Credit: Yusuf Omar (above) co-founder of Seen at Mojofest

"The whole world has realised mobile journalism has gone mainstream. Now we need to run to the next thing. Spoiler alert: that next thing is augmented reality," says Yusuf Omar, the co-founder of Seen, formerly Hashtag Our Stories, a video-first media publication that launched in 2017.

Omar was speaking on the Journalism.co.uk podcast about his company's recent rebrand. The new name comes from the publication's mission to be a place for historically under-represented communities.

Its unique business and editorial mission remains the same: train local communities to use cutting-edge technology so they can tell their own stories. The idea is to be a truly inclusive media company by passing the camera lens to members of the community, using a team of journalists to verify what is legitimate.

Only now, we are talking about the camera lens in smartglasses.

It is a type of wearable technology that allows you to film through a built-in camera on a pair of glasses, achieving a first-person perspective in your footage. The next iteration for the technology is building in augmented reality (AR), so that users can see overlays in the real world.

Omar's vision is a world where smartglasses can present information depending on what the user is looking at. At a time when young people want colonial statues around the world pulled down, augmented reality can provide the context behind the statues. Omar has also made an augmented reality app, which when paired with smartglasses, helps Muslims understand the Quran.

These might all sound like novelty ideas, but Omar predicts that in eight years' time - by 2030 - it will be perfectly normal. And those that do not dive in could be left behind.

"If you’re not making those investments today, that's going to be a difficult curve for you to climb later because this jump is bigger than any jump we’ve seen before. it’s a fundamental shift, it’s a sea-change, new companies will emerge that will be ready for this metaverse-based world of overlaying stories onto the real world."

The lesson for any newsroom thinking about moving into the AR space is the same when weighing up any other innovation; do your research into wider user habits and audience demands, consider the applications for your journalism, invest in the technology and upskill your staff.

The screenless future?

He is one of the biggest enthusiasts for augmented reality (AR). It is understandable given Snapchat invested $150,000 in his company via Snapchat's startup accelerator Yellow in 2019. But is there more to this?

The Snap Consumer AR Global Report 2021, published by Deloitte and Snap, looked at responses from 15,000 consumers in 15 countries. According to this study, three in four people expect to be avid AR users in the next three years.

That same study suggests that two thirds of users will use AR primarily at home, mostly for communication but also for shopping, gaming, entertainment - and crucially - media consumption.

Omar says that existing forms of media all require a screen interface or a qwerty keyboard for input, but the uptake of QR codes is an early sign that the camera lens will eventually become the primary input to technology.

"The camera really will be how you do everything. How you pay for things, how you add friends - we’re going to move away from the keyboard and that’s a great thing."

Spend any time on Snapchat and you will see users mucking around with face filters. It might seem like a gimmick now, but eventually it will become a utility, he adds, predicting that the camera lens could one day be the way people pull up directions or check the weather forecast.

"That’s how things tend to go. When the internet arrived, it certainly wasn’t used for what it is today. When mobile phones first arrived, they weren't used for what they are today. Eventually, AR will go from novelty to absolute mainstream."

'You ain't Seen nothing yet'

Seen, however, is currently focusing on podcasts as a way for audiences to access content on the go. The growing everyday use of AR will likely couple with people being plugged into headphones, Omar says. He thinks that artificial intelligence will make recommended listening far more sophisticated in the future, suggesting different shows based on location or acivity i.e. a different show when you are on a run versus at the supermarket versus on the commute to work.

"The future of audio is incredibly bright because the reality is while I am obsessed with this wearable future, and I believe we’ll all have wearable glasses, I also don't want a casino on my face. I don’t want to see screens all the time. But I don’t mind consuming audio a lot more. That’s why we’re going to make big investments into the audio space."

Seen will launch a podcast tentatively named Heard in the coming weeks, leveraging its enormous back catalogue of interviews and stories.

It publishes around 1,000 videos a year and the team has enjoyed great success in the social video journalism arena in recent years. On Snapchat, its primary platform, the main account has 1.62m subscribers. It thas eight other verticals including Seen Money, Seen Health, Seen Sex Ed, Seen India. All of these are voluntary contributor-led series made possible through providing free training and toolkits, or paid for by NGOs or embassies.

The training and workshops will remain a big focus of its business model, but there are other ways for Seen to make money, like through syndicated and licenced content for the likes of NBC LX, branded content for NGOs, and paid speaking slots.

Here to stay will be its focus on educational content. Before publication, all stories are reviewed to ensure they contain what Seen calls a 'TIL (today I learned) element'. Seen also wants to focus on solutions journalism stories, or at least stories that offer a constructive narrative about what societies can do to address big global problems, particularly climate change.

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