Inside The New York Times’ Winter Olympics AR Experience

It's the first ad experiment with AR inside a news story

The campaign makes use of the recently introduced AR capability in the New York Times iOS app. New York Times

Today, the New York Times introduced a new augmented reality campaign focused on the Winter Olympics, with activations highlighting figure skating, speed skating, snowboarding, ice hockey and ice dancing. At key moments in the story, the text fades away to reveal a 3-D image of an athlete or athletes, placed in the room in which the story’s being read.

The AR activation focuses on three U.S. athletes, and one Austrian: figure skater Nathan Chen, mid-air in a quadruple jump; short track speed skater J.R. Celski, low in a tight turn; hockey goalie Alex Rigsby, splayed across the net mid-save; and Austrian snowboarder Anna Gasser, frozen mid-spin and mid-jump. Walking around each of the athletes opens up new points of view and informative detail about specific parts of their sport.

The campaign makes use of the just-introduced AR capability in the New York Times iOS app. A limited version is available for Android devices and web browsers; full AR support for these devices is yet to come.

According to Graham Roberts, head of immersive platform storytelling at the New York Times, it was crucial to develop an integrated approach: first, locating AR within the New York Times app, rather than in a separate download, and second, finding a way to integrate each AR experience inside a story, like any other piece of multimedia.

“There’s a whole language that needs to be learned on both sides, the producers and the consumers,” said Roberts. “It’s almost like introducing the mouse for the first time; it’s a new way of interacting with something.”

This kind of whole-body, 3-D experience requires more explicit instruction than, say, an interactive infographic. “It’s less about abstraction,” said Roberts. “It’s less about pinch to zoom or clicking. If you want to pick something up close you walk up to it and lean into it. If you want to see something from the other side you walk around it.” The UI is peppered with haptic responses and visual highlights that light up as the user walks around the AR object. Over time, Roberts believes, these steps will become intuitive.

Along with new kinds of photojournalism showing scale and speed, AR opens up new possibilities for brands. The activation includes a sponsored bit of AR from Ralph Lauren: a 3-D view of ice dancers Alex and Maia Shibutani.

“The New York Times Olympics AR experience is an incredibly creative and innovative concept that lets the consumer engage with Olympic athletes and experience the opening ceremony uniform from the palm of their hand,” said David Lauren, Ralph Lauren’s chief innovation officer.

Roberts is excited about the advertising possibilities of AR. “You can see what the car is like in your driveway. You can see what the coffee machine is like on your counter before you bought it. Walk around it,” he said. “But I think the foundation there is the fact that it can come within the article experience. So it’s frictionless, really effectual and it gives you a thing that you can do that was not possible before. And I think that that will put the New York Times in a really unique position for advertising.”

Jared van Fleet, director of new business at Fake Love, the New York Times’ in-house experiential agency, already sees the market for augmented reality ads changing.

“The first brands that we saw that were really excited to experiment were largely in categories like fashion or auto: brands that have premium physical products,” said van Fleet. He compares it to the early days of video, when many people thought video advertising was suited for products that involved movement; eventually, it became a ubiquitous ad medium for everyone.

“A lot of brands are starting to understand that they need to begin to build a strategy for how they’re going to communicate their brand in 3-D, whether or not they’re B2B services or B2C physical products, in all kinds of forms.”

The real change, however, is still ahead: not just new form factors for customers to experience AR and new software kits for companies to develop new experiences, but changing expectations by consumers as they figure out what they want and need AR to do for them.

“When a brand with the distribution and credibility that the New York Times has gets into AR, we start to reach an audience that we haven’t really yet engaged with this technology,” said van Fleet. “Any kind of new medium or technology is developed with iterations that take into account user behavior and understanding how people are responding.”