The Rise of Interactive Visual Culture & What It Means for Brands

The debut of Animoji and ARKit marks the official start of visual culture 2.0, where interactivity and personalization will reign supreme. This shift is set to unleash a new round of changes in digital landscape and media consumption, which brand marketers will have to adapt to by turning passively consumed brand assets into interactive branded experiences.

What is the most memorable new feature of iPhone X? Which new feature is going to sell the most $1,000 iPhones? If you think anything other than Animoji, think again.

Image Credit: Apple

With the iPhone X, Apple managed to create a genuinely fun, low-barrier, and user-friendly feature with Animoji, enabled by the same depth-sensing front camera system that powers Face ID. Better yet, it has a built-in viral quality — who wouldn’t want to transform themselves into a talking fox or unicorn after receiving an Animoji from friends? Some may dismiss animated emojis as frivolous, and they certainly are to some extent. Yet, it is important to see that the debut of Animoji marks an interesting tipping point in communication.

For the past decade or so, while our digital interactions migrated from desktops to mobile and our bandwidth expanded, our consumption shifted from a largely text-based diet to one dominated by images and videos. We ascribed that shift to a new “visual culture.” Now, with emojis — the first instance of image-based mobile communication — becoming interactive and personalized, visual culture is entering the next stage of its development, to which brand marketers will need to learn to adapt.

How We Got Here

Marketers have been talking about the rise of “visual culture” since around 2012, around the same time when image-centric social platforms like Instagram, Pinterest, and Tumblr first started to emerge. This major shift from text-based communication to visual cues gradually altered the digital media space over the past few years, forcing publishers to cut down editorial staff and invest in video production, platform owners to add an endless array of image and video features, and marketers to cast aside the clever puns and up their Instagram game. Meanwhile, the proliferation of meme images and reaction gifs made visual content a growing segment of our digital communication.

This year, however, we are witnessing the next iteration of visual culture start to take shape. As our media consumption becomes more interactive with the spread of 360-degree videos, VR and AR experiences, and conversational interfaces, people have grown to expect the same kind of real-time interactivity from other types of digital content. There is no fun in posting a good ol’ selfie, so Snapchat’s selfie lenses that twist and modify your face grew so popular that Instagram started copying it.

Animoji marks the official start of visual culture 2.0, where interactivity and personalization will reign supreme.

Through this lens, it is safe to say that the introduction of Animoji marks the official start of visual culture 2.0, where interactivity and personalization will reign supreme, gradually replacing the previous ways of UGC creation and consumption. To be interactive with visual content is to infuse your personality into the visuals you capture and put those magic personal touches before sharing them with the world. The interactivity and personalization go hand in hand, and that combination is set to unleash another round of changes in digital landscape and media consumption that brand marketers will have to adapt to by turning passively consumed brand assets into interactive branded experiences.

At this time, visual culture 2.0 will mainly manifest itself in the following two key domains.

Emoji Lays The Groundwork For Virtual Avatars

Emoji, a staple of visual culture 1.0 and a cross-cultural phenomenon now used by over 92% of the online population, had a humble regional start in Japan. It wasn’t until October 2010, when a few emoji character sets were incorporated into Unicode and become part of the Unicode Standard did the global proliferation of emojis become possible.

Fast forward to today, every operating system and major messaging platform has their own set of emoji designs. This means that certain emojis may look like a totally positive, happy one on one platform, only to look a lot gloomier when they appear on another.

Source: Grouplens

Apple has fixed this discrepancy in iOS 9, but there are still many other instances of such cross-platform discrepancy involving emojis, which only highlights its limitation as a still set of tiny pictures.

Such limitations are being blown away by the new breed of animated, personalized emojis that come with visual culture 2.0. Besides Animoji, which brilliantly adds an intuitive and interactive process into the creation of personalized emojis, Bitmoji is also a good indication of the direction in which emojis are evolving. There is no personality in a boring emoji that everybody uses, so Bitmoji, a customizable, comic book-style digital avatar based on your own appearance, was created in 2014 and quickly become a hit among young people as the cooler cousin of emojis.

Together, Animoji and Bitmoji are heralding a future of digitized personal avatars that will come to represent our digital self, especially in emerging mediums such as virtual reality or augmented reality. When Facebook previewed its social VR platform Facebook Spaces at its developer conference this May, users are prompted to choose from a dozen of different physical attributes to create virtual avatars of themselves before they can start interacting with other virtual avatars in a shared virtual space.

Earlier this month, Snapchat, which acquired the company behind Bitmoji last year, started rolling out a new AR feature where 2D Bitmojis are transformed into animated 3D objects, jumping around on real-world surfaces and interacting with physical objects.

It is time for brands to start creating virtual avatars and other 3D assets in order to be present where your audience is heading.

For brands, this means it is time to think about how you may create your own virtual avatar and 3D brand assets in order to occupy the same virtual space as your audience will soon be. As virtual avatars start to take off with the emergence of AR and VR, it is very important for brands to establish a brand avatar as a digital extension of their brand identity. For example, brands with popular mascots should consider turning them into customizable avatars for fans to use, and putting a friendly face to your customer reps on messaging apps helps add a human touch to your customer service.

After all, when your customers are starting to communicate with each other via animated emojis and virtual avatars, so will brands need to create their own in order to join the conversation.

AR Elevates Visual Interactivity To New Highs

Beyond emojis and virtual avatars, augmented reality is poised to elevate visual culture to a whole new level of interactivity. Unlike the new breed of emojis, which adds interactivity to digital interpersonal communication, AR will add another dimension of interaction by bringing digital objects to life in the physical world. Enabling visual culture to interplay with different contexts and physical environments, AR will likely become a crucial tool in facilitating brand-customer communication.

Image credit: Niantic

By now, everyone not living under a rock has heard about Pokémon Go, the viral mobile game that introduced augmented reality to the mainstream consumers in the summer of 2016 with a global frenzy. For the first time, many people realized that the camera on their phone can be used for more than simply capturing images and videos. Over a year later, the hype for the game has winded down significantly, but the race to popularize mobile-based AR and capture users is only just starting.

Facebook, Microsoft, Google, and Apple have all announced their respective AR developer platforms, but as of now, only Apple has shipped its mobile AR platform, named ARKit, with the release of iOS 11 and allowing all developers to create AR features for their iOS apps. Everyone else is still either in closed beta testing (as is that case with Facebook’s AR Studio and Microsoft’s Mixed Reality platform), or struggling to gain traction with hardware manufacturers, as Google is with ARCore and Tango. In contrast, Snapchat, an early leader in adopting mobile AR, has been sticking to its tradition of keeping the AR developments in-house so as to maintain a tight control over its app experience. Nevertheless, every major tech player wants a piece of the AR pie, and that is what will drive changes in consumer behaviour at scale.

For brands, the implication is indisputably huge, especially considering how much marketers have struggled to translate digital assets into real-world contexts and bridge the gap between our digital visual culture and the real world. The impending mass adoption of mobile AR will make it possible for brands to tap into the surroundings of their customer and gather contextual cues to personalize their communication and offering.

More importantly, the mass adoption of mobile AR and the resulting behavioral shift in visual culture 2.0 will make it possible for brands to replace the boring, two-dimensional, text-heavy brand messages with interactive visual experiences that are far more appealing and engaging.

AR-led visual culture allows brands to replace the boring, text-heavy brand content with interactive visual experiences.

For CPG brands, this means replacing the fine print on packaging with an AR experience that will surface relevant product information and branded content with at shelf. For auto brands, this means getting rid of the promotional pamphlets and create an interactive AR app to highlight your new model’s selling points in the showrooms. For hotels and resorts, mobile AR presents a convenient way to help your guests navigate the properties and free them from getting confused by maps. The list goes on and on.

On the consumer side, the expectation of being able to visually interact with a brand in a personalized way will only grow in time, which presents a core challenge that brand marketers will need to solve with the rise of visual culture 2.0: creating an experience that effectively conveys your brand message while also providing value to your customers will be the key to tapping into this paradigm shift in digital marketing, and meeting the rising consumer expectations.