Boston Globe's augmented reality project an example of quick, cheap innovation

Augmented reality is still a foreign concept for most journalists, but The Boston Globe showed last weekend that “AR” can be done quickly and cheaply, making it an experiment worth trying in any newsroom.

[caption id="attachment_118328" align="alignleft" width="152" caption="The cover of the Boston Globe's 2011 Winter Arts Guide featured five illustrations that worked with an augmented reality app."]Boston Globe Winter Arts Guide[/caption]

Each year the Boston Globe produces a Winter Arts Guide, which has schedules and previews of upcoming arts and entertainment events.

The theme for this year’s section was “The Season Comes Alive.” So Dan Zedek, the Globe’s assistant managing editor for design, asked, “What if we made the page come alive?”

In short order, Zedek and a small, cross-departmental team worked with an outside illustrator to design a section front with five illustrations and connect them to animations using an augmented reality (AR) smart phone app.

“Three or four of us did it in a week,“ he said. “We didn’t want to overthink it.” It cost nothing to use the AR app, making this a cheap and quick experiment.

Zedek said this was not a "future of journalism” exercise. But he does “hope that lots of people will try it and have a good experience and find it a natural extension of what we do in print.”

More importantly, the project was an eye-opener for Zedek, spurring him to see potential uses for AR in upcoming projects. “I now see AR everywhere,” he said. “Once you have done a pilot program, you see a lot of new opportunities.”

From idea to execution

Typically AR uses a mobile phone camera to enhance material shown on a printed page or to overlay information shown on a live view of locations and objects.

Zedek, who had been looking for an opportunity to try this technology with the Globe, chose the most basic use: a visual bookmark that would trigger a video on someone's smart phone.

For the Winter Events Guide the Globe decided to create a set of illustrations representing five different arts events and use an AR application to display animated versions of the artwork on a reader’s smart phone.

The engine behind the Globe’s AR experience is the mobile app Junaio. To view the animations, readers had to install the app, locate the Globe’s channel, and point their camera at the Winter Arts Guide section front.

Even for a dedicated arts or technology enthusiast, that was a significant hurdle to participation. The Globe posted a video tutorial of the process on the Web as well as an explainer in the newspaper.

Zedek estimated that half of the Globe’s readership owns a smart phone, providing a significant base of potential users. However, he didn't yet have figures on how many people viewed the animations.

Proof of concept

Zedek said the goal of the feature was to “surprise and delight” the reader rather than provide utility.

The key, he said, was simply “to show ourselves we could take a cool idea and do it quickly and cheaply." On that basis he considers the effort a success, saying the lessons learned and the confidence developed will have a "lot of implications for other projects we are working on internally."

He already is looking at using AR for other, more advanced projects. The paper’s next effort may use AR to view 3D illustrations of athletic injuries for an upcoming series.

He expects future arts-related projects will include the ability to add events to a calendar, get more information about a performance or purchase tickets.

USA Today also used Junaio last weekend to show readers a 360-degree view of Cowboys Stadium, home of Super Bowl XLV. The project included hyperlinks to features within the stadium, including a 360-degree view of a locker room and the players' entrance to the field.

"We want to make sure we are adding editorial value,” Zedek said. “It is a cool thing but we don’t want it to be just a cool thing.”

Fostering an experimental culture

Zedek stressed that rapid action and innovation is something that comes naturally to most journalists when it comes to covering news. Those instincts just need to be extended to other projects within the building.

Compared to many businesses, "newsrooms are very informal places," he said. "We are oddly free from some constraints. We need to find ways to use that to our advantage."

CORRECTION: The original version of this story included a misspelling of the name of augmented reality app Junaio.
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