Credit: Flickr: Augmented Reality Comics @ Ars Electronica Center

US news organisation USA Today is using augmented reality (AR) to delve deeper into news stories for its mobile audiences.

Published on average once a month in an AR-specific section of the USA Today App, audiences can explore stories which are topical at the time. This has ranged from the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 mission, to a virtual recreation of the first slave ship to arrive in America.

Since the publication published their first AR story in July 2018, USA Today has seen significant user engagement. Its project for the Women’s World Cup attracted 200,000 views, while average time spent on last year's Oscars project was almost four minutes - standard content achieved around 90 seconds on average.

USA Today

Raymond Soto, director of emerging tech, USA Today Network, said this engagement indicates that audiences are coming around to the technology.

"That blew our minds and told us we’re heading in the right direction when it comes to interactive storytelling in AR," Soto said.

The team previously considered exploring virtual reality as a new storytelling device. But it opted for AR after Google and Apple moved to integrate AR functionality into their smartphones.

"Considering that most of our audiences consume news through mobile devices, for us it just made sense," Soto continued.

It is far from straight forward to do these AR projects however, as they require large amounts of code to pull off. Its time-scale can be hard to forecast too, as it depends on type of user experience required and the story being covered.

"For the Oscars piece we released back in February 2019, we were able to put a pipeline together that allowed us to create a fairly robust interactive within about three weeks. But then when you consider something like the Notre Dame piece, we completed it within about eight hours.

"We’ve also worked on projects that have taken several months, with long-form, deep investigative pieces."

Are these early signs that coding will be a working requirement for reporters? Soto said learning how to code could be extremely useful for journalists as new innovative ways of reporting develop.

"The fact that there’s so many new, exciting technologies that are coming around, I think it’s an opportunity for folks to really dive deep, experiment, see what works, and apply it to news for their audiences."

To that end, Soto has not pinned all his hopes on AR, and has instead spread experimentation into the use of drones for breaking news, artificial intelligence in the newsroom and natural language processing.

"What really excites us is the opportunity to explore and see what we can do with each of these technologies with the expectation that there might be a convergence of several, and that's what I think something special could come from," Soto concluded.

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