Augmented reality may sound like a concept straight out of science fiction, but it’s really a combination of geo-location and mobile visual display that offers publishers the opportunity to turn paper products into interactive screens. Founded in 2009 in Holland by Raimo van der Klein, Claire Boonstra, and Maarten Lens-FitzGerald, Layar offers publishers the ability to turn the pages of their paper publications into “interactive print,” overlaid with all kinds of digital content, including video, photos, buy buttons, and hyperlinks.

Interviewed at the PW offices, Lens-FitzGerald said Layar’s technology can be used to “extend a publication’s narrative online or link to videos, slides, or downloads” and more. “A publisher can use it for social media and share its print articles on Pinterest and other social media platforms,” he explained, adding that the technology also allows readers to buy things right off a print page. Once a consumer has downloaded and installed the Layar app on his or her smartphone or tablet, the device can be used as an AR viewer: point it at a particular page in a print publication and it will activate all manner of digital content that has been attached using the Layar Creator.

(Download the Layar app, and use it to scan the image above to see augmented reality in action.)

Most of Layar’s clients have been Dutch firms, but the company has a New York City office, is adding U.S. clients like Rolling Stone magazine, and is looking to grow aggressively in North America. More than 27 million people (6 million in the U.S.) have downloaded the Layar app, Lens-FitzGerald said, and about a million people use it to view content each month; more than 25,000 (including 6,000 in the U.S.) have registered to use the Layar Creator.

According to Lens-FitzGerald, a growing number of print magazines and print catalogues are using Layar technology to add video interviews to pages and to attach video, pricing, and other product information to advertisements, catalogue pages, or even physical products. Layar is also targeting book publishers and related businesses, he explained, emphasizing that its technology can turn any encounter with a book into a “shoppable” moment. If a consumer sees a book at a friend’s home, or in a store, he or she can scan the cover and buy it online using a smartphone or tablet. “This is the future,” Lens-FitzGerald said. “The old medium of books is showing us what is coming.” Book publishers, he said, can use Layar to add interviews linked to a book’s cover, as well as attach reviews, tour date info, news about other books by the same author, social media links, and much more. Layar worked with business author Martijn Arets on his 2010 book Brand Expedition (Eburon Business), in which he interviewed 20 European CEOs. They used the technology to add video interviews with each CEO to the book and to solicit reader-generated content.

While Layar can be used to enhance editorial content, it’s mainly functioning as a marketing tool at present. The technology turns book covers, print catalogues, and magazine ads—any physical product that’s flat—into online storefronts by superimposing online buy buttons onto each product. Dutch retailer offers books, DVDs, games, and other merchandise, and has teamed with Layar to make the physical book and DVD covers live Layar links. Consumers can use Layar to compare book and DVD prices to prices, get product info, or buy the titles wherever they happen to see them.

The company works closely with print magazines and their advertisers “for ways to do something special, to use AR as a sponsored segment,” Lens-FitzGerald said. Among Layar’s clients are Reader’s Digest Canada, Ford India, Nissan, the Dutch women’s magazine Linda, O’Reilly Media’s Make magazine, and Philips Electronics. In addition, U.S. design magazine Dwell and lifestyle Web site collaborated to create Dwell + AhaLife, a “shoppable magazine”—a print publication in which every ad or product depicted can be purchased using the Layar app.

Layar’s augmented reality technology begins with Layar Creator, the company’s self-service online portal, which is offered in free and for-pay pro versions. (While the service offers a dashboard with analytics and feedback, the free version includes a much-reduced amount of data analysis; the pro version features very detailed data analysis and feedback, and costs about $20 per page, a one-time charge no matter how long it’s in use.)

Layar’s technology is similar to QR codes, but can be activated by designating any graphic image, such as a book cover, as the Layar trigger. With the Layar Creator portal, a registered client can upload a PDF or JPEG copy of the print page that is to serve as the trigger; custom-made content is then assigned to it. Clients can also select from an assortment of prefab buttons that will take consumers to a Web site, allow them to call a telephone number, or let them shop right off the printed page. And companies that use Layar to sell directly to buyers capture all the consumer information. (There’s also a service called Layar Connect, designed for enterprise clients looking to activate hundreds or thousands of products with the company’s AR technology.)

Layar supports Apple and Android devices and allows clients to create their own branded Layar apps. This is all very new, Lens-FitzGerald said, and clients are urged to include info in their publications about how to use the technology. But he added that Layar’s clients have been “getting great numbers,” and “book and magazine publishers are looking at new retail possibilities that come from making paper a live selling vehicle. We want to kickstart the market and make AR viable for everybody.”