In recent months a number of news outlets from The Times in the UK to the LA Times in the US have launched new products in the augmented reality space.
Augmented reality, where mobile devices are used to provide an extra layer of visual interaction, has been introduced in print editions, with key photos and advertising being brought to life, such as with a moving image or by bringing products out of the page and offering users the ability to interact with them.
Augmented reality is also in use beyond the printed page, with one project by Talk About Local, for example, taking geo-tagged content from the web and displaying it to the user based on their own location, with symbols denoting how near or far the location is which the content relates to.
In this feature we speak to a number of people who have been involved with AR projects to find out the different ways news outlets are using the technology today, the different opportunities for both editorial and advertising, and what the future could offer.
Outside of the news industry there have been a number of commercial examples of augmented reality in practice.
Managing director of Talk About Local Sarah Hartley highlighted just a couple of those examples, from the sofa company which lets a user effectively "take the sofa home with you" and place it in your living room to get a feel for how it will look, to an "object-triggered augmented reality app" which she said was able to tell the user different recipes which they could use for a certain foodstuff.
And within the news business the opportunities are also being explored.
The Times recently launched what it claimed to be "the first augmented reality newspaper supplement in the UK", which saw the front cover brought to life when viewed through a smartphone, as well as features inside the magazine. The technology was also used to offer a "click and buy" Christmas gift service on top of its gift guide. Here is a video by popvulture on YouTube showing it in action.
Head of ad innovation at The Times Hugh Mark added that the "tap-to-buy" facility helps add another dimension to the AR opportunities for editorial and advertising.It's not just about watching a video or having a 3D experience. All that stuff is cool but there's also action the reader can take using ARHugh Mark, the Times
"It's not just about watching a video or having a 3D experience. All that stuff is cool but there's also action the reader can take using AR.
These new "click-through experiences" offer users a "visual search" service when looking at products, he explained.
"Augmented reality offers an instant action for consumers. You point your phone at the page, you tap on the product you're interested in on your phone, and then you go straight to potentially the purchase page."
Director of mobile platforms at the Telegraph Mark Challinor added that he is finding that more and more agencies and advertisers are starting to want "to get into" the AR space.
While he added that he feels "it is a gimmick to some extent", AR media projects do "make people's eyes light up when used well".
"There are a lot of agencies and advertisers that are now wanting to get into that space ... whether it's supermarkets, car manufacturers, record labels etc.
"... So it's how we hone that ourselves and make that a part of what we do, and we do now offer AR commercially as part of an addition if you like to our multi-platform packages to agencies and advertisers."
But as well as the commercial drivers, the power of the technology can add extra value to editorial content. The Telegraph, for example, has used AR technology within its motoring section to let users explore the inside of certain vehicles, as well as in its travel magazine to "show a destination better than we can do just in print".
Challinor also discussed a video made by one AR company (embedded below) which demonstrated other potential use cases for newspapers, ranging from highlighting comments left on stories on digital platforms when viewing print articles, and then using social media to add additional comment, to a possible crossword "cheat app".
Meanwhile in the US, the LA Times this year produced an augmented reality app to bring some of its printed Olympics coverage to life. Emily Smith, senior vice president of digital at the LA Times, said specific images printed by the newspaper therefore acted as a "trigger point for a richer, digital content experience".
I asked her how the decision is made to invest in AR technology for certain content, to which she replied that this is driven by content experience and monetisation.Primarily we look first to serve our best customers, our readers, our members, and so I think the content experience is primaryEmily Smith, LA Times
"Primarily we look first to serve our best customers, our readers, our members, and so I think the content experience is primary.
"We were fully staffed in terms of our editorial resources to go to the Olympics, to be creating our own perspective covering not just the Californians in the Olympics but our own California perspective of what was happening at the Olympics, and it felt like a great opportunity to show our print readers a lot of that great coverage that you just can't fit into the paper.
"You're limited with a newspaper certainly by how many pages are going to be produced that day and yet we've got hundreds of beautiful photographs and video content primarily that our readers want to see. So in this way we felt we were providing a great convenience to readers to be able to access all of that content right from the page."
She added that monetisation is the secondary goal.
"When we launched this app for the Olympics we did have our traditional ad sales banners and placements baked in, as well we ran an experiment within our real estate section where you could hover over some of our advertisers' listings and go directly to the section on the advertiser's site that showed the photograph and additional information of the particular houses that were prepared for activation via the app."
She added that for the times the application of the technology is about adding value for their print readers, which she said "are in many ways our most loyal customers".
"We want to continue to provide new experiences for them and they have smartphones so it just seems like a natural way for us to extend their content experience and their membership with the LA Times, by deepening their engagement and giving them more and more reasons to continue to be a member."
Similarly Challinor said "at the Telegraph we firmly believe in print as part of our multimedia offering", and therefore this technology helps merge the traditional print product with new technology developments.
AR v QR
So how does AR compare to QR - Quick Response - codes, which are square barcodes that serve as links to take the user to a video, another piece of web content or perhaps present a message instead?
Challinor highlighted "hesitation" for some when it comes to QR codes as at times "they can look quite intrusive on a page", he said.
"I think although you still have to tell people what to do within an AR sense, I think the benefits of the AR, the way it brings things to life in a way QR perhaps cannot, I think that just gives it that edge."I think although you still have to tell people what to do within an AR sense, I think the benefits of the AR, the way it brings things to life in a way QR perhaps cannot, I think that just gives it that edgeMark Challinor, the Telegraph
He added that AR campaigns tend to have the "wow factor".
"Whilst the jury is still out as far as AR is concerned, I think the benefits just outweigh and I think it's spreading a lot more just by word of mouth even now and many more people are adopting it. You see it on cover wraps on newspapers and you see them in magazines and they're starting to appear a lot more frequently now."
He added that research into QR codes from last year found four out of 10 people did not know what one was when they were shown it.
"Pushing technology is not just assuming people will want it and will gravitate around it, it's not the field of dreams, if you build it they won't necessarily come," Challinor added.
"You need to tell people why they need to come, what the benefits are, and that's where I think AR clicks into place".
Beyond the printed page
And augmented reality is not just about bringing print products to life. It is also used to bring the world around people to life, such as a user walking down a road who can automatically have information flagged up to them based on their location.
One project in particular, launched this year by Talk About Local, is applying augmented reality to "public service-focused content". This enables a blogger or news website to bring geo-tagged content to life, and take it to the user directly, as the video below shows.
"So, for instance," Hartley explained, "if you were looking at perhaps a building in my local town, that had planning permission on it and you pointed your phone at that building you'd now be able to see the details of that planning application".
"If you were walking around areas of London or Edinburgh where we've also got trials going on in this, you might see details of a local blog report, the Edinburgh Reporter, for instance, has done a lot of content which you'd be able to explore when you're walking down a particular street that would come to you, come to your environment through your mobile device."
She added that for local news publishers in particular geo-tagging content "would seem a really logical next step, particularly with the arrival of very focused, targeted, hyperlocal advertising models".Geo-tagged content for local publishers would seem a really logical next step, particularly with the arrival of very focused, targeted, hyperlocal advertising modelsSarah Hartley, Talk About Local
"Once the content is atomised to that level then it opens up a whole wealth of new opportunities about how those individual stories or individual news packages of video or whatever it is can actually be exploited out there on the internet."
Hartley added that the wider area of social, local and mobile is "a huge growth area", and therefore she expects "to see a lot more different uses of it".
However challenges remain, in particular whether or not there is a "commercial imperative" for the sort of use being championed by Talk About Local.
"That's a different question and something bloggers and journalists can really help with."
The Times's Hugh Mark added that the technology offers a lot more flexibility than what has been available previously, and opens up lots of doors for news outlets keen to experiment.
"You can overlay whatever you like on top of a page. So you can point your phone at a poll on a page and you can overlay answers to the poll and then click on 'yes' or 'no' and then serve an infographic immediately to people. There's a lot of flexibility and immediacy that you get through augmented reality.
"The gimmick stuff, the Harry Potter-esque features of AR, they actually do get people engaged sometimes. I think they are a gimmick but the more interesting stuff is the immediacy, the way you can click to purchase something or interact and tap and brand or a feature to bring out more value.
"I think hopefully we're getting past the gimmick stage and we're looking at tens of thousands of interactions with each AR edition at the moment so I think we're moving in the right direction."
Lastly, the LA Times's Emily Smith added that above all they are still in the experimentation stage.
"We aren't arrogant enough to believe that we're going to build all this stuff ourselves and be the leaders in developing the technologies that will be baked into these phones.
"We don't have the capability or the resources available to be on every type of phone and every platform, so we look for partnerships where we think we can find best in class and see what we can do with our advertisers, with our newsroom, to create new experiences."
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