Despite limitations, publishers plot more augmented reality for 2019

Ray Soto, the director of emerging technology at USA Today, has big plans when it comes to augmented reality.

Last year, Soto, along with three colleagues in the emerging technology department and a rotating cast of reporters and designers, created four AR projects, including “3, 2, 1 Launch,” a standalone app focused on spacecraft, and a separate AR experience designed to promote a new podcast, “The City.”

But more importantly, Soto’s team also spent its time laying a foundation internally so that any of the news publisher’s dozens of titles can create an AR project in an effort to help USA Today expand the kinds of AR content it can produce.

“We don’t want to be gatekeepers of interactive AR,” Soto said. “We’re just starting to communicate with the network to create content at scale. Last year, we wanted to make sure we’re getting things right. We want to be able to support all the newsrooms.”

Years after AR and VR captured headlines in the industry, it’s finally starting to look like publishers are figuring out what format they’re going to bet on — and how it’s going to work.

That bet is motivated by lots of work publishers did last year. The New York Times produced 13 different augmented reality projects in 2018, ranging from an investigation into a bombing in Syria to a visit to the large hadron collider at CERN; Time Magazine launched its first-ever augmented reality issue of its magazine; The Washington Post, which started producing augmented reality content in 2017, continued producing projects in 2018.

But augmented reality still faces significant limitations. Even though it’s possible to view an augmented reality experience through almost any new-ish smartphone, distribution is fractured by an atomized app ecosystem; there are few clear monetization prospects for the publishers making the content; and there are use limitations that are unlikely to be solved until a new wave of spatial computing devices, one that experts say is years away, hits the market.

“AR is in the same honeymoon phase that VR was in two, three years ago,” said Anrick Bregman, the founder of digital content studio ANRK.

As a format, augmented reality has already built a level of mainstream adoption that virtual reality might never reach. Back in 2017, both Apple and Android made it possible for developers to add augmented reality features to their mobile applications.

“That solved the audience problem in an instant,” said Graham Roberts, director of immersive platforms storytelling at The New York Times, which produced 13 different augmented reality projects in 2018 alone.

It’s also benefited from the fact that augmented reality experiences require fewer resources to produce: A single person can whip up a simple augmented reality experience in the space of a few weeks, according to Dan Pacheco, the Peter A. Horvitz chair of innovation at the Newhouse School of Syracuse University. This past year, The New York Times’ AR team managed to produce an augmented reality component for a story about Syria in less than a week.

But that hasn’t made augmented reality easier to monetize. While brands are all aware of augmented reality as a format, they mostly realize it’s better suited for app development than ad insertion.

“This is engage, not sell,” said Justin Archer, svp of innovation at the media agency Moxie. “They can’t take their traditional types of ads and apply it to this medium, so they’re having to work a little harder.”

In theory, a publisher might be able to sell advertisers augmented reality lens or app development as a service, but that space has grown competitive. Barely two years after augmented reality ads on Snapchat cost half a million dollars, an agency today can buy a sponsored lens for just $50.

And developers who might once have been able to charge big bucks to develop the lenses themselves are seeing those prices dwindle, too: The price for a simple sponsored lens might come in in the low five figures, according to Anrick Bregman, a certified Snapchat Lens creator and the founder of digital content studio ANRK.

But more than anything, the thing holding AR back the most is the devices that people experience it through. “The phone is not naturally an AR device,” Roberts said. “I don’t think that in the version we have now, [AR]’s going to be mainstream,” he added. “But it’s evolving so quickly.”

Instead of phones, Roberts said, what augmented reality needs is for a device like the Magic Leap to take root as a mass consumer technology. Even though observers expect that major device makers like Apple and Google will debut versions of this technology, mainstream acceptance of them is likely to take years, both for technological and cultural reasons. “I really feel like consumers are vain enough that until it really gets down to a look like a pair of Warby Parkers, you’re not going to see mass consumer adoption,” Moxie’s Archer said.

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