Topps and Total Immersion miss the boat

March 9, 2009

It really is such a shame to see such a potentially good idea miss the mark.  A bunch of stories are running around the blog-o-sphere today, likely fueled by the article in the New York Times about Topps’ idea to save the baseball trading card business: AR baseball cards (go here and here and here, for example.  I like the blogs, since many of the comments express my feelings with much more colorful language).

The idea is seemingly simple, to associate some virtual content with the card so that it serves as a bridge to the virtual world. It looks like an application tailor made for Total Immersion’s software (or software from a number of other folks, like Metaio).  Of course, a few clever Georgia Tech (or Graz and Oxford or Cambridge or MIT or …) students could hack the underlying system together in a few weeks with the Flash AR Toolkit, a bit of OpenCV and a database (of course, building the content is another story!).

The problem with this concept is not the technology (although the graphics are pretty lame).  Rather, it is the failure to seemingly even consider trying to answer the question I drill into my students:  So What?  Why would anyone care? Putting a pointless, cute little 3D model on an advertisement is actually not a bad idea, since the technology is young and the point of advertising is to generate a bit of buzz and hopefully some associated mindshare.

But, trading cards are different.  Here, the card is the business, and you are in effect asking people to spend real money for what is nothing more than a cute gimmick.  To quote the NYT article:

Total Immersion, a French company, brought Topps the augmented reality technology. It has already been used in a theme park and for some auto design work. Using the technology, card collectors see a three-dimensional version of a player and can play elementary pitching, batting and catching games using the computer keyboard.

Seeing 3D versions of your favorite players is … ummm … cute.  But there are more fun ways to do that (can you say “XBox 360” or “PS3”?), and these have fun (not “elementary”) games associated with them.

The NYT article quotes Eisner (of post-Disney fame) as being behind the idea;  does this mean he actually thinks people (kids, collectors?) will pay money for this?  I suspect, instead, this is a classic example of folks sitting around saying “they will buy this” even though the people coming up with the idea wouldn’t themselves buy it.

Mr. Eisner said Topps expected to ship 10 million packs of Series 1 (12 cards for $2) and Topps Attax cards this year (5 for$1). Scott Kelnhofer, editor of Card Trade, an industry publication, says the Total Immersion technology could strike a chord with boys. “This is the boldest technology idea we’ve seen in sports cards so far. The key is not to have it be a novelty and then it’s on to the next one.”

Bold does not equal good.  As I say to the students in my class when they do experience or game designs:  if you are designing for some imagined person who “likes doing that stuff” (whatever that stuff is) even though you think it’s not fun, you are not going to succeed.  Or, to use a simpler HCI concept “get to know your user, don’t just trust your instincts”.  Stereotypes are fun, but they shouldn’t be the basis of a business plan.

There is, of course, room for this to grow into something interesting.  But, not by following this route.  I look forward to the day when AR is commonplace and a wide range of creative professionals are empowered to develop ideas.  Right now, we’re stuck in the AR-on-a-marker mindset (yes, these cards are effectively just pretty versions of the much-maligned ugly-black-and-white marker), where the “reality” is left out of “augmented reality”.  Perhaps we should start calling this “augmented video”?

Of course, you might say “talk is cheap”.  Do I have big ideas on how to improve on this concept?  Sure, but I’ll reserve my detailed critique on how to improve this idea for in-class discussion (we’re teaching an AR Design class right now, no point giving away what our excellent Georgia Tech students are paying for!), in-lab brainstorming (my research group needs to publish, after all) and my consulting work (well, of course!).   But the basics are obvious:  leverage the real world, provide something of value that the users could not get any other way.  Here, the card could just link to a web site with the 3D model, and with video and stats and fun (not “elementary”) games.  Putting the little model on a card adds nothing, and (much like Eye of Judgement) will not hold collectors attention.

Of course, perhaps I’ll be wrong.  Perhaps this should be viewed as an elaborate advertising campaign?  If they can get a small percentage of current and potential customers to buy a pack or two, the whole thing may pay for itself and help them limp through these troubled times.  On the surface, however, taking the idea as it’s being presented, it’s a dud.

Topps and Total Immersion miss the boat - March 9, 2009 - Blair MacIntyre