Imagine Opportunity: Virtual and Augmented Reality

Virtual and augmented reality are hitting their stride, providing consumers with truly seamless and immersive experiences. Find out about the ways companies are using AR and VR make a deeper connection with consumers.

4 Pieces

28 min

How VR can be an engine for empathy

By David Ryan Polgar

Virtual Reality is often called an “empathy machine.” The underlying promise is that VR will present an immersive experience with realistic emotive characters that will bleed off onto the headset user. In comparison to the detached position we may take with TV or film, VR’s allure is its capacity to more meaningfully convey the feelings of another.

Our inability to take action on social issues is not from lack of awareness. We swim in a sea of statistics, alarming articles, and viral videos on every possible crises, from climate change to refugees to racism. What we lack, however, is that essential ingredient of motivation towards action. That’s where virtual reality could be a game changer. Some charities, for example, have noticed a significant increase in donations when incorporating VR experiences in campaigns or events. Could VR, and its immersive empathic experiences, really help create social change?

“VR is not a media experience. When it’s done well, it’s an actual experience.” This is according to Professor Jeremy Bailenson of the Virtual Human Interaction Lab at Stanford University, in a segment for CBS This Morning last year. Major tech companies consult with the Virtual Human Interaction Lab due to its groundbreaking VR work and research. Professor Bailenson’s research indicates a slight change in how we interact with one another after going through certain VR experiences. “Becoming someone else in VR and experiencing this trauma first hand in general causes a reduction in prejudice compared to the typical way that we try to address this.”

I recently had the experience of being a captured journalist, going through a simulated trauma of interrogation through VR. As a photojournalist being held captive in Iran’s Evin Prison, I was staring face to face with my tormentor. When he threatened to shoot my fellow prisoner, I was torn between holding firm on my innocence or giving my tormentor what he clearly wanted–my forced confession. While safely behind a VR headset in the Brooklyn studio of iNK Stories, my mind was transported to the grim interrogation setting and the life-or-death decisions required of me. Instead of being a passive viewer, my yes-or-no answers (accomplished by nodding or shaking my head) were integral to how the scenes of the 12-minute VR experience called BLINDFOLD would play out—and whether my fellow prisoner would survive.

In the end, I confessed to my interrogator. VR, in this context, allowed me to grapple with the difficulty of pressured choices as opposed to watching a video or listening to a lecture. As an active participant, I was given agency—but also the weight of my choices. As someone who had falsely confessed, I could now relate to the plight of targeted journalists being held captive, or killed, in various countries across the world.

”The message is being presented in a way that forces you to engage with the topic,” says Navid Khonsari, co-founder and creative director of iNK Stories. “This is not a fly on the wall 360 degree camera. You give people an understanding…They are an actual participant.”

To ratchet up the realism, the ending of BLINDFOLD takes you out of the Iranian interrogation room and confronts the viewer with the faces and names of real journalists who have been captured or killed across the globe. iNK Stories partnered with the Committee to Protect Journalists and the Center for Human Rights in Iran. “After the experience, you can be part of the change,” says Khonsari.

Similar to other VR experts I spoke with, Khonsari described a saturation we feel as a society with an endless amount of distressing statistics. The VR experience, on the other hand, naturally pushes one’s emotional buttons. VR is and “easy segway to that part of the brain, that part of the heart,” says Khonsari. Similar to statements from Professor Jeremy Bailenson of the Virtual Human Interaction Lab at Stanford University, Khonsari expresses concern for this feature’s potential exploitation. At the same time, the ability to trigger empathy could be a boon for nonprofits looking to increase engagement levels. “Social impact can benefit massively from VR,” says Khonsari.

I first saw Navid Khonsari when he was on stage at the inaugural VR for Change Summit in New York City, part of the 14th annual Games for Change festival. Khonsari was joined on stage by Omid Memarian, the executive director for Human Rights in Iran—a journalist who had spent time wrongly-accused and interrogated in a situation reminiscent of the BLINDFOLD experience. BLINDFOLD follows on the heels of iNK Stories’ acclaimed 1979: The Revolution, which has pushed forward the new genre of “verite games.”

While VR had always been part of the Games for Change over the years, the current influx of journalists, researchers, and filmmakers experimenting with the medium warranted its own special track this year. “Games for Change recognizes the amazing potential that VR has to change human behavior, ultimately making an impact for good, which is why we expanded our programming this year to include the first-ever VR for Change Summit,” states Susanna Pollack, President of Games for Change. “There is so much being done with this technology that we felt it was the right time to cultivate a place where developers and members of the community can come together and talk about the positive social change that is being made with VR.”

“We’re excited about exploring a mental, physical, and emotional space and to give the user agency, says Vassiliki Khonsari, the other co-founder of iNK Stories alongside her husband, Navid. Vassiliki Khonsari, who serves as COO for the studio, provides her experience as a documentary filmmaker (ESPN, TLC, Vh1, and others) to provide greater authenticity and emerging storytelling techniques.

Vassiliki Khonsari discussed the need for creating a sweet spot with entertainment and a social mission, and how entertainment does not have to be exploitative. The BLINDFOLD experience was less about being told what to think or do, and more to “rethink how you’re thinking.” Overall, she hopes that the VR experience is making an “important contribution for journalists in hostile territory.” Unlike an article that can be read or a video that can be watched, the BLINDFOLD experience was felt. And in that feeling came a greater sense of relationship and understanding to an issue that can appear foreign or abstract to most of us.

Gabo Arora has seen firsthand the power of VR to spark social change. Arora is a creative director and senior advisor at the United Nations, along with being founder and president of LightShed—a VR and social impact startup. As co-creator of the highly influential Clouds Over Sidra, a short VR film about the Syrian refugee crisis, Arora witnessed a major uptick in donations that can be attributed to the visceral nature of the film. As the first film shot for the United Nations, Clouds Over Sidra follows a 12-year-old refugee as she goes throughout her day. A fundraising program by UNICEF found that one in six people pledged donations to the refugee crisis after watching the film—twice the typical donation rate. Arora gave a keynote at Games for Change entitled Representing the Pain of Others.

“I don’t think about it in terms of changing human behavior,” says Arora. “I am just trying to move people and get them to understand the reality.” With over fifteen years of humanitarian work under his belt, Arora has seen the difficulty of expressing the authentic reality he experienced. After coming back from Sub-Saharan Africa in 1999, at the height of the AIDS epidemic, he was searching for a way to express that despite the dire situation, “there was resilience, there’s spirit, there’s joy.” VR allowed for a more nuanced, textured feel that could give an experience while also still involving storytelling. “For me, a lot of what VR can do is for the first time take you there, it can give you the sense of presence; an ability to bear witness to things I don’t think any other medium can do, and it can do that quite directly.”

There is a scene in Clouds Over Sidra where you join the refugee’s family for a meal. Counter to how we often think of the social cause playbook—motivation through horrifying pictures or outrageous statistics—the simple dinner scene has proven powerful. “It’s very simple, but people are moved by it,” says Arora. “It would take so much for somebody to actually have that real experience… you would have to build trust, you would have to feel that they wouldn’t be freaked out. To actually see people as how they are, and feel that you are there. I think that is what gives people an exhilarating experience that only VR can give.”

Similar to the comments by Vassiliki Khonsari, Arora stressed the importance of letting the participant of the VR experience make up their own mind. “I almost want to move people out of it unexpectedly,” says Arora. “You are not being told what to feel.” This is far different from the typical social cause playbook where one may feel bombarded with data; it returns agency to the viewer to better understand an issue as opposed to feeling lectured.

Although VR experiences for social causes may lack the typical financial model of a documentary, Arora foresees a greater focus on increased donations and greater campaign engagement. “The key is to build a campaign around it…start a conversation with people.” Arora believes creators must not be seduced by the newness or wow-factor behind VR. The focus should always be on storytelling and creating a meaningful experience. In Clouds over Sidra nothing horrible really happens, yet half the people cry,” says Arora, reiterating the medium’s remarkable ability to generate empathy.

Building an analytics layer for virtual reality

By Cole Stryker

Marcus Belingheri, a 16-year-old junior at the Marin School of the Arts in Novato, California, is excited about showing off his digital arts class’s work at the spring parent showcase, in a gallery the class is designing themselves. He’s especially looking forward to the moment when the white walls and dark wood floor varnish. That’s the sort of trick you can pull off when you’re designing an experience using virtual reality, which the magnet school class is experimenting with for the first time. “We want to do things that you can’t do in real life,” says Belingheri, in cuffed jeans and white Converse All-Stars. “In VR, the walls can drop down and suddenly you’re in a forest. If the student wants their art to be displayed in a forest, we want to be able to do that.”

One end of the classroom is lined with flat monitors, where students are learning to create and manipulate 360-degree scenes with the same software used in the entertainment industry. The other end has been cleared of desks and chairs to create a safe space for the kids to pull on an HTC Vive headset and check out their works in progress.

Teacher Howard Gersh, a former LucasArts effects artist, envisions the experience stretching beyond the arts. For their senior project, he wants his students to work with an academic teacher to create interactive VR models for teaching. “Let’s visualize a periodic table of the elements in VR,” he says. “You point to carbon, and suddenly carbon is floating in front of you, and you can walk around it or add an electron. It’s so exciting for the kids, as opposed to a textbook,” he says. It’s not surprising that bucolic Marin county is an early adopter of VR when one realizes that companies such as LucasArts and Autodesk call it home, and that Pixar, Google, and Apple are all within driving distance.

At another school in the district, a teacher explores how to use VR to help high school students visualize equations. Special education students have donned headsets to enjoy a simulation of scuba diving on Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, an experience most of them would never otherwise get the chance to have. Other Marin students have used Google Cardboard with their own smartphones to explore the effects of climate change on the Italian coast, both above and below the sea. And this is just the beginning.

Marin County Office of Education Chief Technical Officer Dane Lancaster wants to see kids designing product prototypes within VR, like Ford engineers are doing. He’s a fan of art apps like Google’s TiltBrush, with which students create 3D paintings that the audience can walk through and admire from all angles. He’s been impressed with the technology’s ability to engage hard-to-reach students.

“We have a couple of alt ed schools that have been experimenting with VR for engaging students who aren’t typically interested in school,” Lancaster says. Once the headsets were on, even the toughest kids were into learning,” he marvels. But Lancaster’s goals for getting VR into Marin schools go beyond the wow factor. “If you take a look at job listing sites, you’ll see VR engineer and VR content creator a lot now,” Lancaster says. It’s his hope to give Marin high school students the opportunity to start training in roles that will be in high demand five years from now, whether that be as engineers or creators of virtual content.

That opportunity isn’t lost on Belingheri, who is president of the student VR club. He hopes that learning how to work in VR in art class will help prepare him for a career in engineering. “If I’m trying to create a wind turbine as an environmental engineer, and I can go into VR and look at it, and see all the different pieces, that would make it so much easier to visualize it than sitting in front of a computer screen,” he says.

Even students on less exalted career paths should be prepared to deal with VR, Lancaster says, noting that Walmart and UPS both put new hires through VR-based training already. Other schools are using VR more as a content delivery mechanism than as a tool for creation and design, especially in the younger grades. In San Francisco, middle school science students at the private Alta Vista School have walked with dinosaurs and explored the layers of the earth while trying out educational VR software from Lifeliqe, a VR company that targets mostly the U.S. educational market.

VR meshes nicely with Alta Vista’s focus on experiential learning, says teacher Toni Setteducato, and could serve as a supplement to hands-on learning and field trips. “The dinosaur extinction, the breaking up of pangaea, or the nucleus of an atom, those are the things that they can’t experience firsthand,” she says.

Hector Camecho, who used Google Expeditions to take his Mountain View senior economics students on a “Great Recession Tour” of Manhattan, also sees the technology’s potential to allow students to visit places that their school or families don’t have the funds to bring them to physically. Camecho, who is now a guidance counselor at Mountain View’s St. Francis High School, also sees VR’s potential for egalitarian experiences when it comes to college tours. “Just last week we had a mini college fair where we had about 20 schools, and 2 of them had [Google] Cardboards there with their virtual tour ready,” he says.

Although several companies, including Google and content creators such as Lifeliqe and Nearpod, make virtual and augmented reality products for the educational market, most classrooms have yet to see a VR headset. Many who do, like Setteducato and Camecho, are using equipment loaned by companies to test it out, or, like Gersh in Marin, have cobbled together a combination of donated technology with modest school budget purchases, rather than making large investments in VR technology.

Before they can tap into the potentially huge educational market nationwide, VR companies will have to help schools overcome a number of hurdles:


The cost to get kids going on VR ranges from a low-end investment of only $5 per student for a DIY cardboard viewer kit, used with smartphones kids bring from home, to $1,500 to $2,000 for a high-end workstation and HTC or Oculus headset for the kind of immersive experience Gersh’s class is working on.

One way districts may get over the cost hurdle is by pooling resources through the library. Lancaster, in Marin, is working on a plan to collaborate with the local community college to create a VR lab that both high school and college students could access.

Safety/health concerns

None of the educators interviewed for this article reported any concerns from parents about their children experiencing VR, which is perhaps surprising considering that the HTC Vive’s own product literature states that the device is not designed to be used by children. There are more questions than answers about how the exposure to VR might affect kids’ eyes and their developing brains, because there’s little to no research on the topic, Live Science reports.

“Frankly we never saw these concerns,” says Lifeliqe’s Martin Bukáček, whose title is Community Shaman. Lifeliqe makes VR experiences for the K-12 market, and Bukáček says he has seen thousands of kids try the product, with “just a couple” experiencing motion sickness or discomfort. “When you see kids coming home and telling mom or dad, ‘I was an engineer repairing the International Space Station at school today,’ we see parents really excited about their kids having experience with VR,” Bukáček says.

Quality content

Although teachers and students who try it tend to rave about their VR experiences, there still isn’t a robust content library like one would find in books and films. Developers such as Lifeliqe and Nearpod are focusing on creating content that meshes with Common Core standards, but it will probably be some time before a teacher can access an immersive experience appropriate to every lesson.

The development of that content will be key to making VR an everyday educational tool, Lancaster says. “Unless you’ve got good quality content and it’s sustainable, and you can use it and integrate it in an effective way, it’s going to be, ‘Oh hey this is cool—but what do we do with it now?’” Lancaster says.

The CX revolution: Key trends and opportunities in customer experience

By Philip Dalzell-Payne, Carolyn Baird, Saul Berman and Amanda Gosling

Customer experience - Trends

Technology has always enabled companies to reinvent how they engage with customers. But now we are seeing a profound shift – the convergence of physical and digital customer interactions – which is fundamentally changing how customers will interact and transact with brands and businesses everywhere. To better understand these dynamics, the IBV is conducting a Customer Experience (CX) study, published as a series, with multiple reports organized by topic.

This first report in the series looks at today’s digital transformation trends and the many new initiatives companies are aggressively piloting and launching that integrate digital and physical experiences for customers. 

Game on! Download the study infographic

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Read related IBM executive reports

Analytics: The upside of disruption

Reinventing business processes, organizations and industries in the wake of the digital revolution

Thinking like a customer

Your cognitive future in the retail industry

Thinking out of the toolbox

How digital technologies are powering the operations revolution

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Is augmented reality the future of brand storytelling?

By David Ryan Polgar

Should you be using augmented reality (AR) for your next brand campaign? With a projected $590 billion to be spent on advertising worldwide in 2018, companies are making important decisions as to where their money is best served. AR, having long promised to be an effective way for brands to engage their audiences, may finally be having its moment. But standing in its way are a number of considerations, such as the technology to use (headset versus mobile) and the type of AR (marker-based versus markerless).

Brands are trying to reach an increasingly fickle audience no longer willing to sit through a 30-second, or even 15-second, advertisement on TV. Companies have begun experimenting with six-second spots. Six seconds, however, is not a lot of time to tell a story or deepen the connection between the brand and the consumer. A major appeal of AR for brand campaigns has been its immersive nature, playful capabilities, and gateway to greater product information. Glen Glenday, the Chief revenue Officer at Shazam—a company that recently released its own AR platform—calls AR a “stickier piece of creative” for brands.

“AR has the capability to bring a product to life,” states Annie Eaton, CEO and co-founder of the Atlanta-based future technologies company Futurus. The firm creates custom AR programming for clients, along with virtual reality and 360° capture projects. Eaton believes that AR benefits not just the consumer, who may be gaining a deeper understanding of a product before purchasing, but also benefits the brand by enhancing its ability to tell a story. “The brand now has a direct avenue to tell their story to the consumer,” she continues. “So much of today’s brand awareness is fueled by brand storytelling. Consumers want to know where their products come from, and with the AR medium, brands now have the ability to control the narrative in an immersive way.” For example, an AR-enabled print ad in last November’s Esquire magazine for a new blend of Macallan Whiskey featured the magazine’s iconic mascot, Esky, pouring a glass of whiskey.

Moving away from hard selling and towards telling a story matches with the expectations of the coveted Millennials, who desire experience and interactivity. With a generational buying power that is predicted to be $1.4T by the year 2020, there is a lot at stake. And with Millennials seeking a two-way conversation with a brand instead of being “talked at,” AR may allow for a more engaging relationship. “Millennials are looking to connect with products that they buy on a deeper level than prior generations,” Eaton continues. She believes that brands looking to reach a younger demographic can benefit from activating a technology-based marketing campaign. The ever-important brand loyalty can be tied in with AR experiences that require multiple visits. In addition, Eaton mentions the alternative packaging that can be created to unlock different AR experiences as a method of keeping engagement levels high.

Predicting AR to be a boon for brand campaigns is nothing new, of course. Long before the Pokemon Go craze of 2016, media outlets have been making bold pronouncements about the expected impact of AR on advertising and as a widely-used medium. From the perspective of many of the experts I spoke with, AR is like many trends that depend on a confluence of factors to align for mainstream adoption. It relies on advancing smartphones (i.e. Depth-sensing cameras) and the eventual move towards headsets, along with an increasing level of quality AR content that creates a virtuous cycle of adoption. The past examples of AR for advertising have shown the technology’s potential, but have failed to live up to its promise.

“The brands got their returns, but it was underwhelming,” says Philippe Lewicki of AfterNow, speaking about the overall reception of earlier AR brand campaigns. “You couldn’t build a real story around it.” The LA-based agency, which specializes in mixed reality, has worked with companies such as Marvel, Disney, and Warner Brothers. According to Lewicki, much of the problem stems from thinking of AR only as marker-based AR—as opposed to the more nimble markerless AR. Marker-based AR utilizes a visual marker, such as a QR code, as opposed to markerless AR that is based on GPS location and often utilizes a smartphones’ velocity meter, digital compass, and accelerometer when displaying content. Many of the experts I spoke with, including Lewicki, were optimistic that the transition to more marker-less AR and less marker-based AR would be better for the overall user experience and reputation of AR. While markerless AR often has difficulty showing an accurate representation of space, newer smartphones with depth-sensing capabilities will erase this downside.

”That didn’t really deliver the full promise of AR,” says Lewicki, speaking about marker-based AR like scannable QR codes that would augment a user’s view with additional info or content. While this earlier iteration of AR with branding may have failed to live up to the hype, Lewicki is sensing renewed interest and excitement. In particular, he (and others I talked with) believes that Apple’s new iOS 11 mobile operating system, which includes the ARKit tool kit for AR app developers, as well as Google’s new ARCore, are indications of a sea change with acceptance and use. In addition, Microsoft recently announced an update to Windows 10 (starting October 17) that will incorporate better AR capabilities. “We are seeing a renewed interest to reboot the story with AR,” says Lewicki. His agency is getting a lot of requests around live entertainment events where sponsors are incorporated into the festival happenings.

Similar to the opinion of other AR experts I spoke with, Lewicki is counting on an eventual transition towards headsets in order to truly capitalize on the potential of AR with brand campaigns. Microsoft’s Hololens has had a lot of success on the enterprise level, but is seen as less appropriate for large AR brand campaigns. Lewicki mentions that every major company, such as Facebook, has been actively pursuing a headset future. The size and price, however, would have to come down considerably to promote mainstream adoption. Mobile will still be limited over the coming months, says Lewicki, “…but you can start seeing the possibilities.” He recommends that brands jump into AR and start experimenting. Lewicki saw this level of experimentation firsthand at a brand activation that AfterNow setup at the VRLA conference in April, where 500 participants went through a playful futuristic easter egg hunt while wearing Hololens. Designed to feel like you were inside a computer game, participants ended the experience in a photo booth with the virtual characters for shareable social content. The potential is there. “We are going to get into a renaissance with AR,” says Lewicki.

Will Li echos Lewicki’s excitement about the potential of AR with brand campaigns. “This is the next big thing after the mobile Internet movement,” he says. Li is the co-founder of Apollo Box, an e-commerce startup based in Santa Clara, CA that has been incorporating AR into its marketplace. Apollo Box is one of the first companies to build AR into the online shopping experience, where users can interact with certain virtual 3D products in their home environment by utilizing their markerless AR app. ”With a marker [marker-based AR], you feel the direct sell,” says Li. “With a markerless, it is just embedded.”

Li calls marker-based AR “AR 1.0,” and believes that society is now transitioning into the 2.0 stage. Given the advancing tools for developers, along with smartphones better equipped to offer realistic immersive experiences, Li feel that the next year or two will see a large increase in brand campaigns utilizing markerless AR. At the same time, similar to the sentiments expressed by other experts, just using AR is never enough. “The campaign is not going to be successful just because it is using AR,” says Li, who recommends a more strategic approach. He mentions the similar situation where companies raced to Facebook a few years ago, assuming that their mere presence on the platform was enough. It was not, of course.

“The brand marketer should instead focus on applications where they can connect AR to their core brand values/meaning and delivering value to their consumers/stakeholders with these technologies,” says Dogu Taskiran, CEO of Vancouver-based Stambol Studios. Stambol Studios recently launched an AR app that helped bring the Vancouver Turkish Film Festival’s posters and brochures to life. After aiming one’s smartphone at any one of the film festival posters throughout Vancouver, users were transported into a 3D movie theater to watch trailers and buy tickets. According to Taskiran, they saw increased engagement as the audience kept coming back to be able to view the augmented content through the physical posters.

“I believe they should leverage the unique abilities of AR (and VR) and place consumers in situations where they can engage them in ways that weren’t previously attainable but also have a certain level of emotional familiarity,” he says.

So far for Will Li and Apollo Box, the results have also been promising. According to the company, the products in their ecommerce platform that utilize markerless AR have received a 25% conversion boost. Li also noted that non-AR users on the ecommerce site spent 6 minutes per session while AR users spent 16 minutes. The more time one spends on a site, the more apt they are to make a purchase.

“We are entering the new area of product delivery,” says Mark Cheben, discussing the potential of AR to assist brands. Cheben is the Global Marketing Director for EON Reality, a global AR/VR company that has been working with AR (and virtual reality) since 1999. The company has worked with retail brands at shopping malls to create fashion installations to increase customer engagement by virtually trying-on clothes from brands like Kate Spade and Guess.

Cheben likes to think short-term, medium-term, and long-term with AR and brand campaigns. In the short-term, Cheben believes we are stuck with using a smartphone as opposed to a headset. In addition, he predicts that marker-based will still be the fallback AR until around 2020 (given the evolution of smartphone advancements). Similar to the other experts I spoke with, Cheben states that the handset and headset will eventually merge—and it’s through the headset that the full potential of AR campaigns can be realized. While the earlier iteration and failure of Google Glass as an AR headset may indicate a skeptical public when it comes to using a heads-up display, all the experts I spoke with appeared optimistic with the eventual transition from a smartphone to a wearable head display.

Until that point of when (or if) we fully transition to a heads-up display, agencies working with AR typically align the hardware to be used in the campaign with the overall goals of the brand. When Cheben is working with AR brand campaigns, he first likes to “suss out the value they are going for.” If the brand is looking to influence a few key decision-makers, an AR experience utilizing a headset such as Hololens would be appropriate. On the other hand, for a large-scale brand campaign that needs to reach 10k plus, a mobile application would be best. One campaign Cheben was proud of recently was an AR experience on behalf of the government of Singapore, where users were able to envision Singapore as a smart city. Envisioning the future is often a difficult concept to explain. “We communicated difficult ideas in smart ways,” says Cheben, about the benefits of AR.

Ultimately the future with AR and brand campaigns is closely tied to headset adoption and the evolution of smartphone capabilities. Brands are seeing the potential to target consumers increasingly weary of direct sales, or more in line with immersive experiences that are indirectly selling. While the outrageous success of Pokemon Go finally put AR into the public consciousness, experts are adamant about the need for brand storytelling and utility as opposed to the wowness of the tech. The goal of a brand campaign using AR, says Cheben, should be “to add value and not just being new and cool.”