How Augmented Reality and Virtual Reality Will Strengthen Storytelling and Revenue

If you noticed crowds of people this summer with their heads down and their gazes glued to their smartphones, you can probably assume they were looking for Pokémon (“pocket monsters” with special powers that are captured and trained by humans). Twenty years ago, the only way to catch a Pokémon was through a pack of trading cards or by playing a video game. Today, people of all ages are catching the creatures through their smartphones using augmented reality.  The Pokémon Go game (available on both iOS and Android devices) was released in July and has been downloaded by more than 100 million people worldwide.

With the success of the Pokémon Go game, it offers a chance for AR to quickly become a mainstream product. In fact, some newspapers have already been experimenting with AR or as some call it “interactive print.” Newspapers from USA Today to the Guardian are also leading the way for virtual reality as a new storytelling tool.

Both AR and VR offer different results for publishers. Below we will take a look at some of the best AR and VR practices and strategies currently being used at publications. What works for one newspaper might not work for another, but if your kids were hunting for Pokémon this summer (or maybe even you were), then read on to see what the buzz is all about.

Which Reality Should You Step Into?

The first thing we should do is figure out the differences between AR and VR. Eric Johnson of recode put it best.

“What distinguishes VR from adjacent technologies is the level of immersion it promises. When VR users look around—or, in more advanced headsets, walk around—their view of that world adjusts the same way it would if they were looking or moving in real reality,” Johnson wrote.

AR, on the other hand, “takes your view of the real world and adds digital information and/or data on top of it. This might be as simple as numbers or text notifications, or as complex as a simulated screen…but in general, AR lets you see both synthetic light as well as natural light bouncing off objects in the real world.”

Earlier this year, the Washington Post released an AR experience surrounding the Freddie Gray case in Baltimore ( According to the Post, the series explains the events that caused Gray’s death while in police custody and triggered riots in the city.

“With 3D imagery, audio, maps and text based on court documents and witness testimony, users can better understand the complexities of the case and the differences in what the prosecutors and defense say about when and how Gray was hurt,” according to the Post. “The walk-through in AR is narrated by Washington Post Local reporter Lynh Bui and depicts scenes starting with the police chase to when Gray was found in cardiac arrest.”

Readers are instructed to downloaded the ARc augmented reality app and point their smartphone’s camera to a custom logo next to the story in both print and digital to activate the content. Once the app is downloaded, users can navigate through 3D models, rotate around a scene and map pop-ups showing key locations in the case, explained the Post.

But you don’t have to be the Washington Post to experiment with AR. Sun Community News in Elizabethtown, N.Y. launched its AR app in April. The company distributes several free, small community weeklies with a total print circulation of 60,000.

Sun Community News introduced augmented reality to readers in April.
Sun Community News introduced augmented reality to readers in April.

According to Sun Community News publisher and owner Dan Alexander, he decided to introduce AR into his publications after receiving an incentive from his local post office. If they tried AR, they would receive a discount on their posting bill. And since they mail out 60,000 pieces a week, he figured why not. They could save money and at the same time, learn more about AR. “If the opportunity presents itself, you have to think ahead,” he said.

After much research, Alexander decided to go with Layar, one of the first mobile AR browsers. Based in Amsterdam, the company works with brands like Pepsi, Glamour, Honda and BMW.  Alexander said Layar’s pricing was affordable and it was not an additional cost to them.

Here’s how it works: Readers download the free Layar app to their phone or tablets. Then, they scan an ad or article in print that has the AR icon to unlock photo carousels, videos or audio clips. Sun Community News debuted the app in a story that covered a dissolution plan public hearing concerning a local village. When readers scan a photo of people speaking at the hearing, they can actually hear the actual audio. AR has also been introduced to several ads featuring real estate and auto dealers, where readers can scan still pictures and suddenly be transported to a video.

Alexander said the feedback has been mixed, but that’s because their audience is older and he believes it will take time to catch on as readers familiarize themselves more to the AR content. He admits the Pokémon Go craze has helped spread the word on AR and has even helped his newsroom understand how the technology works. Although the 62-year-old Alexander isn’t chasing after Pokémon himself, he said, “It’s only going to open more doors to what they can do with mobile devices.”

Alexander said when he first heard of AR, he didn’t give it a second thought, but now that he’s seen it in action, he’s very excited to see to use it more. Even though he’s made the leap into AR, he still believes in print and considers AR a great complementary product. He actually prefers to call AR “interactive print” because when people see AR, they usually think it means “accounts receivable,” he joked.

As a kid who grew up with “Star Trek” and “Star Wars,” Alexander said that kind of technology is becoming a reality and it will continue to move along. “Look at how we’ve gone from flip phones to computer chips inside our eyeglasses,” he said.

But will this investment in AR pay off?

“There are too many unknowns,” Alexander said. “Is AR the current hot button or is it the future?”

Yet, he still encouraged other publishers to be open-minded and to not be afraid of those unknowns. “Look at different things,” he said. “If it’s cost effective, do it.”

Meanwhile, the Guardian recently launched its first VR project ( Titled 6×9, it’s described as a “virtual experience of solitary confinement” and it places viewers in an interactive, virtual segregation cell.

“The purpose of 6×9 is to demonstrate, using immersive journalism, how being in long-term solitary can affect the mind of prisoners held in segregation around the world, an estimated 80,000 to 100,000 of them in the United States alone. This method of storytelling is a highly effective way of highlighting the sensory deprivation that solitary confinement entails,” wrote Caroline Davies of the Guardian.

Through the Guardian smartphone app and using VR goggles or Google Cardboard, users are immersed in the cell for nine minutes. They can look up and down and see the entire cell, from the bed to the toilet. They can even hear the real voices of prisoners describing their experiences.

In August, the Associated Press took VR step further and published its first animated VR experience using a 360-degree view into the latest scientific theories on the development of Alzheimer’s disease ( The best way to view is on the YouTube app on your smartphone and with Google Cardboard. The project was made using AMD’s Radeon graphics.

“We’re seeing applications like this for the first time, where you can zoom in to see incredible levels of detail inside of 360-degree ‘views,” said Sasa Marinkovic, head of software of VR marketing at AMD, in an interview with the AP. “I think this platform is a completely new way to experience content, to be told a story and to look at the world in a digitally simulated way that is going to help us relate to things we weren’t able to in the past.”

He continued, “We believe that with virtual reality, technology actually needs to take a backseat to the experience. Obviously, the experience needs to be smooth, immersive and impactful. But it also needs to be seamless in order for this experience to really be amazing.

“And I think in this piece in particular, not only do we enable the viewer to see things, but we also can connect them emotionally to the patients, to the doctors, to how the brain works and some of the things that people go through in their daily lives and Alzheimer’s effect on them.”

Digiday reported that the Financial Times made its VR debut at the Rio Olympics with a four minute VR film that “(went) deep on the social dynamics and physical landscape of Rio’s favelas but in a way that shows the positives along with the negatives to create a balanced view of capital.” Found at, the film is part of the paper’s “Hidden Cities” series that explores unknowns about specific major cities (it’s already covered London and Brussels). In collaboration with Google, the FT supplied 35,000 Cardboard headsets for readers and the paper is already planning a second VR project on the fourth city.

The Knight Foundation recently collaborated with the USA TODAY NETWORK to get a better an understanding of VR journalism and released a “State of VR” report in March ( USA TODAY NETWORK has been on the forefront of VR technology since launching “Harvest of Change” at the Des Moines Register in 2014. That project immersed viewers into the world of an Iowa farming family. USA TODAY NETWORK is also planning to launch a VR News show, “VRtually There,” the first branded VR news experience, at the end of the year. The report stated that a basic kit (that includes a camera, viewer and stitching software) for journalists can be assembled for a VR story for less than $5,000.

“Despite the experimentation, it’s clear that virtual reality is merely in the beginning stages,” according to the report. “Immense challenges remain: The consumer market remains incredibly small, with manufacturers still working on creating headsets that are high-quality, reasonably priced and do not give users motion sickness. Without market penetration, of course, revenue for content producers will remain elusive.”

A Real Future

It’s true that AR and VR is just at its infancy when it comes to the newspaper industry, but a recent survey of 1,300 adults conducted by Greenlight VR and reported by AdWeek found that 71 percent of them felt that VR makes brands more “forward-thinking and modern” and that 53 percent of respondents said they’d be more likely to purchase from a brand that uses VR than from one that doesn’t.

There could be a real future for augmented and virtual realities. You could be the New York Times who distributed more than 1 million Google Cardboard devices to subscribers last November in order for them to view a VR film about children displaced during war or you could be like the Sun Community News experimenting with video and AR while covering their local high school athletes.

As journalists, it’s our job to report on this reality, but with AR and VR now in our hands, we can enhance the stories we’re telling, immersing viewers in worlds they otherwise wouldn’t be able to experience. At the same time, we can make ads come to life by scanning the print images with our phones. We still have a long way to go, but if Pokémon Go taught us anything this summer, it’s that if you create something fun and engaging, people will respond.


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