Earlier this month, the New York Times published its first feature story with augmented reality, or AR, depicting 360 degree models of Olympians suspended in action: a figure skater frozen in the middle of his quadruple jump, a speed skater paused during the sharp angling of a turn. Unlike virtual reality, there’s no headset involved to view the story; you just fire up the Times smartphone app and the skaters appear as if they’re in the room, allowing you to view them from the sides, above, and below. It’s kind of like Pokemon Go—but for news.
And while it’s a pretty innovative use of AR technology, some are questioning whether the result was worth the energy and resources of a major news publication. To quote the wisdom of an Internet commenter: “I’m sure that [AR] has a lot of worthwhile potential uses, but I’m not sure that seeing a figure skater taking up a stance on my living room carpet is one of them.”
So is AR the future of journalism—or dead on arrival?
That could all depend, say UC Berkeley experts, on whether the journalism industry as a whole is open to both new technology and new ideas about sharing information and news.
“This has been my biggest frustration with the [news industry] in general—is that it sees its mission as purely and solely journalistic storytelling,” says Richard Koci-Hernandez, journalism and multimedia professor at the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism. He suggests that news media should start seeing themselves less as pure storytelling publications and more as communications companies that create applications with utility. Because usefulness is a huge factor in determining whether or not a new application succeeds.
Consider the top 20 apps of 2017. They all had some sort of utilitarian value: Instagram, Facebook, (and perhaps surprisingly) Bitmoji were useful for communicating with friends; Amazon for shopping; Lyft, Uber, Google Maps and Waze for transportation; Spotify and SoundCloud for listening to music, etc. You’ll notice no news publications managed to make the cut.
Koci-Hernandez says that for AR to have a place in journalism, “[news organizations] would have to find a way to make the AR experience ridiculously useful, just like the newspaper was actually ridiculously useful before the Internet. It was the only place to get movies times, get your coupons, to read news and other kinds of things. There was a utility to [newspapers].”
Spit-balling, he imagined how someone might hold the phone up to a restaurant and see a review display on their screen, or hold it up to a theater and see the movie times scroll past, or see crime statistics on a specific corner in town.
“We should start thinking about how we can make it easier for readers and viewers to do XYZ,” he says. “Because that’s when technology really catches on.”
For its part, the New York Times says its Olympics story wasn’t just about trying out a cool new fad, or sharing a single piece of journalism. “It was also about exploring what visual journalism may look like in the near future,” wrote Graham Roberts, director of immersive platforms storytelling and a co-director of the virtual reality program for NYTVR, its virtual reality branch. “We are extending stories beyond the inches of a screen—and in so doing, envisioning a world in which devices begin to disappear and the spaces around us become the information surfaces themselves.”
Luddites shouldn’t worry, though. It’s very unlikely that anything will ever usurp classic print reporting, says former newspaper editor, Silicon Valley CEO, and Berkeley lecturer Alan Mutter.
“The way I see it, AR is like chicken soup when you have a cold. It couldn’t hurt,” Mutter says. “But I don’t think it’s as transformative as the written word…. It’s not a game changer. It’s a game tweaker.”
So what are the benefits of adding AR to a journalist’s tool box, exactly? Well, on the plus side, it can add spatial elements to stories that may difficult to convey in words.
“Visual media helps people to get a better spatial understanding of how the event unfolded, like the Las Vegas [mass shooting]. How high up was this person? Why was this shooting so effective? How did it work? How did a [bump stock gun accessory] enhance the gun’s ability to fire rapidly?” says Jeremy Rue, assistant dean for academics, and new media lecturer at Berkeley’s J-School. He thinks AR could be a tool for communicating that kind of information.
Additionally, AR could help readers develop a more profound understanding of, and empathy for, the subjects covered in stories.
“I think both embodiment and empathy are amplified by technology like augmented and virtual reality. They give us a new way to perceive stories and a new method to tell them,” says Nani Walker, an AR/VR expert who is currently developing augmented reality and virtual reality prototypes with the J-School and Center for Augmented Cognition. “The ability to actually deepen reader perspectives is really important.”
For now though, AR is still pretty buggy. Koci-Hernandez and Rue struggled with it a bit, I couldn’t get the app to work at all, and Walker spent about three minutes holding her phone above and below her head during our interview before the skater finally appeared on her screen and, seemingly, in the room.
“This technology is very early in its development, so it’s really glitchy. People are going to get frustrated with something like that,” Walker says. And AR definitely has its viewing drawbacks—like having to hold a phone out in front of you and walk around a room looking for a flat surface for an Olympian or Pokemon to perch on. “But once the technology develops and you’re able to have an Olympic athlete in your room swimming, well,” she says, “That could be really exciting.”
Of course, the obvious problem with an industry in financial jeopardy is that it has so few resources, says Rue, so it’s an especially big gamble to jump on the next tech fad when it could easily short circuit.
“The challenge is we don’t really know for certain which technologies will succeed to become mainstays of society, and which will falter,” Rue wrote in an email. “The factors that decide it are complex, and include more than just the capabilities of the technology. Sometimes it depends on popularity and social adoption, like we saw with Pokemon Go. It’s like predicting which song will be at the top of the Billboard charts.”
Koci-Hernandez predicts that AR in journalism will suffer from an overall lack of in-house tech expertise and resources, which are crucial for a platform to really evolve. Regardless, if recent developments in the industry have shown anything, news media can’t afford to just ignore the next big thing.
“There’s a fear of missing out [on new tech], and news organizations are attuned to that, because we really did miss the boat the first time,” Koci-Hernandez says. “When the Internet was first born, no one really paid attention to it in any serious way and we put our information out there for free.”
“We have to be experimenting,” he says, even if some experiments go wrong. “Mentos and Coke are not the best thing to put together, but you have to do it to learn, and you have to get dirty, fall, and fail—so you can move on.”