AR and VR in packaging: Beyond the buzz

A look at real-world opportunities using augmented and virtually reality technology for packaging, consumer engagement and more.


It was in Toronto in May where I moderated a well-attended panel discussion on augmented and virtual reality at UBM’s Advanced Design & Manufacturing event, a duty that took me a step or two outside my comfort zone in packaging editorial.

I learned that the technology is even more remarkable than I’d imagined, with the panelists pointing to applications real and possible across a wide swath of industries. I also found very quickly there’s no way to take notes while moderating, so nearly all of what the panelists said evaporated.

However, I felt this fascinating subject—is there anyone unaware of the Pokémon GO phenomenon that uses an augmented reality smartphone app?—deserved a wider audience. I reconnected with research firm IDC Canada senior analyst, Emily Taylor, whose insights anchored the broad-based panel discussion of experts. Taylor conducts strategic research and analysis on mobility technology markets, focusing on mature and emerging technologies including augmented reality and virtual reality.  She sets the stage for further drilling down into the packaging side of the equation by the president of Shikatani Lacroix Design, “designers of immersive experiences,” on the next page.

As a backdrop to the market itself, a report from research firm SuperData projects that mobile augmented reality will become the primary driver of a global $108 billion VR/AR market by 2021, with AR taking the lion’s share of $83 billion and VR at $25 billion. Another report projects the global  market at nearly $120 billion by 2022 at a 75% CAGR from 2016 to 2022.


Let’s start with defining these two terms.

Taylor: Augmented reality (AR) is technology used to complement a persons’ environment through the addition of digital content or objects into their field of view, while virtual reality (VR) is technology used to remove a person from their existing reality and provide a “virtual” reality, immersing them completely within a digital environment.


What’s the state of the AR/VR market?

Taylor: Over the past year or so we’ve seen some big players in the tech industry bring AR/VR solutions to market in the form of software, services and hardware. This industry push and the promise of AR/VR technologies to be the next key computing platform has encouraged experimentation and innovation in this burgeoning market. Initial waves of AR have been seen on smartphones and tablets where the device’s camera is held up to a key landmark and additional information is augmented into the scene on the screen, and it is expected that this will be the way many are first exposed to AR.

With AR, the blending of the real and the virtual can be difficult to create, but the possibilities with both mobile devices and head-mounted displays like Microsoft’s HoloLens are expected to be more limitless than VR. Initial VR headsets and solutions have been heavily focused on gaming and hyped launches for products like HTC Vive and Oculus Rift, but as both AR and VR solutions evolve the technologies have potential to revolutionize business as we know it.


What are the biggest growth markets for the tech?

Taylor: We’re seeing spending and lots of interest in AR technologies in manufacturing, transportation, and healthcare. For VR, retail, construction, and healthcare are areas where we see great potential. Overall, for enterprise users AR and VR ultimately raises productivity and allows workers to interact with data rather than view it statically. Those interactions have the capacity to facilitate experiential learning, virtual collaboration spaces, and training simulations. For consumers, these technologies will provide “as if you were there” and augmented experiences as new ways to consume and share content.


What benefits does virtual-enabled packaging offer?

Taylor: AR/VR-enabled packaging—and AR/VR-enabled content overall—facilitates heightened interactions for the user by supplementing the real world with digital content and provides a new, unique experience that wasn’t previously possible.

There is currently a lot of hype surrounding AR/VR solutions, and utilizing these technologies in advertising or marketing can provide benefits that are two-fold:

  • It allows organizations to investigate the applicability of the medium to their business before making broad decisions or investments; and
  • It also can provide some PR and marketing hype for a brand.
  • Still, some AR/VR executions may be seen as a gimmick to some consumers, particularly if there is no obvious benefit or utility for the technology’s usage. Product visualization is an area where this technology fits well, where consumers can view items virtually before purchase. This may help facilitate the purchase if the consumer isn’t sure, as it allows them to visualize the item(s) in a new way.


    A test subject, outfitted with electroencephalography (EEG) sensors and Samsung Gear VR headset, uses a controller to navigate through a VR environment. Image: Shikatani Lacroix Design.


    What newer technology comes into play?

    Taylor: Head-mounted displays (HMDs) enabling AR/VR content are poised for growth over the next few years. These devices are also expected to evolve as both AR and VR HMD experiences require a lot of processing and battery power to make the experience robust, which can be a trade-off between power and mobility. Devices are also expected to become lighter and thinner, easier for longer term wear.


    What’s a piece of advice for brands considering using AR/VR on their packaging?

    Taylor: It is important to lead with good quality AR/VR experiences, as bad experiences can both be damaging to both the evolution of AR/VR in the market as well as the brand. One of the key advantages of these technologies is the level of immersion in the user experience, and the quality of this user experience will help drive adoption and interest overall. Further, adoption and usage of these technologies requires a certain level of digital operation, so assessing the current state of readiness within the brand or organization will be important when pursuing next steps.


    Next: Packaging design & development and the 3 hot spots for AR and VR


    Immerse yourself in a real-world packaging experience at MinnPack in Minneapolis November 8-9 that’s part of a comprehensive 6-event megashow that also includes PLASTEC. For more information, visit


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    Authentication: Reactive testing simply not good enough, says pharma expert

    “Even though FDA’s enforcement of the Drug Supply Chain Security Act (DSCSA) has been pushed back a year, the illicit trade won’t stop,” warns Bob Miglani, speaking of pharmaceutical counterfeiting, diversion, and other criminal activity. Miglani spent 23 years working for Pfizer, and a year ago he joined Applied DNA Sciences to serve as chief of business development.

    The firm’s DNA markers have already made “tremendous progress” in several pharma labeling and packaging pilots, he says, and the company is now working to address industry’s challenges—and perhaps reluctance—with employing a routine product authentication strategy.

    “DSCSA is a tide that lifts all boats,” he explains, but he adds that “regardless of serialization,” there are still threats. “Serialization is digital, and anything digital can be copied and hacked. Threats and challenges will always be there for anything digital,” he says. “Companies need to refresh their toolbox.”

    Layers of anticounterfeiting technologies can help counter these risks, just as they do in currency, he says. “Our technology fits into those layers,” he says. 

    Applied DNA Sciences’s DNA markers—which Miglani describes as “molecular bar codes”—can be incorporated in “virtually any material.” They have been tested and validated in inks, varnishes, even embedded in materials, and the company has recently completed feasibility studies of tablet coatings. “With a significant proportion of the world’s tablets having a coating,” he says, “it is a seamless way to integrate our technology.”

    The technology is also a robust one. The DNA markers have been employed in cash boxes that have an electronic system that sprays the cash with dye if breached. A thief may be able to wash out the dye, but not the DNA, so the crime can be linked to the person, he says. “We’ve already had 114 convictions in the United Kingdom,” he says.

    And field DNA readers have gotten better, with faster readers and field-deployable authentication kits that can be carried onto planes, he says.

    However, the challenge with authentication technologies hasn’t necessarily been the speed, but rather the frequency, he explains. “When the police bust bad guys in Poland, for instance, they look at the packaging and then call the drug company to verify. The security contact is located and sent the suspect product. Folks in the lab then test it and determine whether it is counterfeit. The company then needs to file a suspect product investigation report with FDA. All of this is a very reactive way of testing suspect products, and it happens a few times a year,” he explains. “It is useful, but not good enough.”

    Pharma companies may hesitate to employ forensic authentication because of the effort behind investigation. Miglani says companies struggle with training employees, developing SOPs, access to systems, and accuracy.

    But given the ongoing risks—and the fact that FDA is putting pressure on companies to monitor markets—“companies need to be more proactive and routinely audit and test products in the supply chain,” he says.

    To address these challenges, Applied DNA is developing a new “authentication as a service” approach. “No longer do companies have to worry about testing,” he says. “We will do so in hotspots where there could be problems. We could provide each customer with an inspection officer who can test products in the field. We’ll produce quarterly audit reports and produce ‘heat maps’ showing, for instance, that 70% of the samples from one market are authentic and 30% are not.”

    Applied DNA has performed such frequent testing in the cotton and tech industries. The company runs a full-service ISO 17025 accredited lab in Stony Brook, and its lab workers are trained like crime scene investigators, he says. “Our forensic reports have held up in court,” he adds.

    The approach offers the potential for “a lot of data mining,” he says. “You can utilize analytics to shift strategies. If you see problems in one country, for instance, you can take a look at your distributors.”

    Such data can also be used as a value proposition, he adds. “If you want more business from a hospital chain, you could show reports on testing of the supply chain. We are living in a world of total transparency. It is important to put all your cards on the table.”

    Miglani advises pharma companies to look upon routine field authentication as just another means of auditing. “The pharmaceutical supply chain is used to auditing,” he says. “Pharma is very good at compliance.” And some companies would rather be given a certificate showing they have passed such audits, he adds.

    He adds that Applied DNA has “learned that the approach must be seamless and integrated into the pharma supply chain ecosystem. The vastness of that ecosystem is massive in scale and complexity,” he says. “There is a lot of potential for our technology—pharma needs to reduce risk and differentiate its products, and FDA is watching pharma companies closely. For certainty in the marketplace, our approach offers a whole system to tag, test, and trust.”

    For more details, see our 2016 article, “Turning to nature to fight counterfeiting.” 


    MinnPack 2017 (Nov. 8-9; Minneapolis) celebrates its 15th year to bring you the latest developments in all things packaging as part of a comprehensive advanced manufacturing event. Sign up today to attend!

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    Nelipak joins Healthcare Plastics Recycling Council

    Nelipak Healthcare Packaging has joined The Healthcare Plastics Recycling Council (HPRC). Nelipak, a global provider of custom thermoformed packaging for medical devices and pharmaceuticals, recognizes “the responsibility as packaging manufacturers to take the environmental impact of our products into consideration as we work with our customers to create more sustainable products,” said Seán Egan, director of global marketing, Nelipak Healthcare Packaging. “Nelipak can not only help medical device OEMs make more informed decisions about packaging material selection, but is also often able to reduce the total amount of plastic used.”

    Nelipak plans to work closely to promote the work of the HPRC among its customers and suppliers, “creating awareness of the need to divert more plastic from landfills,” Egan tells PMP News. “Nelipak will examine ways of helping hospital staff more readily segregate waste material through education programs and clearer marking of thermoformed rigid packaging to help remove uncertainty on the material composition of the plastic used in the trays. We will also look to work with material suppliers to educate and promote the need for higher uptake of waste material by recyclers that can be used in non-medical applications.”

    To help OEMs create more efficient and environmentally responsible packaging, Nelipak evaluates packaging beyond the initial need to protect the device to the point-of-use, says Egan. “This starts with optimizing the design to reduce the amount of material used in the manufacturing process, which in turn requires less material and energy to produce the part,” he explains. “Using simulation tools, we can streamline the package footprint to increase load efficiency during transportation from our facility to the customer’s loading bay. These same tools help customers lower their cost of ownership in their internal processes by requiring less energy in handling, sterilization and transportation to the clinical environment.”

    Reducing the number of packaging components can also help. “Nelipak continues to innovate packaging by using fewer components,” he says, pointing to the example of putting laser-etched instructions directly on trays thereby removing instructional leaflets from the mix. “We also look to develop trays that become part of procedures in the surgical theatre, thus removing the need for additional containers,” he adds.

    Recently Nelipak reduced the overall footprint of a packaging assembly for screw sets and plates compared with the previous packaging by using sealed trays instead of pouches, Egan says. “The new design decreased packaging volume by 40% for plates and 240% for screws. The previous packaging only held one screw at a time; the new pack holds three items (i.e., two screws and one locking screw); this removes four pouches from the waste stream. Additionally, extending product shelf life reduces the amount of un-used product that goes to waste.”

    Innovating during the early stages of development could help result in recyclable packaging. “Nelipak becomes an extension of its customers’ packaging development team, taking on expanded roles in design, development, and testing,” says Egan. 

    Nelipak’s expanding global footprint also plays a role. “Having multiple global manufacturing sites puts Nelipak closer to our customers, reducing our carbon footprint for shipping,” Egan says.

    Peylina Chu, director of HPRC, says in a news release that “as a manufacturing leader in healthcare packaging, Nelipak offers important insights into new technologies and design best practices that can help increase the recyclability of these materials. Their input and wide range of expertise will be vital in helping support our goal of increasing the overall recycling of healthcare plastics.”

    Other HPRC members include Baxter, BD, Cardinal Health, DuPont, Eastman Chemical Company, Johnson & Johnson, Medtronic, and Ravago Recycling Group.

    For more details, visit or

    Be sure to visit Nelipak at the upcoming Medical Design & Manufacturing Minneapolis expo November 8-9 at Booth #1316. 

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