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Augmented reality rock 'n' roll

Before the world went virtual, rock music fans marvelled at the sophisticated marketing that, in 1977, allowed Pink Floyd to float a helium-filled pig over Battersea Power Station to promote the release of their Animals album.

Some 35 years later, thanks to augmented reality technology, bands now appear to emerge out of CD covers, Kylie Minogue dances in the palm of your hand, and the Rolling Stones have tagged Big Ben with a 3D gorilla.

Depending on who you ask, augmented reality is either just the latest record industry fad or the future of music marketing. But several AR technology companies are doing significant business in joint ventures with labels anxious to reach consumers via their smartphones.

Perhaps most notable is Aurasma's deal with Universal Music to create the free-to-download application uView , the first AR app created for a major music label. The app allows the iPhone or Google Android device's camera to recognise tagged images and trigger content, as already happens via Aurasma's apps for Marks and Spencer,Spanish telecom company Telefónica and others.

That is how Sir Mick Jagger and the Stones got Gregory, as they call the gorilla on the cover of their upcoming GRRR! compilation, to start popping up on 3,000 landmarks in 50 cities worldwide. A contest for the best photo, which ends next week, offers the gold-dust reward of tickets for the band's upcoming concerts in London or Newark.

It may sound like 21st-century huckstering but it is already producing results: Universal and Aurasma report that nearly a quarter of consumers who use the app are clicking through from the album artwork to a page where they can pre-order the album using their smartphone.

"I didn't think anyone would do it because this was a bit of fun that would get fans excited, and maybe a few of them would click through to pre-order," confesses Matt Mills, Aurasma's global head of partnerships and innovation. "I was expecting 1 per cent, if that. The numbers are extremely impressive."

Deborah Hyacinth, head of digital marketing at Universal, declines to reveal how much the company is investing in AR, but says the response rate is "very cost-effective when compared to other marketing initiatives. We're seeing hundreds of thousands of people engaging with the content and the app."

Sir Mick himself has found the initiative entertaining. It was his idea to ask his friend, the artist Walton Ford, to paint a gorilla with the Stones' famed tongue logo. "Technology never stops," the singer says. "His paintings go for lots of money, but he'd never done any 'commercial art' before. I think it was a bit of a shock to Walton when I said: 'You can see it in front of Big Ben.' He's got used to it now."

AR has been in development for years but the music industry has only just started to place bigger bets on it. The spread of more sophisticated smartphones on which the apps can run has helped.

"AR's been around for a really long time and it's been pretty bad until recently. It was gimmicky, expensive and the phones that existed just didn't support the technology," says Ms Hyacinth. "It didn't really deliver anything. "

Now, however, with 1bn smartphones expected to be in use by 2016, the appeal of AR is likely to grow. "I think we'll get to a point – and it's quite sci-fi – where people will walk down the street, see a Lady Gaga poster and expect to be able to get some added value from it by pointing their phone at it," she adds.

Analysts expect the augmented reality market to be worth $600bn by 2016.

As well as attracting attention, AR is also helping record labels to make their acts more accessible for fans. "Data is [sic] part and parcel of what we do," says Ms Hyacinth. "It allows us to connect our artists to fans and maintain that relationship. Fans expect to always be connected to the artist these days."

The technology is proliferating across the industry via other companies such as Blippar, which produced an AR tour programme for pop band The Wanted, and Layar, whose browser app passed 25m downloads last month. Layar had developed experimental projects with The Rolling Stones and The Beatles two years ago.

"Right now, AR is a bit of a gimmick, which isn't necessarily a bad thing," says Stuart Dredge, contributing editor at music industry consultancy Music Ally. "It's a fun, innovative element to a music marketing campaign that's very good in PR terms. So it's a smart move for companies like Universal to give it a try, and get first-hand data on how meaningful it can be.

"It's just one of several whizzy new digital marketing ideas like artists' own apps, services like Webdoc, which are sort of interactive online posters, and Twitter campaigns. [Rapper] Plan B recently did something involving a hashtag where fans could reply to a tweet and stream his album in full."

However, proof that AR can appeal even to the older end of the Rolling Stones' fan base is the fact Aurasma has also worked with Saga Holidays. "They're not what you would tend to think of as the core augmented reality market, but we've augmented pages from their holiday brochures," Mr Mills says.

Next up, says Ms Hyacinth, is "audio recognition – being able to play games and communicate via AR, even down to 4D where it becomes a holographic experience". But for the time being, she says: "We're a little way off from that."

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