Zoo ad helps HIT Lab win $2.7m deal

01:43, Jan 31 2009
BIG WIN: HIT Lab director Mark Billinghurst says the five-year deal is the university's biggest research consulting contract.

An innovative 3D advertising campaign run for Wellington Zoo in The Dominion Post has helped Christchurch University's HIT Lab to win a US$2 million research contract with The Media Power Group in New York.

The HIT Lab will advise the United States advertising company on "augmented reality", helping it to create advertisements and games for cellphones that combine computer-generated animations with images from the real world.

HIT Lab director Mark Billinghurst says the five-year deal is the university's biggest research consulting contract. "It is enough money to build quite a strong team. We will probably have one of the largest augmented reality groups in the world."

Media Power struck up a relationship with HIT Lab after seeing a campaign it developed for Wellington Zoo. "Virtual" zoo animals appeared to pop out of newspapers and on to cellphones when Dominion Post readers viewed advertisements for the zoo through the cameras on their cellphones.

The animations were created by a small application that was downloaded in a text message, once readers responded to a short code published in the adverts. The application used the cellphone's camera and a visual cue in the advertisement to work out where, on screen, to display the animation.

Professor Billinghurst says Media Power was also impressed by a pioneering game HIT Lab developed in 2006, which let cellphone users play "tennis" with a virtual ball that could be batted between two cellphones.

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Phones calculated their position relative to each other using markers placed on a table that needed to be kept in the field of view of the cellphones' cameras. The phones vibrated when the ball was "struck" to simulate the impact of the ball.

The HIT Lab, which employs 35 staff, is likely to advise and to try to improve on augmented reality applications developed for Media Power by the company's other research partners in Atlanta in the US and Graz, Austria – rather than developing its own applications for the company.

Media Power chief executive Rich Jenkins said in a statement that augmented reality was one of today's most exciting and promising technologies. "Media Power is commercialising the technology and plans to make it available to everyone", creating an "entirely new advertising paradigm for marketers", he said.

Professor Billinghurst says many cellphones now have the three key pieces of technology required for augmented reality applications – cameras, powerful processors and displays.

The success of Eye of Judgment, a game developed for Sony's Playstation 3 console played using cards that trigger on-screen animations, shows augmented reality is coming of age and is worth investing in, he says. The game has sold 210,000 copies.

The Dominion Post