NYT debuts AR features for Winter Olympics
It's been more than six years since newspapers began experimenting with augmented reality features. The Philadelphia Inquirer was among the first, adding interactive features that bridged the print edition to a reader's smart device in 2012 (see News & Tech, May 2012). AR technology, although not as widely adopted as the industry may have envisioned it would be by now, continues to evolve and make inroads with newspaper publishers.
The New York Times in February became the lat- est newspaper to exploit AR when it rolled out immersive storytelling just in time for the Winter Olympics. Through a smartphone's camera, NYT has endeavored to make big things possible on a small screen and allow its readers to explore information in new ways.
The publisher's first AR-enabled article was a preview piece for the Winter Olympics in which readers were able to meet Olympic athletes, including figure skater Nathan Chen, big air snowboarder Anna Gasser and short track speed skater J.R. Celski. The feature allowed readers to pause the athletes in mid-performance to get to know more about them.
"The Olympics project — a major collaboration among the newsroom, design and product staffs that I led, as NYT's director of immersive platforms — demonstrates one of AR's richest benefits: deepening the explanatory value of visual journalism," NYT's Graham Roberts told readers in February. "Scale, for example, is incredibly dif- ficult to represent on your phone screen. By conjuring athletes as if they were in the room, scale is conveyed by the context of your surroundings."
Advertisers get involved
Olympic sponsor Ralph Lauren partnered with The Times for an AR experience that included Team USA ice dancers Maia and Alex Shibutani in AR modeling the official Ralph Lauren Team USA Opening Ceremony Parade uniforms.
The Ralph Lauren AR feature was produced by NYT Co.'s experiential design agency Fake Love, and marked the first AR experience from an advertiser to live inside the NYT app for iOS. NYT said it developed the AR experience leveraging Apple's ARKit, which is available to iPhone and iPad users with devices running iOS 11. The publisher said it will soon bring the AR experience to Android as well, and that it will be based on ARCore.
Roberts explained that rather than asking readers to interact with pinch-to-zoom, swipe, or click,
the AR features ask readers to treat graphics as physical objects.
"If you want to see the form from another angle, you simply walk around to that area," he said. "If you want to see something up close, simply lean in to that spot. News becomes something you can see, literally, from all sides."
To that end, bringing Olympic athletes into AR required finding a way to capture them not only photographically, but also three-dimensionally. To do so, NYT created photo-real scans that could be viewed from any angle.
"We asked each athlete to demonstrate his or her form at specific moments," Roberts said.
He explained how Olympic skater Nathan Chen held a pose showing exactly how he positions his arms tightly to his body during his quads to allow an incredible speed of rotation. Team USA women's hockey player Alex Rigsby, meantime, showed NYT how she positions her pads to guard the net from a puck traveling at 70 miles per hour.
After getting these scans, the NYT team placed them into contextual settings.
"For example, placing Nathan Chen at the 20-inch height off the ground he would be midquad, based off photo reference and sometimes motion capture,” Roberts said. "In your space, this will truly be a distance of 20 inches because this is all true to scale."
Because interacting with AR is unfamiliar to most people, Robertson said the challenge of the project was developing an intuitive way to display information around these graphic features.
"Just as readers know how to read a text story on a phone because we're conditioned to read left to right, and from the top down, we decided to organize information around how one would naturally interact with a space, which is simply to walk around inside it," he said.
NYT will continue to leverage AR features in the future in a bid to remain on the cutting edge of innovation — and the industry will continue watching and launching its own AR features in order to better engage readers that increasingly expect these types of advancements in digital storytelling (see sidebar).
"There’s no question that these are early days for AR, but our work so far suggests that this emerging technology has real potential to help our readers experience the news differently, helping them understand the world more deeply," Steve Duenes, assistant masthead editor for NYT, said in a statement about the project.