[This article was originally posted on VentureBeat on February 8, 2018]
The New York Times has just announced it would begin incorporating augmented reality in its journalism. The Times prominently featured the announcement on its website’s front page, speaking to the publisher’s commitment to offer its readers and subscribers the highest quality news content by investing in new digital content technologies.
Claiming the move as a step toward building the future of storytelling, the Times states that its stories can now be extended “beyond the inches of the screen” and be consumed at real scale. Following on the success of the NYTVR Initiative and The Daily 360, the NYT is making an impressive bet on an emerging technology to complement its writing, though AR still has ways to go before it can be used as a compelling storytelling tool.
AR in the NYT
AR Objects act as 3D images placed a reader’s real world, within a standard article
In the near-term, it appears the NYT will primarily use AR as a means to supplement its written articles. Articles will feature relevant AR objects that are overlaid into a reader’s environment by accessing an AR-supported phone’s back-facing camera (see honor box example above).
The Times says these AR objects provide “provocative explanatory value.” Translation: These AR objects are being used as the next iteration of supplementary rich graphics. It’s a feature, not the main show (note the ‘Continue Reading Article’ call to return back to the standard article experience). This isn’t a bad thing. It’s a cool feature that represents an important step in introducing immersive content to audiences and it is the surest proof that a massive shift in content creation and consumption is arriving.
From flat and static to 3D and dynamic
Shifts in content have occurred before. We’ve seen a progression from text to photo to video, as audiences demand more richness in content and storytelling technologies continue to build and evolve. It’s clear the the newest era of content focuses on 3D/AR objects. (Arguably, VR content is part of this as well).
While it’s easy to think of AR as just another format to help explain a concept, the user experience of consuming AR content is entirely different. The more important progression to think about is how the user experience is changing. For audiences, this has meant moving from reading text to viewing images to watching videos and now to interacting with virtual 3D objects. The first three modes primarily involve “looking,” but AR involves more than just your eyes. We’re moving past swiping through content with our thumbs to engaging with content using embodied movement (think walking around the NYT honor box in your living room).
Herein lies a critical limitation to AR becoming a broader storytelling tool and medium.
The limitations of AR as a storytelling medium
As freeing as it is to “walk around” a subject featured in a journalism piece, think back to the last time you were consuming the news. You might have been in bed doing a 5-minute skim before getting ready for the day. Or on your commute, stuck in between a crowd of people on the subway. Or maybe you were at work taking a break from your email break and scrolling through content.
Most of these user circumstances rely on a passive reading experience. AR (and VR), on the other hand, require active circumstances. In VR, you elect to wear a headset and enter a fully virtual world. In AR, you choose to get up and move around to explore objects in the context of your natural environment. Consider the difference between passively scrolling for a movie on Netflix versus going to the theater for a distraction-less viewing experience. The latter takes a different kind of commitment and intent.
For AR to become part of the future of storytelling, it will take advances in creative and technology to cater to this active user circumstance. Today, AR is accessed on a mobile device with object mapping limited to horizontal and vertical surface detection. In the future, it is believed that AR (and MR) will be accessed using lens-based hardware, with object mapping on any surface (flat or not). This impacts the type of AR content that gets made and how users will access it.
In the future, if users access the news primarily using their lens and gesture controls, actively “exploring” objects with movement seems like an easier call to action. If objects can be overlaid onto surfaces that aren’t just flat, the content will be more creative. Today, using mobile devices as portals is a step to that future, but the easy, passive behavior of scrolling for news in bed is just more compelling. AR objects in this mode are not solving the job to be done of a reader to be informed or distracted in a way that is inherently better than a video or photo. If AR is all about immersion and interactivity, users need to have instances where they want to be immersed, that are different from or supercede those times when they just want to be distracted and entertained.
The future of storytelling will still be immersive
As AR technology progresses and enables better content creation that is geared towards the right user circumstances, the future of storytelling will see more users engaging with AR as a medium. With the right circumstances, interactivity and immersive content will be worth getting out of bed for!