Augmented Christmas Cards

My Experience with Making a Usable Augmented Reality Concept

Chelsea Hansen

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I wanted to create a concept of making augmented Christmas cards for the holiday season which is just around the corner. This comes from my love for arts and crafts, custom-making cards for people as gifts, and digital media. I figured that I could use my skills I have learned as being a Digital Media major, and make something even better than an average Christmas card.

Hardware & Software

The main software I used to make the AR portion of the Christmas card was Adobe Aero, which is currently in Beta. Luckily all my devices were able to download the app. Aero has some restrictions on which devices can be used. The kinds of devices that support that app can be found on the Adobe Aero Learn & Support page.

The other pieces of software I used were Adobe Dimension, and Adobe Illustrator. I could have used pre-built 3D assets for this project, but I wanted to make my own because my goal was making everything customized. Originally I wanted to use Blender for my 3D asset creation. Blender is a beefy software that I would love to learn, but for this project, I didn’t want 3D asset creation to be the focus. Dimension had pre-built base models that could be manipulated to make quick and simple customized 3D assets.

For hardware, I ended up using my Macbook Pro, iPad, and iPhone 12 for this project. I didn’t use my iPad too much for most of the process, but it was nice to have another device to test Aero on.

3D Object Creation

With the use of Dimension, I was able to quickly create different 3D assets to go into a Christmas scene. Then I added some already built-in textures to give them personality. I created these as separate objects instead of building the whole scene together so I could have freedom to add actions to different objects in the scene when I put them into Aero.

Using basic shapes like spheres, cubes, pyramids, and cylinders, I created the snowman, tree, presents, and snowy scene seen here.

The tools in Dimension were easy to use, and the best part is when exporting these as objects, they can be exported directly to Aero. Because I have the Adobe Suite, this is something I could do, since the object would be stored in Adobe’s cloud. Once they are exported for Aero, they can be seen as cloud assets when you go to add objects to an AR scene.

Building in Adobe Aero

Using the 3D objects I made, I made this scene in Adobe Aero using my iPhone. The only object in this scene I did not make was the star on top of the middle tree.

Surprisingly, the tools used to rotate, scale, and move the objects were very similar to Dimension, so it was easy for me to learn how to place things where I liked them to be.

The next step was to add actions to some of the objects. In my first iteration of this project, I only had the snowman jump up and down when the scene first renders. I would add more actions to the scene later after testing out the scene for the first few times.

Image Anchoring

The next thing to do was to get the scene to anchor to an image that I would put onto a paper prototype of the Christmas card. By default, Aero maps AR scenes to horizontal plains. This can be changed to an image. After making an image an Anchor, I started to run into issues:

With Adobe Illustrator, I made a 2D version of the snowman and made it my anchoring image.

Struggles of Image Anchoring:

When I think of people reading a traditional Christmas Card, I think of them holding the card up with their hand viewing it at an angle. Because of this, I wanted the scene to be able to come out of the card, as though it was a digital pop out. Unfortunately, when I anchored the scene to this image, as I was testing it out, the scene was parallel to the image, viewing it as a horizontal plain, making my entire scene vertical.

I wanted to edit the scene so that it would be perpendicular to the anchor image, but as I went to edit the scene, I ran into an issue: because each 3D object was a separate asset, and the editor on the mobile version of Aero doesn’t have a way to easily select all the assets at once, I would need to rotate each object individually 90 degrees. Luckily, Aero does have a desktop editor where I could open my project, and rotate all 3D objects 90 degrees at once. Something that I found out was fixed in recent updates of this app was having the actions for objects rotate with the objects themselves. That used to not be a thing, so I’m grateful for that change.

After saving the changes, I scanned the image anchor on my computer screen with my phone, and everything looked like I wanted.

The Paper Prototype

After my initial tests to make sure my scene worked, I started working on a paper prototype. The goal here was to test which combination of card type and size of snowman anchor image would produce the best results for what I am looking for.

Printed Snowman stickers that were different sizes to test the limits of size and card to scene ratio. The smallest snowman turned out to be the limit.
I made two kinds of cards in Illustrator: one folded sideways, and one folded down. I put on the QR code on the back of the cards with instructions.

Issues with the Paper Prototype:

When I initially created the QR code, I tested it, and it worked, but after I had the cards printed, it stopped working. After scanning the code, Aero would come up, and say that the session expired.

I had to create a new QR code for the project, and printed the cards again, hoping I wouldn’t run into the same issue. I tested the QR codes on the cards for the next couple of days to see if the same thing would happen, but so far, the QR code has not had any issues. I also avoided generating a new QR code for the project because I was worried that making a new QR code for the same project would cause the previous one to stop working. I’ll be testing that at a later date.

Results of the Paper Prototype Test

Sideways-folding Card

I found that the bigger the image anchor was, the bigger the scene would get, so the bigger snowmen actually didn’t work as well on the cards that folded sideways. The scene looked too big to fit in the card naturally, which has a fun effect, but it was not what I was looking for. I found that the smallest snowman image provided the best scene-to-card ratio, but the issue there is in order to get the scene to show up, you would have to bring the camera of the phone very close to the image anchor, which wasn’t the best experience in my opinion.

A side note: I also made the sideways folding cards fairly small, and the smallest size of snowman had a hard time pulling up the scene most of the time, so I believe I may have found my snowman size limit.

Down-folding Card

The best experience I felt was with the down-folding card. This version of card with the bigger version of the snowman seemed more comfortable to scan since the phone didn’t have to be so close to the paper, and the card was held in such a way that the scene was better viewed.

Testing with Users

I brought my cards to different people for them to try out. My parents were the first people to test the cards since they are among my main audience. What I found is that they were confused with how the instructions worked in the back, and I had to explain it to them. So I may need to change the way I’m giving out instructions.

I had classmates who have already had experience with AR try out my cards. The instructions on the back made sense to them, which was nice. I’ll still be looking into reworking the instructions for better clarity. So far, there weren’t complaints with the process of getting the AR scene to work, and there were more in favor of the down folding card than the sideways-folding card.

Both my parents, and my classmates all tried to tap on the snowman and other things in the scene but they didn’t do anything. Knowing that, and everything else that happened during this test will help me with what I want to do next with this project.

My Next Iteration

The AR Scene

The AR Christmas Scene I had was nice, but didn’t have a lot of interactivity. My next goal with it is to have tappable actions on the Snowman and the presents. There was also a suggestion to have music play with the scene, so I’ll be wanting to add some music as well.

Physical Card

Now that I have tested card type and snowman-to-card ratio, I’ll be wanting to make a down-folding Christmas card with more designs, a nice note, and have it professionally printed on different kinds of paper to see if paper-type may affect scanning the image anchor. I also want to see if the extra designs would distract from the image anchor as well.

I will also want to see if I can get a better set of instructions on the back of the card that are more intuitive, and test them on my husband’s parents, and maybe even my siblings.

Future Implementation Ideas

In the future, I would also try this out with different AR experience builders like ZapWorks, which has more device support. The main issue with using Aero that I hope will be fixed after it comes out of beta is the device support. If I wanted to make AR Christmas Cards for my in-laws, they wouldn’t be able to view the AR part of it on their phones because their phones are not supported by Aero.

My Feelings on AR as a Whole

The AR scene currently, though fairly new, I feel will got places as more devices are outfitted with the technology needed to experience AR. People are always looking for new ways to experience the world at large, and with not only AR but the rise of VR as well, people can be able to experience things like they never have before. My experiences with how AR and VR have improved over the past five years is telling that they will only continue to improve, to hopefully, not become another Pokemon Go where people got really into it then fell away. I believe as there are more useful ways to use AR and VR, the more it will be used in general.

Thanks for Reading!

If you would like to check this out, here is the QR code and the image of the snowman so you can pull this up and view it for yourself!

Chelsea Stamm is a student in the Digital Media program at Utah Valley University, Orem Utah, studying Web Design and Development. The following article relates to the Augmented Reality Project in the DGM 1645 Course and is representative of the skills learned.

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Chelsea Hansen

I am a budding web and app designer who likes to learn new technologies, and use creative means to solve problems.