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world’s first augmented reality experiences at Layar.

March 2010 - May 2014
Amsterdam + London + NYC
My roles: AR Concept Designer, UK + US partnerships, BD

Back in 2010, Layar was the first high-profile Augmented Reality (AR) startup. During the next four years, I would ideate, pitch, design and help develop AR concepts for some of the world's leading brands, digital agencies and publishers. I would also open the company’s London and NYC offices, help preinstall our app to 40m+ devices and manage porting projects to new platforms.


- My first job out of college
- Layar was working on Augmented Reality which was a brand new kind of tech
- Wore many different hats, learning how startups work (mess = cool)
- Worked with leading Fortune 500 companies on the first AR campaigns 
- A-Z responsibility: conceptualizing to pitching to delivery
- Cool project with Lonely Planet
- Worked on another cool in-house stealthy app project
- Worked with some serious tech and behavioural considerations
- Saw the Gartner’s Hype Cycle inside out
- Stoked about the future of AR and VR


Right before graduating from the business school, I was looking for a job and unlike 95% of my peers, I wanted to do something creative, that would ignite the imagination, stir the blood and get me on a different career path than most of my peers. I've always been that way - if everybody goes right, I will go left.

Randomly, I stumbled upon a small young Amsterdam-based startup called Layar. What they were doing was incredible (especially for 2010) - using smartphone sensors like GPS, compass, accelerometers and gyroscopes, Layar’s mobile app could overlay digital information from the internet on top of the camera feed from the real world. It was fascinating and my mind was racing about the potential of such technology. So I offered to help. My peers’ reaction was “Aug-men..what?”

After a 4-month internship (during which I worked on AR proposals for National Geographic, Audi and Hilton) I got the job. In those days, Layar was definitely the tech world’s darling. We were winning a lot of awards like "mobile app of the year", "startup of the year" and "mobile company of the year". Fortune called it "one of 50 most innovative technology companies in the world". We had press basically living at our HQ and the founders were giving a lot of talks at conferences like TED, DLD and Google Zeitgeist. Following my gut was definitely taking me somewhere. I was working with some really cool people, learning and I couldn’t wait to come back to work every Monday.

My many hats...

I was trying to apply myself wherever I thought I could contribute. I spent some time with the QA team, helped to preinstall our app to Samsung Galaxy, LG, Sony Ericsson, Vodafone and Verizon devices, did app store marketing, worked with Nokia on porting the app to their Meego platform (it was Nokia's last attempt to have their own OS), managed a development team of 3 working on creating a build for Blackberry, had a random meeting with Huawei in Singapore (where instead of meeting they dragged me on a stage and announced our partnership) and a number of other cool projects.

My main role, however, was coming up with creative AR concepts for all the organizations that wanted to use our technology - among them some of the world's leading brands, digital agencies and publishers.

I would start every project with research - understanding the DNA of the brand, their objectives, their story and the people that I was working with (in the end it's all about the people and their feelings). I would look into all the recent campaigns they did and speak to their agencies about the creative direction. Then I would try to find alignments with what we did and pitch them a few ideas for AR implementations. Since we were the first ones doing AR, I basically had to figure out what worked and what didn't on the go - through testing, experimenting, throwing things away and starting over. Since we couldn’t objectively measure the results of our campaigns (we tried), novelty factor was the main selling point (it works but it’s kind of like spending your savings - eventually you’ll run out of it and then you’re really screwed). In those days we would constantly have a small group of test users at our offices so we could quickly test whatever we would be working on that week. No two weeks were the same and we worked hard across time zones to keep up with all the demand. Later on the company would send me to open our London and NYC offices to do the same work from there.

Lonley Planet AR Project

One of my last "custom" projects before the company shifted to the scalable self-service model was with Lonely Planet. An iconic brand with a rich history, like many publishers at the time - going through a period of identity crisis and trying to understand how to shift to "digital". Few people know this, but apart from all the print assets, the company also had a vast collection of professional photography of the locations, videos and access to a number of location-specific travel APIs. The problem was that unlike their travel guides, no-one was using the digital assets and the company needed a new way to market them that would hopefully also make their print business more relevant.

Our idea was simple: with millions of travel guides out there, we wanted to try to use the physical books as the interface for the digital assets. Our AR technology would bridge the two worlds.

Here’s how it would work: the user would buy the LP travel guide, find an insert with the instructions, then open the Layar app, point it at the cover and voila! - real-time digital information like live events, weather, interactive map, tweets, videos etc. would all appear on the screen. It was a really cool way to connect real and digital, so we launched a pilot for 42 European city guides.

Unfortunately, very few people actually used the experience after the marketing push. As we learned, (apart from the hassle) one of the main reasons was roaming fees abroad. People just didn't feel like using their phone's internet while being in another country. We definitely thought about that before, but then we also found some info that most of the planning happens in hotels (have WiFi) or restaurants (many have WiFi as well), so we decided to give it a try anyway. 


Stiktu was a little rebel project that a few of us started in our spare time. The idea was to use Layar’s SDK to build a “social AR experience”. It was a pretty neat separate app with a controversial color scheme that allowed you to draw and leave digital comments on things in the real world. 

We wanted to first market the app in the creative communities of Amsterdam by leaving little “clues” and notes in various hip places. The strategy worked and the app got a few thousand early users. One of the main issues was knowing which of the million images that you come across on a daily were “tagged” and which were not. I was suggesting “gamifying” the experience to encourage users to be the first ones (kind of what Foursquare did with the Mayor award), but soon the project was deprioritized (we were a venture-funded company after all; no horsing around). 

Tech & Design Considerations

Technology and what it could do was a serious constraint. It was 2010 and Android just came out. Networks were slow and sensors like accelerometers - not as accurate. Those were, however, the fixed considerations that were relatively easy to manage.

It was the variable considerations at every step of the user journey that we had to think about the most. Here are some of them:

  • Is AR even necessary for this?
  • Are we disrupting the user’s day? What are they doing at the moment?
  • Internet connection available and reliable?
  • Indoors or outdoors (affected positional tracking)?
  • What are the experience trigger, incentives and the percieved utility?
  • Feelings? Expectations? Social judgement?

The set of considerations would also change as the company pivoted from location-based AR (using GPS) to marker-based AR (using features of the trigger image like a magazine cover). In that case we also had to consider lighting conditions, amount of recognizable features on the trigger image, marker visibility etc.

Learnings from the first generation of AR

Like all new technologies, AR and Layar went through all stages of Gartner’s hype cycle and it was fascinating to see it from inside-out. When I joined in 2010, we were right about to get to the “Peak of Inflated Expectations” (awards, press mentions, large investment rounds, inbound leads...). However the situation changed dramatically a couple of years later as we descended into the “Trough of Disillusionment”: 

We were trying to change the way people interacted with technology. And changing behaviors is extremely difficult. There were several additional problems with AR at the time:

1. Instead of the usual smartphone experience, to take advantage of AR you needed to take out your phone and point it at something (as if you were filming it). Many felt that this was socially awkward, especially in public places. 

2. Technically, we were doing some pretty advanced stuff on all levels - hardware, firmware and software, connecting a range of device sensors, using their API data, connecting it with the camera input, the internet and various online APIs at the same time. That was 2010 and unfortunately some of these APIs were still buggy or untested. Combine that with the proliferation of the early flavors of Android that just came out, and you got yourself an experience that would crash or stall more often than you wanted, despite the best efforts of our dev team.

3. Because of the heavy processing, the app would be heavy on battery life and many users complained about that.

4. Unfortunately, and probably most importantly, the utility or the perceived utility of the experience was not very high either. As an open platform, anybody could develop an experience for the Layar app. As the developers were just getting into AR, most of these experiences were of pretty low quality and were not thought through enough (e.g. of the “dancing dragons” type - good for one time, maybe). This is still a major challenge for all the new AR companies.

5. The user journey would be pretty bumpy. We would first need to have some sort of trigger or notification that an AR experience was available in the user’s location. They would then need to take out their phone, open the Layar app and launch it. The speed of going through that process would depend on the quality of their internet connection and physical location (GPS data would not be accurate if the user would be inside a building) and we didn’t even know what they were doing at that moment. We would work on many of these issues down the road, but it took longer than it should have.

Now, as AR and VR are making a comeback (”Slope of Enlightenment”), the technology is finally there and we know what works and what doesn’t. I cannot wait to work on some mind-blowing next-gen VR and AR experiences. For that I’m actively learning Unity, C# and 3D modeling tools like Cinema 4D. I am also the VR editor at Startup Digest, VR track curator at Mountainfilm Fetival and one of the co-founders of VR Weekend

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