What Designers Should Know About Augmented Reality and Virtual Reality in Print

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When designing for digital inkjet, you’re not just limited to what you can print on the page. New technologies are giving designers and marketers the opportunity to seamlessly blend the physical and digital worlds for more dynamic, immersive experiences, and print can be a powerful bridge. In fact, the limitless potential of using print to help support the digital realm is precisely where authors Elizabeth Gooding and Mary Schilling begin The Designer’s Guide to Inkjet, 3rd Edition

“When you can change every color and image to cater to an audience of one while embedding offramps to online content or augmented reality, the design possibilities are endless,” write Gooding and Schilling.

The offramps Gooding and Schilling reference have to lead to somewhere. Today, these destinations are more frequently including augmented reality (AR), virtual reality (VR) experiences. For example, a recent report found that more than 100 million people use AR to shop online and in retail stores

Digital inkjet is the ideal tool marketers and designers need to create high-quality print that can use AR or VR as a method of deepening the user experience and producing more meaningful print. Here, we’ll look at what you should know about AR and VR to help you better understand how print can be the engine that powers these innovative technologies. 

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What is augmented reality in print?

Augmented reality is a technology that adds a digital layer to the physical world. For example, the filters on popular apps like TikTok or Snapchat use a basic form of AR. AR experiences come in two different forms: markerless and mark-based. Markerless AR can be launched from a mobile device without a real-world marker, whereas marker-based AR requires a physical marker, which in print is most often a quick response (QR) code but can also be a block of text, an image, or even an entire print piece like a catalog or postcard. 

The kinds of AR experiences you can incorporate vary widely and include audio, video, 3D models, content overlays, and more. This example of augmented reality in print used the technology to supplement the storytelling and illustrations of a children’s book in order to create a more engaging, immersive experience. 

Designers who want to incorporate AR in print need to consider a couple of key components before they even start the design process. First, you need to decide on the print piece you want to augment, and this choice could impact whether you decide to use markerless or marker-based AR. 

You also need to choose whether users will access your AR experience via an app or a web browser. An app-based AR experience can be helpful in driving more users to your app, but downloading an app can be a deterrent for some, depending on your target audience. 

Your choice of paper also plays a part in designing a piece with augmented reality, in large part because you need to print crisp, clear images that can be easily scanned by a smart device. As such, you want to choose a paper with a high brightness and opacity to print the highest-quality AR markers possible. 

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How does virtual reality in print work?

As opposed to layering digital elements into the real world, virtual reality creates an immersive, wholly digital experience that exists apart from the real world. VR requires some combination of headphones, headsets, or controllers along with specific software to create a digital world that the user can respond to and interact with. The three main types of VR include: 

  • Non-immersive VR, which is the most common and relies on a computer and software to build the environment

  • Semi-immersive VR, which provides an experience that is partially based in a virtual environment

  • Fully-immersive VR, which is the most realistic virtual experience and incorporates real-word elements like sights, sounds, and even smells

The principles of VR in print operate similarly to those of AR in print, but the main difference is that VR in print can help your audience replicate a real-world experience in the digital realm that is faster, easier, and more efficient. For example, an automotive manufacturer could create a direct mail postcard that integrates VR to launch a virtual showroom where users can browse vehicles and interact with salespeople without leaving their home.  

The retail industry is also a prime market for VR in print. A clothing retailer could print personalized, highly-targeted catalogs that use VR to help customers try on clothes in a completely virtual setting.

While using VR in print presents some incredibly high upsides, there are some challenges in deploying VR experiences in print. First, fully immersive VR in print requires hardware your audience must have on hand in order to engage with your print and digital content. While almost 15 million AR and VR devices were shipped in 2022, using VR in print requires a firm understanding that your target audience possesses and understands how to use the necessary technology. 

Plus, VR in print requires a high degree of technical knowledge and skill in order to program an experience that works properly and serves to supplement your print piece. This can come with a fairly steep price tag, but if you have the budget to build a VR experience that works in concert with your print project, the results can be impressive. 

Curious about how to design digital inkjet projects that can integrate digital components? Download The Designer’s Guide to Inkjet, 3rd Edition to learn more about how digital inkjet can help you create high-quality print that’s designed to incorporate digital technology.