Augmented Reality is Changing How Newspapers (and Readers) are Seeing Things

By: Peter Suciu

The eyes of the world may have been on the recent winter Olympic Games in PyeongChang, South Korea, but it wasn’t just the round-the-clock televised coverage or even social media exposure that delivered the games to viewers like never before. The newspaper coverage from the New York Times and Washington Post provided an augmented reality (AR) presentation that enabled video, animation and even interactive content that practically jumped off the page.

This coverage melded the real world with the augmented via the use of a mobile smartphone or tablet. The respective devices’ camera and screen bridged the physical and digital world like never before—and unlike with true virtual reality (VR) this augmented reality requires no special hardware.

Jitesh Ubrani

“AR technology is actually baked into a phone or tablet rather than requiring the bulky VR headsets,” said Jitesh Ubrani, senior research analyst for virtual and augmented reality at International Data Corp. “This is starting to roll out to consumers already and it is far more accessible than VR because it works with devices they already have.”

While tech giants (including Apple and Google) are each starting to support AR apps on their respective handsets and tablet devices, the most successful use of AR to date was in the hugely popular video game Pokémon Go, which was launched nearly two years ago. It earned more than $1.2 billion in total worldwide revenue and more than 750 million downloads worldwide as of last summer.

The free-to-play, location-based game was designed not for a living room console system or even a Nintendo handheld gaming device but rather for Apple’s iOS and Google’s Android based handsets. The game utilized the players’ mobile device’s GPS ability to locate various Pokémon characters, which could be seen on the screen but actually overlaid on the actual world—thus creating the augmented reality.

AR’s potential could go way beyond gaming however. Apple has clearly seen the potential for this technology as it recently introduced an ARCore and ARKit to encourage the development of apps supporting AR interactions on its iPhone and iPad devices.

The recent Olympic Games were also just the latest attempts by media companies to capitalize on what AR can bring to the readers.

The Washington Post’s AR series provided readers with a first-hand look inside some of the world’s most iconic billion dollar buildings. It provided 3D visuals and audio narration from the Post’s art and architecture critic Philip Kennicott.

Bringing Stories to Life

Newspapers around the world have already been creating similar experiences where a users’ screen displays a scene that is a mix of the real world with one that is partially virtual. To access it users must have a supported device—typically again a smartphone or tablet—and access a special code that is printed on the page of the newspaper. While much of the content to date has been a video, the AR content could be anything that overlays the real world.

For the recent Olympics, the New York Times launched its own iOS-based AR experience that featured a visualization of four Olympic athletes including figure skater Nathan Chen, speed skater J.R. Celski, hockey player Alex Rigsby and snowboarder Anna Gasser. Each of these Olympians could be overlaid on the real world.

The Washington Post offered its own AR experience for the games that was also available on iOS devices. This included an AR game that allowed readers to watch athletes from different disciplines race one another and predict an outcome. The paper has been steadily using AR to complement its coverage of high profile events such as the Olympics.

“For the past two years, (the Post) has been refining the augmented reality experience for readers, experimenting with new ways to use this technology to immerse them in a place or subject,” said Jeremy Gilbert, director of strategic initiatives. “From taking readers inside some of the world’s most iconic buildings to offering them a game-like experience around the 2018 Winter Olympics, AR allows us to bring stories to life in a near-frictionless way. These advancements combined with the storytelling form’s unlimited potential mean you’ll be seeing much more AR from the Post this year.”

The New York Times iOS-based AR experience featured a visualization of four Olympic athletes including figure skater Nathan Chen.

Not Quite Real Yet

Despite the roll out of high profile AR offerings for the games, the technology is still more at the proof-of-concept stage than for daily usage, and while Pokémon Go may have been all the rage nearly two years ago other attempts to bring this technology to the masses have been less successful.

“Pokémon Go is probably the best example of widespread use, but we’re still in the infancy of the medium,” said Todd Richmond, director at University of Southern California’s Mixed Reality Lab.

In fact, the primary uses of AR have been mostly promotional in nature and have included a marketing campaign by the UK’s Sky to promote its Q TV service, and in this allowed consumers to interact with virtual versions of TV characters. On this side of the pond, AMC created a video game to promote its hit TV series The Walking Dead, where zombies were overlaid on the screen’s camera views of the real world.

One recent success story highlights the technology’s potential to sell products. Swedish furniture retailer IKEA developed an AR app to help potential buyers make product buying decisions. The IKEA Place app was created as a way to allow consumers to fix 3D furniture objects within their homes and view the results on a handset’s screen.

The lessons from other industries could also actually help newspapers determine what might—and more importantly what might not—work when using AR to enhance the experience.

Todd Richmond

“There are some uses in industrial settings: manufacturing, field servicing of equipment, but beyond that it remains mostly a curiosity,” Richmond said. “We’re still in experimentation mode. If people are looking for AR ‘solutions’ they aren’t going to find them. If, however, the newspaper industry wants to experiment with this new medium—and I think it is critical that they do, as not every AR solution will generalize across content/context areas—then the time is now as we’re still early.”

However, others suggest a “wait and see” approach to determine how AR can best be used to engage with an audience.

“I haven’t seen anyone doing AR really well yet,” noted Rob Enderle, technology industry analyst at the Enderle Group. “Apart from Pokémon Go, this hasn’t really been all that compelling in what it has to offer, but the potential is there. We just have to determine how best to use it.”

A More Emotional Experience

One of the issues to resolve with AR is that to date it has been very gimmicky, but at the same time not as simple to use as it could be. Even experienced users of today’s gizmos and gadgets expect things to be plug-and-play, and AR often needs some tweaking.

Even when it is as simple as a point-and-click with a phone to engage with AR, the issue is that not everyone has their handset or tablet permanently affixed in their hands.

“While QR codes never quite got the traction that was expected, that may have been a timing issue—not enough people were used to using their phone for everything in their life, not enough implementation into existing apps,” Richmond said. “It is a challenge to get users to learn/do new things, so the tech needs to be seamless and ideally integrated into things they are already using.”

As with other new technologies, newspapers may need to watch how AR is being done right in other industries and be a follower rather than a leader.

Erik Murphy-Chutorian

“There is a lot that newspapers can learn from and leverage in the AR industry,” said Erik Murphy-Chutorian, CEO and founder of AR development studio 8th Wall. “The main obstacle to adoption of AR in the news industry now might be that it is still early in the days of AR innovation, and as other industries like retail and gaming figure out how to best apply AR for their audience. Newspaper companies will have more use cases to look to and build from.”

Much as video brought value to traditional print journalists, AR could provide a way to make the storytelling richer. AR can be a storytelling mechanism that utilizes the environment around an audience so that they can see content and stories quite literally from all angles.

“In this sense, AR can provide a more emotional medium ­as viewers can see more of what’s happening through this technology, stories and news pieces will become more experiential,” said Murphy-Chutorian. “Imagine using AR to drive characters or narrators of a scene to engage with viewers directly. Since video is static, it can’t do this yet. AR’s unique ability to address audiences directly with rendered content provides a more personal and dynamic experience which will expand audiences further.”

However, as with photos and even video, it must too be remembered that AR is just a tool that newspapers can use, not a replacement for how news can be reported or even really a medium on to itself.

Graham Roberts,

According to Graham Roberts, New York Times director of immersive platforms storytelling and co-director of the VR program for NYTVR, “We are exploring if AR can be a serious tool for journalism and storytelling. Can AR bring an inherent value that will amplify our report in ways that are obvious in comparison to other ways the news has been presented? AR can definitely be used as part of a daily news experience. Anything that is better understood in three-dimensions, and especially better understand with the context of your surroundings for scale can benefit from the medium.”

For this reason, Roberts has already helped purposefully design an experience for AR where it is a fluid part of the New York Times articles and doesn’t detract from the reading flow of the story.

“That way AR doesn’t need to be an overly complicated production each time, and can instead be seen as valuable moments in context,” he said.

Special coverage could be where AR is best used, at least in the near future.

“A museum would be a good example of how a newspaper could offer exclusive content that can only be seen via AR,” said IDC’s Ubrani. “There are similar opportunities out there.”

Due to the time that it takes to prepare the AR content, the use cases could be limited to key moments as well.

“Where AR will probably be used next is in sporting events, a parade or other special event,” Enderle said. “For daily news, it isn’t there yet.”

Engaging the Reader

The biggest trick may still be convincing readers that this isn’t a gimmick, but also convincing them it is worth the effort to utilize a phone or tablet when reading the paper.

Rob Enderle

“So far, however, it has added this extra step where you need your phone and the newspaper and that only offers an initial ‘Oh, wow’ moment,” Enderle said. “In some ways, this is a problem of trying to use it with an actual newspaper, which just reminds us that we should be jumping to digital—like a tablet—in the first place.”

Reader feedback to AR has been across the spectrum, Roberts said. “There are some hurdles of course when introducing a new medium that asks for readers to consider a new form of interaction. You could compare it to the mouse in the early 80s,” he explained. “Eventually, nobody needed to have the value of the mouse explained to them, nor the way to use it, but it didn’t begin that way.”

It could take a while for AR to reach the point where it is as common as a computer mouse, but even the software used to engage with AR remains an issue.

“Right now, phone apps are somewhat clunky and certainly aren’t immersive,” said USC’s Richmond. “Consumers don’t like to change, so AR needs to be easy and cheap. We still haven’t solved the issues around how to craft an AR experience that has low friction, easy to use and high efficacy that accomplishes a goal. Information overload and cognitive tunneling are two issues that AR struggles with, and user experience design will be key and an ongoing effort.”

For it to provide a truly immersing experience may require a move beyond an intermediate device such as phone/tablet, but that is likely to increase the costs.

“Once AR glasses (such as Google Glass) go through a couple of iterations, and the content experience/user experiences become better understood, we’ll see widespread adoption,” Richmond predicted. “Figure five years plus or minus.”

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Published: April 9, 2018

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