Inside the ‘Esquire’ AR Experiment

The front cover features Robert Downey Jr. sitting on a cube, hands gesturing to the QR code decorating his seat. “WTF?” screams a cover line. “A living, breathing, moving talking magazine?”

It is the December issue of Esquire, the Hearst publication’s annual “The Best & Brightest” issue, and it features the latest digital technology to dazzle advertisers and editors alike, augmented reality. When a reader holds up the code in front of a Web camera, additional content appears on their computer screens. In the case of the cover, after downloading software from the Esquire site, readers are treated to a full-screen video of the actor demonstrating how the special issue works and a clip of his upcoming movie, Sherlock Holmes.

The special issue is editor-in-chief David Granger’s latest ambitious attempt to produce the modern magazine, a product that marries the best of print and digital. “It’s been a program of trying to do things to cause our readers and advertisers to be excited about the possibility of print,” says Granger. The editor and his team have been “messing with what you can do with a magazine” for the last few years, experimenting with ways to enliven the reader experience. The May issue used mix-and-match covers to grab reader attention, for example, and 100,000 copies of its October 75th anniversary edition featured electronic ink on its cover. The experimentation, says Granger, is part of Esquire’s ongoing quest to “cause people to interact with the magazine in a new way, to rethink what a magazine is and how you are supposed to read it.”

Granger’s isn’t the first magazine to use augmented reality to add a digital dimension to its pages. A couple of recent examples include Popular Science, which used AR to animate wind turbines on its July cover, and InStyle’s December issue, which incorporates AR into its cover and a “Gifting in 3-D” feature that allows readers to click to buy advertisers’ products.

The AR trend in magazines is part of a continuing effort by the publishing industry to reignite interest in a medium that has seen readers move away from the printed page to online media. “It’s not about print vs. digital. Consumers just want the most immersive, cool experience they can get,” stresses Kevin O’Malley, vp, publisher of Esquire. “It’s about print melding with digital and what happens when you do that. AR is one example of what that is.”

In order to produce the special issue, Granger turned to one of Esquire’s past “best and brightest,” Benjamin Palmer, CEO and co-founder of The Barbarian Group. The conversation began with a discussion about the possibilities of putting a USB chip in the issue to give readers bonus digital content and soon moved to augmented reality as the solution. “We wanted to create something interesting and useful and something that doesn’t send you off into the Internet,” says Palmer, adding he was immediately intrigued by the idea of creating a unique digital experience for the magazine. “We wanted to create something interesting and useful that doesn’t send you off into the Internet,” he says. “Mostly what people have seen are gimmicks, executions that are more about the technology, not about the content.”

The Barbarian Group, which collaborated with Psyop to produce the Esquire content, created downloadable software and spent nearly two months writing code to enable the augmented reality features to come to life. In December’s “Funny joke from a beautiful woman” feature, the technology allows Gillian Jacobs to tell a “sweet” joke during the day and a naughtier one after midnight, and a fashion spread with one of this year’s “best and brightest,” actor Jeremy Renner, showcases a season’s worth of apparel rather than the two shown in print. Readers can also sample a track from Robert Glasper’s new release, Double Booked, and if intrigued by Lexus’ new HS Hybrid, can sample the car’s infrared technology to “see how the Hybrid sees you” with face-recognition technology.

“The Hybrid is loaded with all this forward-thinking technology,” says Jon Pearce, group creative director at Lexus advertising agency Team One in El Segundo, Calif. “[Augmented reality] seems like a perfect fit.”

Lexus was the exclusive AR advertiser in the issue. “Fledgling technologies [like AR] are making the print medium come to life. It is bridging the gap between print and digital,” adds Chris Graves, CCO of Saatchi & Saatchi. “The magazine format is an intimate environment, but with new technology it can be more engaging and interactive.”

Yet with all new technologies come learning curves and the risk that a trend such as AR is offering nothing more than a showcase of the technology. “AR is kind of at the next-new-thing stage. We were cautious to make sure that the piece we created was functional; that it had something you can gain from it. That’s where AR will either become useful or will become another technology that falls by the wayside,” says Graves. “This seems to be plus-ing the experience.”

While AR is a hot topic in advertising circles, consumers are just beginning to experience the benefits of its use. That’s why Matthew Szymcyk, CEO of digital shop Zugara in Culver City, says the Esquire experience is a fine demonstration of AR but perhaps a clunky one, since it requires users to download software and hold the magazine in front of the computer, speed bumps that could deter even the most curious readers. He also isn’t all that impressed with the video add-ons. “Why wouldn’t I just watch the video on the site in the first place?” he asks. “It seems like a lot to go through for a passive user experience.”

Sissy Estes, a vp, associate creative director at The Martin Agency, used AR in an August Walmart print ad to showcase the products in the retailer’s teen furniture line. “We needed a way to show all the different pieces and that they are all interchangeable. The solution ended up being AR,” she explains. “It wasn’t about ‘let’s do something cool,’ it was practical.”

Esquire’s experimentation with AR is just the beginning of how the magazine plans to use the technology. The editor and publisher say more is planned for the March and May issues. “I think there is so much potential in this,” says Granger, who has shared his AR experience with his Hearst colleagues. “There is a good bit of excitement about this. You’ll see more out of other Hearst brands.”

See also:

“Best Buy Tries AR in Twitter Promo”

“Is AR The Next Big Thing?”

“Postal Service Brings AR Down to Earth”