by Matt Alderton | January 17, 2018
In summer 2016, America was the site of a massive invasion. Intruders were everywhere -- in parks, for instance, restaurants, museums, libraries, convention centers, and even public restrooms. Suddenly, new inhabitants appeared to occupy nearly every nook and cranny of American soil. The most peculiar part? Unless you happened to be looking at them through the camera on your smartphone, you wouldn't have even known they were there.

That's because these invaders weren't soldiers or aliens. Rather, they were Pokémon -- fictional creatures that people around the globe became obsessed with "catching" as part of Pokémon Go, the location-based mobile game that swept the world and introduced it to the wonders of augmented reality (AR).

Now, 18 months later, the same technology that made Pokémon Go so captivating is on the cusp of a tipping point, according to Joe Schwinger, CEO and co-founder of MeetingPlay, an event technology company whose fourth-generation event app features the same gamification and AR capabilities as Pokémon Go, but applied to meetings and events. Marriott International's Corporate Partnership Conference (CPC), for example, took place Dec. 7-10 and was the first-ever conference to leverage MeetingPlay's new AR features. To find out how it went, Incentive spoke with Schwinger about what AR can do at meetings and events like Marriott CPC, and why 2018 is the year it will finally go mainstream.

First thing's first: What is AR, exactly, and how does it compare with, say, virtual reality?

Simply put, augmented reality is the ability for users with their mobile phones to see something that nobody else can see. Think about it as an overlay on top of the pre-existing environment. With virtual reality, you don't see what's going on around you; you're taken to a completely different environment. With augmented reality, you're using the camera of your phone to overlay pictures on top of reality, which what's going on at the actual meeting.

The other thing that's great about augmented reality compared to virtual reality is its low barrier to entry. If you've downloaded the event app, you can experience augmented reality. Virtual reality, however, is a little bit more difficult to pull off because it requires goggles, and that makes the logistics a little bit harder.

So AR is easier to implement than VR. But what's the case for adopting it in the first place?

As part of my past career at Marriott, I was part of a team that proved: The more engaged a customer is in your brand, the longer their attention span will be. With that in mind, our goal at the end of the day is to keep attendee engagement as high on day three of the meeting as it is on day one. The way we do that is by using playful interaction to meet the goals and objectives of the conference.

Let me give you an example, and that's what we just launched for Marriott at its CPC conference in Las Vegas. Marriott didn't come to us and say, "We want to do augmented reality." They came to us and said, "For this year's conference, we want to bring something to the table that is going to help us educate Starwood's customers about Marriott's brands and Marriott's customers about Starwood's brands." Post-merger, Marriott now has 30 brands as part of one company, and they wanted to encourage their customers to think about all those brands when they're booking business with Marriott. That was their goal at CPC: making sure that when meeting planners think about booking meetings in 2018, they know which is the right brand at Marriott to help them execute it.

For example, consider a rugged, outdoor retailer. That kind of company is never going to hold a conference at The Ritz-Carlton. So our challenge at MeetingPlay was to come up with something that would help a company like that discover the best brand for them. What we came up with as a team was using augmented reality to create a sort of scavenger hunt that would stretch across the three-day meeting, allowing attendees to uncover experiences one by one in a way that made them think about the brands. For example, they'd see a picture somewhere at the conference and open the event's mobile app; when they implemented the app's augmented reality feature, that picture would blossom into a pair of running shoes and give them a clue like, "Show up at the gym early because this brand is youth-oriented to the person who loves waking up in the morning to exercise before their day starts." That would be one clue. Then they'd be asked to go find another clue that went with that picture. They'd find it, use the augmented reality to hover over it, and now there would be a fluffy bed with big fluffy pillows and linens. And the clue would say, "No other brand became more popular because of a bed." After collecting those two pictures, or tokens, the user would be shown a selection of Marriott brand logos and be asked to select the right brand, which in this case would be Westin. So, if our outdoor retailer had a youth-oriented conference coming up, they'd now know a little bit more about Westin, which could be a good fit for them because it's known for wellness.

So, we didn't use augmented reality for the sake of using augmented reality; we used it because it was a catchy, fun, and exciting way to show off these 30 brands and have meeting planners walk away knowing what they're all about.

You made the AR experience fun by using gamification. Can you have the former without the latter?

The fact that it's new sometimes is enough to get people to want to use new technology at your meeting. If you want to get people to participate in the long term, however, having an incentive or a gamification engine behind it really makes a lot of sense. What MeetingPlay is all about is using that gamification engine to add a layer of fun to your meeting.

You paint a pretty compelling picture about the power of AR. Why are you painting it now?

As a company, MeetingPlay was using Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) beacons for a number of years before Apple decided that it was going to coin that technology into iBeacon technology.  When Apple coined BLE as iBeacon technology, it was seen as a thumbs up from Apple and a sign that proximity sensing had made it because Apple was going to make it part of its ecosystem. The same thing has just happened with augmented reality. With the iPhone 8 and X, Apple has endorsed augmented reality and brought it into its core operating system. Also, the hardware simply wasn't there a couple years ago; now it is. And not just with Apple, but also with the new Google products that are coming out. Because of that, I think it will become commonplace in 2018. We're seeing the demand already; our corporate customers are ready for this technology, and they want to bring it to their meetings. It's a perfect storm.