By Robert Palmer, Chief Innovation Officer, HCB Health


Pharma has been slow – painfully slow – to adopt mobile marketing strategies and tactics. Although pharmaceuticals are among the most personal products advertised to consumers, and mobile is a most personal channel, “mobile-first” design and thinking is usually not a consideration for pharma marketers. Mobile engagement is no longer just a trend, it’s an inescapable reality: according to Comscore, 71% of all digital time is spent on our mobile devices. But while our industry hasn’t yet realized mobile’s marketing potential as it stands today, brace yourself – a new wave of the mobile technology revolution is coming soon: augmented reality (AR).


Artificial Intelligence vs. Virtual Reality

There is some confusion regarding the difference between augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR). Over the past few years virtual reality has been used in any number of ways by healthcare consumers and professionals to understand the human anatomy, removing a level of complexity that often baffles the consumer and limits the effectiveness of the clinician. Scores of exhibitors at this year’s South-by-Southwest offered an array of VR technologies, and VR innovations were popular within the SXSW health track. But VR and AR are different in significant ways. Virtual reality means creation of a world that may seem real, but isn’t real; VR is a computer-generated rendering of reality, completely replacing what your eyes can see with something else, such as monsters in a video game. Augmented reality is different, showing you the physical world with virtual things added in, in real time. Essentially, AR overlays new informations on top of our current reality, leading to a better understanding of what the user experiences as the real world. As such, AR can be an even more useful that VR technology to convey scientific and medical information.

Augmented reality technology has been available for years, offered by AR pioneers such as Aurasma for educational programs, and through QR codes that translate matrix barcodes into imagery through a smartphone’s camera. But soon your smartphone’s camera will offer AR as a seamless one-step experience. When that happens, marketers will have a vast new sandbox where they can develop apps that access the camera’s AR capability to offer new immersive experiences to healthcare consumers and clinicians.


Apple and Google are upping the ante on AR

Apple iPhones and Google Android smartphones are about to unveil competing technologies that will bring AR to the masses, offering the technology that made Pokemon Go one of the most downloaded apps of 2016 and propelled Snapchat to the forefront of millennial communications.

Bloomberg reports that future iPhones – most likely the upcoming iPhone8 that will be unveiled this fall – will take a page from Snapchat’s playbook and let the user overlay virtual objects over a photo of a person or object. The next-generation iPhone will include dual-lens cameras on both the front and back that provide augmented reality capabilities, allowing app developers to use the phone’s technology to superimpose anatomical imagery or data over a user-generated photo. This degree of personalized interaction could exponentially increase engagement when exploring medical conditions, anatomical details, drug MOAs, or medical data points.

Google, meanwhile, is well into the development of its “Lens” technology. Google Lens will enable next-generation smartphone cameras to use artificial intelligence (AI) technology so that the camera will understand what it sees and overlay relevant content. Practical applications could range from the mundane – overlaying a restaurant’s menu or coupon when you take a picture of the restaurant – to the sophisticated – overlaying disease education imagery when you take a selfie. Using a combination of its increasingly impressive AI and big data capabilities, data points, made more engaging with infographics, could be positioned over appropriate images to increase engagement within an immersive experience.

The AR technology race is on between Apple and Google. These technologies don’t just see what you see, they understand what you see and help you take action. Engagement has increasingly become what it’s all about with pharmaceutical marketers, leading not only to product adoption and uptake, but helping us realize our ultimate goal of achieving better outcomes for patients and their providers. Since better outcomes are largely dependent on better understanding of complex medical concepts and issues, patients and clinicians can reap the benefits that AR technologies can provide.


Integrating smartphone AR into other channels

Taking things a step farther, imagine the possibilities of employing mobile AR capabilities to complement and enhance new technologies in digital media. Programmatic contextual advertising – which directs the user to relevant content based on his or her behavior or search results for a given subject – can serve up relevant medical education materials within prescribed, pre-approved guidelines. Once the user is sent to the relevant content, it would be theoretically possible to enhance the content with AR technology that would greatly increase engagement by delivering disease or brand-related information.

Facebook – rapidly becoming a favorite channel for pharmaceutical marketers – joined Snapchat recently in offering AR capabilities. But Facebook and Snapchat aren’t fully in control of their AR experiences – they still rely on smartphone hardware. When Apple and Google build AR capabilities into their smartphones, the experience will be seamlessly offered in the palm of your hand.


The need for action – upping our game

In the near future, smartphone opportunities for imaginative and creative marketers will be greatly expanded. Which brings us full circle to the issue of pharma marketers needing to fully understand and employ the possibilities of mobile strategies and tactics as they exist today. Instead of playing a continual game of catch-up, agencies and their clients need to stay current with mobile technologies so they will be able to use the amazing possibilities that are on the horizon. Regulatory restrictions are not an excuse – there are multiple ways pharma can take advantage of the smartphone revolution.

Smartphone AR technology is coming soon; it shouldn’t be future shock, it should be eagerly awaited by those prepared to use it to its fullest potential.