Today Show Experiments with a New Reality

It’s a bird, it’s a plane, no, it’s flying iPhones, swung randomly in the air in search of virtual objects. If you witnessed this scene while visiting Rockefeller Plaza in New York City over the holidays and thought you were going crazy, don’t worry, you just found yourself in the midst of a new, augmented reality, courtesy of NBC’s Today Show and an app, of course.

The top-rated morning show took advantage of its long-running #1 status, and prime location next to the famous Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree, to try out an experiment with GoldRun, an iPhone app that lets you track down and collect virtual objects.

iPhone users with the GoldRun app were instructed to hold up their iPhones and search for seven objects hidden throughout Rockefeller Plaza. Willing participants not ashamed to be seen wildly waving their iPhones to find all seven were rewarded with a “special offer” at the nearby NBC Experience Store.

“So why are we doing this? Because we can? Because it’s buzzy? Well, yes, but we also want to engage our viewers in new ways and wherever they are,” explained Bonnie Optekman, VP News Technology at NBC News. “And while this is still a little bit bleeding edge, it appears to be a growing one. So we decided to do a soft launch experiment to see how much people like it.”

The Today Show experiment was just the latest in the “augmented reality” trend that is close to pushing location-based apps out of the picture as the hottest buzz in social networking.

Figures from ABI Research show the market for augmented reality in the U.S. alone is expected to hit $350 million in 2014, up from about $6 million in 2008.

The question is if the trend will manage to grow into something sustainable and useful for marketers and consumers, or appear on next year’s list of social networking duds.

If 2010 is any indication, the trend may be here to stay, as major brands jumped on the still-new bandwagon.

Ben & Jerry’s, for one, introduced an iPhone app with a “Moo Vision” augmented reality feature that generates images related to the flavor you scan on that you can then click on to get more details and share with your friends on social networks.

And, just in time for the holidays, the technology was put to the test for shoppers, with H&M using Goldrun‘s app to let shoppers in New York virtually try on the clothes it featured in its shop windows, access discounts and share their looks with their Facebook friends.

Airwalk Shoes also used an augmented reality app from GoldRun to launch invisible pop-up stores in New York and Los Angeles to promote a limited edition of its Jim shoe, and reported that its e-commerce site witnessed the most traffic in the company’s history.

You can see a few photos of the virtual objects snapped by NBC staffers here.

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