Augmented Reality in Newspapers - Technology and Uses
Augmented reality is a new feature that is being added to newspapers to take readers beyond the printed page. Through augmented reality, or AR, readers can view moving content such as a video or an animation on a page of their newspaper. This illusion is created when an augmented reality program and the camera software of a smart phone or tablet work together.
Augmented reality is the process in which a digital image is superimposed on a scene from the real world, creating a view that is part reality and part virtual reality.
When AR is used with a newspaper, a photo in an article is scanned with the camera of a mobile device. An augmented reality program then loads digital content related to the photo and displays it as an overlay in the mobile device's camera view. This overlay is often positioned over the scanned photo so that the digital content appears to have replaced the photo.
The digital content loaded by the AR program is frequently a video or a photo gallery, but there are many other possibilities. Loading the latest news updates or sport scores, related social media, educational animations, a relevant map, a restaurant menu or a reservation page for a special event are all possible uses for newspaper AR.
Two of the newspapers in my part of the world have started to include regular AR content, which I've been exploring. In this article I'll describe AR technology for newspapers and its very interesting uses. I'll also discuss what I see as some possible problems related to the technology.
AR at the Tokyo Shimbun
News Alive and AR
Examples of Augmented Reality in Newspapers
More and more newspapers are adding augmented reality to enhance their product. They want to attract new audiences - especially young people - to increase their waning number of readers. Some papers use AR occasionally while others use it in every issue.
The Metro Newspaper
The Metro is a free weekday newspaper in the Greater Vancouver area that is including daily AR content. The full name of the newspaper is the Vancouver Metro to distinguish it from the Metro newspapers published by the same company in different places. According to what I've read, at least some of these related newspapers are also using AR.
So far in my exploration of the Metro newspaper's AR features I've encountered YouTube videos, movie clips, videos that seem to have been created specifically for the AR feature, extra photos, photo slide shows and an informative poster about training for a marathon. The newspaper has also offered a competition code that is available through AR. The artificial reality is provided via Metro's own app for mobile devices.
Burnaby NOW (part of the NOW newspaper group) is a free community newspaper that is published twice a week. Each issue offers AR features similar to those of the Metro newspaper. The paper also enables people to buy concert tickets through augmented reality. Burnaby NOW uses the Layar app for AR.
The Tokyo Shimbun is a Japanese newspaper that uses AR to change articles aimed at adults into easily understandable articles for children. Animated cartoon characters, color, pop-up headlines and a simplified alphabet make the newspaper useful and entertaining for a child. In Australia, one newspaper group has used the News Alive AR app to let readers explore a 3D version of buildings.
Augmented Reality in Newspapers and Beyond
How Does Augmented Reality in Newspapers Work?
When the Metro published its first newspaper containing AR content it likened the newspaper to the ones appearing in the Harry Potter movies. In these newspapers, moving scenes appeared on a page containing otherwise static content. This type of newspaper would be wonderful in real life, but AR newspapers are definitely not like this (yet!).
The reader must have a smartphone or tablet with a camera as well as an Internet connection in order to use the AR features of a newspaper. In addition, the AR software must be able to link to the software controlling the camera of the mobile device. This should be no problem when using an iOS or Android device.
Augmented reality technology for newspapers is based on image recognition. With the aid of the camera app in the mobile device, the AR program identifies a photo and loads the digital content that is linked to that photo. As viewed through the camera, the linked content often appears as an overlay on top of the image that was scanned. If the digital content is a video, it does give the newspaper page a slightly Harry Potter-like appearance as it plays. Once the content is loaded, when the mobile device is moved away from the newspaper the content stays in view.
Marker-Based Augmented Reality
The augmented reality in my local Metro newspaper is marker based. The steps in using the AR from this newspaper on a mobile device such as my iPad mini are as follows.
- Open the newspaper app (which is available as a free download at the Apple store).
- Click the AR symbol on the front page of the app.
- The app opens the camera application on the iPad in scan mode. Fill the screen with the photo to be scanned.
- The photo is automatically scanned as a vertical green line moves over the photo. Markers (the green dots in the photo on the right) are temporarily laid down as the scan line moves.
- Information from the markers is sent to a newspaper computer.
- The computer compares the information from the scanned photo with the photo information stored in its database until it finds matching data.
- Once a match is found, the computer performs the action that it's programmed to perform when that photo has been identified (such as loading a particular video or slide show).
This process for obtaining AR content is fast when it works properly, as it often does. Sometimes the "Scan result not found" message appears, however. The scan line moves over the photo and markers appear and then disappear as normal, but the scan isn't successful.
The augmented reality feature in the Burnaby NOW newspaper works in the same general way as in the Metro newspaper. The Layar app used by Burnaby NOW examines outlines and edges in photos. It often works very well but sometimes fails to scan successfully.
When a photo scan quickly triggers interesting content to load, the AR feature is very enjoyable. When multiple scans are needed to obtain success the process is less enticing. The photo scanning and content loading procedures for augmented reality aren't foolproof. It's frustrating when they don't work, whatever the reason for the problem. I occasionally encounter a photo that I can't scan correctly, even when I try on multiple days and under multiple conditions.
Augmented Reality in the Burnaby NOW NewspaperClick thumbnail to view full-size
A Successful Augmented Reality Advertising Campaign
Improving Augmented Reality in Newspapers
Augmented reality in newspapers is potentially a very useful feature and could be a great enhancement to them in the near feature. I enjoy looking at digital content linked to newspaper articles. Based on my experience, however, the technology needs to be improved.
I consider the following features to be very important in order for augmented reality to work in newspapers.
- The augmented reality feature should be easy to use, reliable and as foolproof as possible.
- The scanning and content loading process should be rapid. Instant or very nearly instant gratification is necessary in order for AR to appeal to people.
- The digital content should offer added value to the print article.
- Ideally, the digital content should be obtainable only through the AR program and shouldn't be something that a person could find on the Internet on their own.
- If the digital content is available on the Internet and can be accessed via a web browser, it's very important that obtaining it through an AR program is a rapid and convenient process.
- Some people feel that the digital content should contain movement or interactivity, since otherwise static material in the newspaper is simply being replaced with more static material. I don't mind seeing static digital content as long as it's rich in new information.
One question that needs to be answered is whether people will want to look at digital content linked to newspapers when they could get all their information from the Internet and dispense with the newspaper altogether. Compelling or unique content in both the newspaper and its AR content might help to attract readers.
Other Examples of Augmented Reality Use
Other print media in addition to newspapers are starting to use augmented reality. The latest print version of Guinness World Records includes augmented reality, for example. Other books and magazines are beginning to use the technology as well.
Specialized AR apps are also appearing. Bing Translator for Windows Phone enables a traveler to point their mobile device at text written in another language and then read the text in their own language.
Augmented reality apps have also been developed to let people learn more about buildings, cars, museums displays, golf courses, mountains, stars and other parts of the environment. Some of these apps work by detecting location instead of by reading markers, but all display digital content in addition to real-life content.
People are already talking about a somewhat bizarre scenario. Perhaps our cities will soon be filled with people who are aiming their mobile device at objects around them in order to experience augmented reality. Some people predict that before this point is reached other AR devices that are easier to use than smart phones and tablets will be widespread.
Image Recognition That Triggers Augmented Reality
Not Everyone Can Use New Technology
The potential uses of augmented reality technology are exciting, but as is the case with many other technological developments, they aren't available to everyone. Many people don't have a smart phone or a tablet with mobile Internet access. They either can't afford them or don't want to get them. In some areas the mobile devices or an Internet connection aren't available.
People involved with the creation and use of AR features are getting excited about the increasing number of people with smart phones and tablets and about the potential uses of augmented reality. The problem of supplying mobile devices for AR to everyone who would like them or could benefit from them - such as children in schools - is a major one, however.
In the high school where I teach, there are many "haves" with their own mobile device but also a significant number of "have nots". The school has discussed getting a class set of tablets, but we haven't done this yet because it would be an expensive purchase. The high cost is a shame, because augmented reality could be very useful in education.
The Future For Augmented Reality in Newspapers
I'm looking forward to seeing new developments in augmented reality features for newspapers, other publications and the environment and am very interested in its potential. However, at the moment I'm not confident in the success of AR for newspapers.
In its present implementation, viewing the AR features of a newspaper requires a commitment that people may not be willing to make. A newspaper reader must open an app, tap on the screen (in at least some apps), hover their device over an image, get a successful scan and wait for digital content to be loaded from a computer on the Internet.
This multistep process for obtaining augmented reality material may be acceptable when all the steps work rapidly and seamlessly, but not when one or more of them causes a bottleneck. Viewing augmented reality needs to be a "hover and see" process in order to attract people.
If AR technology is improved, however - which it almost certainly will be - all of its present applications could be very exciting. I hope the improvements come in time to help newspapers. I enjoy reading certain papers even when they have no AR features and would be very unhappy if they disappeared.