for the Pittsburg Zoo. In the project, Zeff created a series of virtual zookeepers (holotwins) in front of each display.
He has also created his own storytelling platform called Augmented Pittsburgh to help residents and visitors more deeply engage with the city.
“The first two deployments roll out this fall,” he said. “A partnership with Acrisure and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette to deliver weekly sportscasts via augmented reality, and a partnership with the City of Pittsburgh and Bike Share Pittsburgh to place holotwins throughout the city to help people better understand their transportation options.”
Zeff has several other partnerships set to launch in early 2023.
Zeff continues to use AR to promote his business. If you live in the Pittsburg area, you’ll see his QR code on posters in bus shelters, on the sides of buses and on billboards along the highway. Truly, he’s everywhere.

“I’ve done a lot of self-promotion to get ideas out there, but in those promotions, I don’t talk about the technology,” Zeff said. “I say, ‘This is how we tell stories now.’ Then, when you scan the QR code, you see me standing on the sidewalk. Then my holotwin talks about AR.”
While Zeff has been successful selling AR-fueled campaigns, he acknowledges that we are still in the early days.
“Businesses are just starting to see the potential for how AR can be part of their toolkit as it relates to selling, training and engagement,” he said. “It’s incumbent upon creators to put those examples about there to give potential clients a peek at what’s possible.”
Seeing is believing, which is why Zeff’s website is full of examples of AR, both past and present.
“For me, AR is something I use as a sweetener to make any storytelling engagement more rich,” he said. “Like adding a spice to a dish. If I’m creating a microsite for a client, I’m looking for a way to include AR. If I’m doing a print campaign, I’m looking to add AR. I’m looking at AR as an exciting way to extend those experiences—make them accessible to anyone with a smartphone, thereby unlocking many ways to tell stories.”
About Heidi Tolliver-Walker
Heidi Tolliver-Walker is former print industry magazine editor and long-time industry analyst, content developer, author, and blogger. She has written for the industry’s top publications, research companies, and private companies for the past three decades — so long that she still has an AOL address, which she signed up for back when AOL was still cool. You can reach her at [email protected]
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