MOBILE FIRST: On augmented reality and communications

A few weeks back my son got a new Nintendo 3DS for his birthday, the lucky lad.

Excited and smiling he took it out of it’s wrapping in the living room. Light blue and shiny it was. It fitted into his hands perfectly. A while later that day after all his cards other presents were opened I found him playing with it on the settee. He was moving the device around as if chasing objects around the room.

“What are you doing?” I asked. “Shooting aliens in our living room?”

“Well, they’re not aliens,” he says. “They’re pictures of mum on my new augmented reality game.”

Leaning over his shoulder I could see what he was doing. He’d used his new Nintendo to take a picture of his mum and he’d transferred them onto bubbles which he had to shoot down as part of the game. On the screen, there was my living room as the backdrop for the game. The image came from the device’s video camera. As my son moved the device so what was on the screen moved too.

What’s augmented reality?

Rewind to earlier this year. I’d heard Mike Rawlins of Talk About Local talk about augmented reality at a Brewcamp session in Walsall. He’d spoken of the experiments him, Will Perrin and others had been doing with augmented reality by effectively placing blog posts, pictures and news updates on a map. In effect each item was given its own co-ordinates and through a platform called layar people could use their phone’s GPS system to find it. Of course, each items was on the web anyway. It’s just that they can be accessed a different way.

In short, augmented reality is adding an extra layer of information to what you are looking at. You point a phone at a building, an artwork or a landscape and you can opt to access content related to it. It also works with print too. Point a smart phone at an image and you can access extra content. You can link to a video clip or even buy the item.

To me, this is just a little bit amazing. To me as a communications person it starts to get me thinking.

A mobile first strategy

Back in 2009 I read a blog post that utterly changed the way I think about news and the future of news. Going back to it today Steve Buttry, it’s author, seems like some kind of Tomorrow’s World visionary pointing out the obvious. In short, he wrote that he spends lots of time in airport departure lounges. In the past, people had killed time by reading paper newspapers turning each page literally. Increasingly, he was seeing people killing time by reading their mobile phones. So, he suggests, isn’t it smarter to think about mobile first? In other words, he describes a mobile first strategy.

Steve suggests that newsrooms take a deep breath, stop using antiquated titles like reporter, photographer and editor and just think of themselves as journalists. They need to get used to the idea of metadata. That’s the tags of extra information that help categorise an item so it can be found again. In other words, a story about a £5m leisure centre in Brown Street, Oxdown would be tagged with Brown Street as well as Oxdown, as well as leisure, Oxdown Council, finance, the ward name and the co-ordinates of the new building. That’s nothing to be scared of. It’s just the who, what, where, when and how that’s always been the cornerstone of news.

The mobile first approach, Buttry says, also includes links to the back story. The pieces of content that have already been produced which are relevant. The approach also allows journalists to crowd-source a story or views on a story.

It’s what most national news organisations do today and what The Guardian do very well.

Yes, yes but public relations?

What’s relevant to the news landscape is also relevant to communications landscape too.

I love newspapers. I started my career on them before I moved into local government communications. But I’m long past the point that Buttry saw of seeing more people look at their phones rather than look at their local paper. Only, I’m not catching planes. I’m catching a bus or a train and I’m in the Black Country in the English Midlands.

For me, I’m less interested in shiny technology than I am with communicating with people. If shiny tech can help reach an audience then I get to be really, really interested. Where news, the media and ultimately residents are heading then I believe that’s where communications people must be there too. Or even be as one of the first so they can get to understand what’s over the horizon. Maybe it echoes Buttry’s call that newspaper titles are obsolete but I’m getting increasingly convinced that the phrase ‘press officer’ and ‘PR officer’ are getting irrelevant. What does a press officer do when there’s less or no press and we still need to communicate with people?

We’ve changed in my corner of communications to adapt to social media because that’s what people are doing. We need to start to tentatively think about augmented reality too.

Yes, yes but how?

Now, I’m, not saying for a minute that we need to change everything to add everything we do to include an augmented reality – or AR to use the buzzword – element. The communications team that ditched print for the web in 1993 may in hindsight be seen as visionary. They’d also be a bit silly too. For me, it’s just being aware of the curve and investing a little time and effort into a project that’s going to be a learning process.

That’s probably where something like The Guardian’s n0tice platform can really start to come into play. Set up earlier this year, it aims to add news to maps on its platform. It has a small but growing following. There’s a board for Walsall which I’ve very tentatively started and I’m looking to head back to soon.

There’s also plenty of mileage in creating getting to know platforms like or seeing if a friendly webbie can work with you.

As comms teams are looking at changing the way hey do thinks through digital press offices this is something that can add some value.

How can augmented reality be used in local government?

Just last week I was in my car giving a lift to a town planner and somehow amongst the football banter, the work gossip and the cricket talk the subject of websites for planning applications came up. Yes, yes. I know. That’s just how I roll. The discussion turned to augmented reality. At this the light bulb above my planner mate’s head really lit up. Planning applications could be accessed. Maybe artists impressions could be added too. With links to allow people to comment.

Looking at other parts of local government and the opportunities are vast. Local history. Leisure. News. Content to help explain areas of countryside, habitats and what lives there. The truth of it is, we don’t know how local government can fully use augmented reality until people start to use it more, start to innovate and to try things out.

But in the back of my head I always think of my Dad when I hear of digital innovation. The real tipping point is when it opens up for someone like him with his very old phone and his late adopter use of the web. But if you wait until then to start to look at the subject you’re already far too late.

It’s far better to know what’s on the other side of the hill so you can spend a little time innovating and making a few mistakes when there’s not many people around to see.

If my eight-year-old is already using augmented reality it’s probably time grown-up organisations started to think about it at a comfortable pace too.

Some extra reading

Steve Buttry’s blog post on how news organisations can put mobile first 

Talk About Local on hyperlocal websites and augmented reality

Augmented reality. A useful six minute YouTube starter 

Will Perrin of Talk About Local demonstrating augmented reality

Philladelphia History on using augmented reality in local history.

Creative commons credits

Join the Conversation


  1. @Surreyheath Borough Council we used GIS to really good effect when consulting residents on the Town Centre Redevelopment and the Redevelopment of Princess Royal Baracks, Deepcut. The idea of using AR for planning applications is superb and could work in tandem with GIS. This is a good money maker for anyone wanting to develop an app.

  2. This is great… I wish you had been the head of the PR/Design team that I used to work for – we could be doing great things..!

    …but how quickly this stuff is adopted comes down to convenience – as you said, how long before you dad will find it useful.

    However, right now I think there is some middle ground to be explored so that we’re ready with great ideas when the AR tech really takes off…

    It would be great to think that our mobiles would ‘ping’ into life whenever we wandered near to some virtual content, and no doubt eventually it’ll come without the need for an AR app like Aurasma… However, I’ve found that for many users it’s equally as exciting to find a ‘key’ hidden in plain sight that ‘they’ can unlock, investigate and hopefully contribute to.

    Below there’s a link to a project I completed earlier this years with a class of 6/7 year olds at our local primary.

    Together we created a permanent QR Code trail around our village. Without any problem what-soever these kids ‘got it!’ They were thrilled by the inherent anticipation of searching out and accessing these mystery boxes (QR Codes to those challenged by imagination ;)).

    But what was behind these codes that excited them so much?

    Vouchers for free crisps and sweets?
    The latest Merlin or Dr Who?
    A school trip to Legoland?

    It could have been any or al of these things (given the budget) but actually the trail was all about Local History actually… and they were lapping it up! Largely because they were the journalists, they were the content makers, they ‘owned’ the trail!

    It’s simple, it’s engaging and it works. Not necessarily three words associated with tech these days.

    And it’s not just for kids… i’ve done similar non-permanent games and trails with Environmental groups, education conferences, PHD summer schools and an art festival.

    These trails (I call them “QR Safaris”) are not quite AR but they are pointing in the right direction. It’s not about the tech (I could easily remove the QRs in a few years and replace with RFID or GPS – even Microsoft tags 😐 ) The point is that the ideas remain the same.

    For more on our QR Safari leap into the future and please visit:

  3. Hi Dan
    I love the idea of planning applications and artists impressions being accessed via augmented reality. It really taps in to some of the thinking in Dave Meslin’s great TED Talk on the antidote to apathy: Also just some nice pictures around the place or in emails from Planning folk would be a significant comms shift – just had an emailed letter from planning this morning, yawn yawn … probably something important in there but I’ve already switched off at the opening sentence. They really need comms help!

  4. Hi again
    I’ve just been checking out some of the links you shared on AR, they are really useful, thank you. I now understand the power of geo tagging in a completely new way. I can’t wait to get my Terminator style shades which will identify tree, flower and bird species for me, and show me the view from the Leasowes nature reserve as it would have been in Shenstone’s time … with Wychbury monument on the horizon. Though perhaps it could take some of the fun out birdwatching… I wonder what Bill Oddie thinks?

  5. Dan,
    Thanks for a great post. I really enjoy your work. The topic is one that I have been thinking about for some time, but without the same attention to detail. I would say that the augmented reality is where the social media interface is developing. What need to be added, once more material arrives, are filters. We have this to some extent on Googlemaps where we can see traffic or terrain depending on our view or even streetview.

    What we could then add, depending on your interest or service, are other services or sources of information. (Please note much of this will depend on existing databases. In time, micro-sensors will allow people to collect their own information without having to wait for databases. In that sense, databases (the one-dimensional world) will remain a key foundation. The next dimensions are place and the final dimension is environment as context. (I will leave the fourth dimension the metaphysical issues until later or a separate post).

    What do I mean? The following will be a bit disjointed, but it is a first draft reaction to the ideas and potential bubbling up within your post.

    We could have environmental information made available in the way that place is being mapped with data. We could find out pollution reports, air quality reports and soil reports all mapped against the place and available for analysis. Then we could cross reference with any service, such as crime, health statistics. So far, this is mapping onto a place without seeing the relationship.

    The next stage is to look for proximity issues or relationships between data sets. For example, I may see a crime stat or incident tag, but I do not know its proximity (or relation) to other data such as location of police stations. We could then start to have a different view of place if we could map and see (at least virtually) air quality reports for an area broken by time, date and weather. The same could be done for noise or other environmental information that can be recorded. Thus, we could create a sound map in the same way that we have a visual (streetview map).

    What would then need is to connect this to council or government information. For example, how much was spent on regeneration in an area. What were the major projects? What houses or locations received the funding? We could then map the effects. At the same time, we could then connect this to political decision making. For example, does a particular ward receive more attention because it is the leaders’s (MP) (PM’s) ward? Alternatively, are there other factors? The council decisions could then be mapped against these areas so people could see the (physical) virtual impact of policy decisions on their area.

    We could then take the same information and create alerts to people so that they can alert their council or their MP. If each time you reported a fly tipping incident, it was also reported to the local ward member, the parish council, and the MP. Recipients would have a different view of their area. They would soon start to build their own three dimensional view of their area. Instead of statistical report, saying “This area is Red/Amber/Green” people could see in real time the fly tipping, the litter, or the street cleanliness. The number could be translated into a picture (street view) or more directly an online video of trash blowing in a street.

    Then add an option to include sending it to the local newspaper (perhaps this could be a way to automatically report stories.) Even fix my street has its limitations. Why not connect it to democracy by sending the report to the local council or pointing out who the local councillor is for that area. Once that started to occur, then decisions and actions might change. The local councillor could be more responsive and be able to bring evidence to meetings for demanding more resources.

    Now we could also link this to socio-economic information as contained in open source census information (OAC), which is the backbone of Experian and Mosaic, allows people to see neighbourhoods or postal codes through different lenses. At present, the mosaic system and OAC are cumbersome for the average person. An app could be developed for someone to see what their neighbourhood looks like on many and all layers simultaneously, socio-economic, crime, council funding, fly tipping, school and restaurant and other service ratings (both formal (critics and reviewers) and informal (customers, complaints, and compliments).

    Instead of waiting for officers and the council to prepare regeneration statistics and “translate” them into a council plan or a sustainable communities plan, an app could give residents the same information, as they wanted to see it to create an alternative view of how the council (or central government) is prioritising for their area. If the people who lived in an area understood how they were seen (or understood) by decision makers, it would give them a basis for challenging and changing that view (if it did not accord).

    We can see the start of this type of knowledge with the attempt by central government to show how much government spending goes to each area. We can see this on a large-scale map, which areas receive the most. What if we drill this to a micro level or map it against how the services are perceived (or reporting their own performance) to be performing. Instead of a peer review or a CAA, we suddenly have a way for an individual citizen to rebalance their relationship with the state.

    The final level is the metaphysical. By that, I mean the GIS (on steroids) system can allow us to be like gods in that we can begin to attempt to understand the nature of a thing. The quest of philosophy (modern?) is to be able to understand a thing’s nature (to have a complete understanding of an object in all facets. The near dream of omniscience is inherent in this technological trend. Imagine you point your smartphone at a building, it recognizes, it can then tell you about whether it was a restaurant, its name. What if it could then drill into that building (say assess the RFID within the building structure) to give you a view of what it contains, who lives there, what they do. How long the building has to left. Each service could view the building differently. For example, the fireservice could get a schematic layout as well as any registered dangerous material.

    A great post and I wish I had time to make my thoughts a bit less chaotic. There is a huge opportunity for this to develop. The future of data, mapping, and local government is set to change.

  6. Hi Dan

    Interesting article. Especially the bit about town planning. At Idox we have had a proof of concept for planning up an running for a number of months linking the AR tools provided by Wikitude off to our Public Access products. (Our Public Access products are used by about 200 local authorities to publish information about planning applications on their websites, for example, my local authority

    I can see simple extensions into local authority licensing, food safety, public health, waste and recycling and so on. Probably because these are the areas of local government I know about. I’m sure there are other applicable uses.

    We’ve also got a number of our local authority customers using QR codes to encourage public interaction with planning and licensing processes. In this case the local authorities seem to be ahead of the game as the numbers of people engaging through this channel is pretty low at the moment.


  7. Dear Dan,

    A very interesting article. Many of the people in the comment section seem to think the same.

    The possible applications of AR are incredibly broad. Ive just released an AR printing service with my print company print company. We are mainly aimed at creative and tech savvy students and the things they are coming up with are phenomenal. Love the idea about town planning applications. The future is bright!

    Shameless bit: if anyone wants to start their own AR project then come and find me!

    Chris Hughes
    Managing Director of

  8. I went to London 2 years ago now, especially to meet up with the folk from Layar, now taken over by Blippar (I think). When I first saw this I was convinced it would just explode but far from it so there’s still plenty of leg room for this idea. Running ads that play videos, packaging that speaks, instruction manuals there are so many uses. My little business continues to promote the idea to those who may benefit from it, and like Chris above, here’s the shameless bit, if you want to develop cross marketing materials, business cards that speak and light up with your website, flyers that hold slideshows, drop by and take a look at our website and augmented reality page at our Romsey web design business.

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