Are we talking science fiction, outer space? Nah, Augmented Reality ("AR") in this context refers to smart phone apps from news sources and their inspired direction toward interactive graphics and illustrations, a kind of layered, enhanced reality made for the user, in this case the news source's demographic.
While journalists might not always be considered "in the know" about what is techy and marketable, The Boston Globe showed last weekend that the use of AR for phone apps can be done "quickly and cheaply, making it an experiment worth trying in the newsroom" according to Poynter.
A perfect test of this was the newspaper's annual Winter Arts Guide, which has schedules and previews of upcoming arts and entertainment events. The idea was to try something more animated this year, where the season comes alive. And so this became the theme of this year's section, and Dan Zedek, The Globe's assistant managing editor for design, asked, "What if we made the page come alive?"
A cross-departmental team headed by Zedek hired a freelance illustrator to design the cover and five illustrations, connecting them to animations using AR on the app engine Junaio. It was finished in a week, and the cost for using the engine was next to nothing, "making this a cheap and quick experiment," says Zedek to Poynter. An overall success, Zedek sees AR as a natural extension of print, perhaps comparable to the playful cartoons of The New Yorker, or further like supportive original photography for a story, and he now is looking for more chances to use the technology.
There are different versions of AR and app engines out there, based on the idea of using your mobile phone as a kind of lens to enhance a printed page or to overlay on live locations and objects. But this could just be the tip of the iceberg. Somewhat prophetically, The Guardian reports: "Despite the current clunky incarnations, augmented reality may well become the principal way that the digital world is presented to us. Freed from screens, information will float, contextually, accompanying the user and imparting--probably via a pair of augmented reality glasses--the time of the next bus, messages from a friend in a nearby pub, or a local match from your dating site. Everything you do now at your desktop will be superimposed in real time in the world around you."
An innovator of AR, Claire Boonstra, co-founder of the Netherlands-based augmented reality mobile app Layar, thinks that this will be the way of future for communications and mass media. "Augmented reality is in a similar position to the earliest years of television, where shows were just radio with an image attached," she says to The Guardian. "By 2015 augmented reality glasses will be mass market, so you won't walk around holding your phone up to things. With one gesture, you could show that you like a pair of shoes you see someone wearing and could buy them online. And you could switch on the sun on a rainy day. It's totally immersive."
The Globe took a very simple path for the Winter Arts Guide: a visual bookmark in print that would trigger a video on a user's smart phone. This direction was perhaps more user-friendly for the paper's demographic, even if smart phones are used by an estimated half. To view the animated illustrations, readers had to install the app, locate the paper in the channel device, and point their camera at Winter Arts Guide section. Et voila! And if people had trouble they could visit The Globe's video tutorial online, and there was also an explanation in print.
Quick and cheap and doing something more creative was the guiding principle of this pilot program at The Globe, in an effort to "surprise and delight" the readership without really providing further utility. But going forward, Zedek plans to create apps that have relevant editorial value. An example of this might be how USA TODAY used Junaio to cover the Super Bowl, by showing readers a 360-degree view of the Cowboys Stadium.