July 03, 2023 , in technology

Augmented Reality — Are We There Yet?

Claims for the Metaverse turned out to be premature, but the more modest goal of 'augmented reality' may be an idea whose time has come - with interesting implications for news publishers.

Eidosmedia Augmented Reality

Augmented Reality | Eidosmedia

After the over-hyped expectations for the Metaverse and subsequent disappointments (explored in our recent post), augmented reality (AR) has emerged as a more accessible goal in the brave new world of digitally enhanced experience.

The tech titans certainly think so. Meta recently announced the forthcoming Quest 3 headset on June 1, 2023, which boasts more sensors, four cameras, and “new Touch Plus controllers with TruTouch haptics.” Then just five days later, Apple released its Vision Pro headset — which uses eye- and hand-tracking technology to “easily move between virtual reality, in which the wearer is fully immersed in a digital world, and ‘augmented reality,’ which overlays images upon the real surroundings,” according to the Financial Times (FT). Does the excitement around these recent developments signal AR is finally ready to break into the mainstream?

A brief primer on augmented reality (AR)

For the uninitiated, TechTarget defines augmented reality (AR) as anything that “layers a digital display onto the view of a user's physical surroundings.” The AR experience can range from the immersive headsets Meta and Apple are rolling out to more commonplace applications like mobile games, social media filters, and virtual fitting rooms. Recently, AR has even been making waves in the healthcare industry. Fingent reports on several “groundbreaking AR trends in healthcare,” including robotic-assisted surgery, 3D modeling for wound care management, remote patient physical therapy and rehabilitation, accessing patient records via real-time projection, and 3D mapping that allows patients to navigate labyrinthine hospitals with ease.

What’s the difference between augmented reality and virtual reality?

AR layers in a digital display, while TechTarget defines VR as “a 3D computer-simulated environment where users can interact with digital objects, either by clicking a mouse or using wearable devices, such as headsets and special gloves.”

Imagine the difference between the Metaverse and the mobile game Pokemon Go: one is a fully-immersive digital world where participants interact using digital avatars and fancy equipment, the other is a game layered onto the real world using a mobile device. Beyond the gaming world, VR use cases include studying certain industries and practices in a virtual environment — e.g. using a VR headset “to analyze equipment, evaluate production processes and train workers” — and creating virtual models (aka digital twins).

The major differences between AR and VR can be summarized by three points of comparison: the equipment (VR usually requires a headset, while AR experiences are also accessible on most mobile devices); the environment (AR integrates the virtual world with the real world, while VR is more often confined to an artificial, wholly digitized world); and interactions (VR interactions are strictly virtual, while AR can facilitate real-life interactions between users).

AR (and VR) in the newsroom

Using immersive virtual experiences to amplify news content has been on publishers' minds for a while now — and some have found significant success deploying AR and VR. Journalism.org classifies immersive news content into two categories:

  • Daily immersive content — e.g. AR-powered infographics and 3D images “that blend with websites and article pages using interscroll technology that can be taken to the next level and put directly in someone’s environment using an augmented reality app.” The New York Times has effectively used AR to produce a variety of daily immersive content forms, including a visualization of air quality, recreating the Apollo 11 moon landing, and illustrating how the 2019 Notre-Dame fire started.
  • Tentpole immersive content — e.g. narrative content used to amplify a story by “bringing them out of their traditional news consuming space and into a new frame of reference.” The Guardian's VR experience 6x9 exemplifies tentpole immersive content by recreating a U.S. solitary confinement cell to demonstrate the psychological toll isolation can have on prisoners — while also showcasing the publication’s technical prowess and providing readers with unique digital experiences. Another example of effective tentpole immersive content is the New York Times’ Emmy-award-winning AR crime scene that showed the aftermath of a 2018 bombing in Syria.

The power of this immersive content has already been proven — but the extent to which AR and VR can amplify publications and engage readers is still being tested. “If you can mentally place elements you wish to remember in that space, the memory will be more vivid and long lasting. The same can apply to impressions gained from quality journalistic storytelling,” concludes Venture Beat. “The effect of spatial journalism could usher in a new era of highly impactful stories that make a more lasting mark.”

Speaking to Journalism.co.uk, Yusef Omar, co-founder of journalism video publisher SEEN (formerly Hashtag Our Stories), envisions a future where AR smartglasses seamlessly integrate information into physical experiences. “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.” Innovative thinking like this is sure to pave the way for future developments in AR-powered journalism.

The time to embrace AR in publishing is now

Barriers like technological expertise and expense have prevented some publications from getting on board the AR train — but with the hype building around Apple’s and Meta’s new headsets, it feels like the time to start exploring immersive experiences in publishing is now. “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,” concludes Journalism.co.uk. The advice is sound, as the AR market is still relatively nascent — but certainly heating up. Savvy publishers would be wise to seize the opportunity and start exploring potential applications of this immersive, engaging technology.


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