This article is part of CMO.com’s September series on the state of media and entertainment. Click here for more.
When the case of the second police officer charged in the fatal injury of Baltimore resident Freddie Gray went to trial last year, The Washington Post faced the task of having to explain the series of complex events to readers.
It responded by creating an augmented reality (AR) experience that explained the circumstances around Gray’s death and the subsequent riots in Baltimore. The AR experience included 3D imagery, maps, audio, and text from court documents and witness testimony.
That use of AR, which came on the heels of summer 2016’s Pokémon Go phenomenon, seemed to foretell a new medium for storytelling for media. Since then, though, AR efforts have been sporadic, in part because its distribution strategy is tricky and in part because it can take several months to create an AR experience.
But now that Google, Apple, Facebook, and Snapchat are all pushing AR, many more projects are in the pipeline. This fall and in 2018, we may begin to see AR pop up in more places--even though no one’s sure whether AR will be “a big idea, like the smartphone,” as Apple CEO Tim Cook recently dubbed it, or another in a line of would-be technologies such as NFC, beacons, and live video, which have yet to live up to their promise.
Publishers Experiment With AR
Despite the buzz, publishers doing anything with AR so far are in the minority. A Digiday poll earlier this year found that 21% of publishers were creating AR content.
In May, The Washington Post launched another interesting experiment: an AR experience that let readers explore some of the world’s most notable buildings, including the Elbphilharmonie concert hall in Hamburg, Germany, where visitors can hear and see the same thing no matter where they sit. Readers who use the Post’s app can point their smartphone’s camera to the ceiling of any room they’re in. The app then converts that ceiling into the concert hall ceiling while playing narration by the newspaper’s art and architecture critic, Philip Kennicott. Users can also tap the app to read his articles.
The architecture AR experience was the first built into The Washington Post’s app. To experience the Freddie Gray project, readers had to download the ARc app from Empathetic Media, The Washington Post’s partner on the project.
Jeremy Gilbert, director of strategic initiatives at The Washington Post, said plans call for another architecture experience this month, followed by an AR museum project slated for October and then another AR venture in November. “We’re working toward a steady cadence of AR experiences,” Gilbert told CMO.com.
So far, The Washington Post’s AR projects have been driven by editorial and included what Gilbert called “non-traditional display ads.” But Gilbert said there’s a lot of interest from advertisers.
“One of the things that I’m really excited about is when we talk about the cadence, some of that won’t be achieved by editorial alone,” he said. “If we want the kind of number and diversity of AR experiences, some of them need to come from brands.”
AR is attractive to advertisers because it commands the reader’s full attention, Gilbert added. “We have all gotten used to watching video while doing something else,” he said. “Augmented reality, at least at the moment, is such an incredibly immersive experience that it’s very difficult to try to multitask through it.”
The New York Times, meanwhile, jumped into AR earlier this year when its content studio, T Brand Studio, created “Outthink Hidden,” which told the story of African-American women who worked for NASA in the 1960s. T Studio released a new app, T Brand Studio AR, for the effort.
Layne Braunstein, chief creative officer and founder of Fake Love, the agency used by The Times for its AR projects, said that so far there haven’t been any editorial AR projects. “On the editorial side there are a bunch of teams there looking at how they’re going to integrate [AR] into the Times proper,” he said, adding that some 50% of Fake Love’s pitches are for AR.
Those publications aren’t alone in their AR experimentation. Last year, The New Yorker ran covers in the print edition of its Innovators issue that, when paired with a tablet or smartphone using the Uncovr app, became animated.
And for its current September issue, W magazine launched its first AR issue, which features Katy Perry on the cover. To experience the AR, users need to download W’s Beyond the Page app. When users focus it "on pics of Perry, they unlock GIF-like moving images and a “music video-esque short film,” according to The Hollywood Reporter.
Some book publishers are adding AR as well. Carlton Books has sold more than 3 million books featuring its AR technology, Digital Magic. As this video illustrates, tablet and smartphones can unlock content from the books, so a book about dinosaurs might reveal animation of two of them fighting right on the book’s pages. Other AR-enhanced books might include games or puzzles as well. Textbooks, meanwhile, might include video or audio content to help students absorb the material.
The App Problem
For readers, finding these AR apps can be a barrier to entry. The Washington Post has three separate apps, and the AR experience is only available on smartphones, not tablets.
Readers can also only experience The New York Times’ AR by downloading the T Brand Studio app. The Times has been discussing how to integrate AR into its main app, Braunstein said, but hasn’t decided whether it should be editorially or advertising focused.
Brands, meanwhile, want bigger ad experiences. “A lot of brands want things that are a lot more custom and aren’t just little things that pop up out of the paper,” he said. “Those require a bigger app.”
Until recently, that was a problem because AR apps take up a lot of memory. But now services such as Zappar, which are lighter and can stream AR, can be integrated into publishers’ apps.
Still, barriers remain. “I don’t think AR is going to catch on if you have to download an app you don’t otherwise have, and you have to find something to point it at and make it work,” Gilbert said. “What we have to do is find a way to work in apps that the audience already has.”
That means Facebook. This year Facebook is attempting to beat Snapchat in AR, the one area where Snapchat has an edge. In April, Facebook introduced a developer studio to help brands create AR experiences for Instagram and Messenger. Though few campaigns have resulted to date, NBC Universal worked with the studio to create an animated filter to promote the movie “Minions.” And during its developer conference, Facebook showed off an AR application with Nike.
More recently, Esteé Lauder used AR for a Messenger bot called Lip Artist. Fans upload their selfies to the bot and then get an image showing how they’d look with various lipstick shades, thanks to an AR overlay.
While Facebook’s AR efforts seem to mimic those of Snapchat, this week Apple plans to launch ARkit (a major part of its iOS 11 release for the) to let brands and users create their own AR apps iPhones and iPads. Google is also pushing its own AR technology, Tango, as an Android-based ARkit competitor. BMW, for example, has used Tango to create a smartphone app that projects lifelike 3D images of its i3 and i8 automobiles against real-world backdrops.
“I think Apple, Google, Facebook, and Snapchat all realize the power of AR,” Gilbert said. Unlike virtual reality, AR “gives you the feeling of immersion without the feeling of isolation,” he said.
If AR does truly take off, the question is who will benefit most. Social media ad spending is already on track to surpass revenues for news media by 2020. But some argue that AR could give the newspaper industry new life and even boost print. In the meantime, AR adoption remains low--at least until the next Pokémon Go comes along.
For its part, Gannett is focusing more on VR now than AR. The newspaper chain’s flagship paper, USA Today, has been running a VR series, “Vrtually There,” since 2016. “VR is going to be the near-term play, with AR the long-term,” said Ray Soto, design director of emerging tech for Gannett. “I think it’s going to be the bigger opportunity.”