Last week’s issue of Time magazine is the first edited by a guest editor in its 94 years of existence. It’s also the first issue to feature augmented reality activations—four of them, all on the issue’s theme of optimism. They include an interview with guest editor Bill Gates by Time’s Nancy Gibbs, an animated infographic on the global gender gap in education by contributor Bono, a video of the cover subject, Mohamad Nasir, and a behind-the-scenes featurette showing how the issue was made, all accessible with Time’s Life VR smartphone app.
It’s a forward-looking approach by the flagship title at Time Inc., recently acquired by Meredith, which has made its own investments in VR. But is it a one-off novelty, or a part of the future integration of digital and print? Under what conditions can AR scale? And what are the implications for publishers and marketers?
According to Mia Tramz, managing editor of Life VR, and Claire Howorth, assistant managing editor of Time, the original impetus to include AR in this issue came from Bono, who wanted his contribution to have an AR or VR component. But the team, which includes the third-party Ryot Labs, had already been brainstorming ideas for over a year, since they had produced a “Capturing Everest” feature for Sports Illustrated. A single AR activation quickly became four.
“We’ve published about 23 or 24 VR projects since we launched Life VR last year,” Tramz said. “In the way that VR was nascent [for media companies] a few years ago, I think AR is right now.” The plan is to continue to develop AR activations across Time, Inc’s line of titles, as well as standalone AR and VR experiences.
Tramz and Howorth point out that the strong visual component of AR fits with Time’s tradition of photojournalism as a window on the world.
“That red border on the cover is everything to us,” said Howorth.
The star power of Gates and Bono added an exoticism and a familiarity to their installments. Tramz recommends readers watch the activations with sound on, especially for Bono’s infographic and the cover story, which Gates narrates.
“Since you’re using your phone for the activation, it’s almost like having Bono and Bill Gates in your hand,” Tramz said.
“We’ll have integrations with the printed page,” Tramz said. “But I think there’s a lot we can do off the page as well.”
Bryn Mooser at Ryot Labs is even more optimistic about the possibilities.
“The camera on the back of the cell phone is the most important innovation in media since the printing press,” Mooser said. “You can record your own stories, you can see what’s going on in the world, and you can also create this augmented reality world around you.”
For Mooser, a near future of ubiquitous self-driving cars and smart displays implies all-new scenarios for readers to entertain or inform themselves. The open question is whether those experiences will be open or closed.
“We have to get out of the headset world of isolated virtual reality,” said Mooser. “Augmented reality has the bigger opportunity in the marketplace, because it opens you up to the world around you rather than closing it down. I think we’re going to see a tremendous amount of growth this year and beyond.”
Wavemaker’s Noah Mallin thinks that platforms like Snapchat and Facebook have something to offer brands experimenting with AR. The key, he says, is in reducing the friction between readers or customers being offered an AR experience and enjoying one.
“The AR and print combination is a very promising one,” Mallin said. “The stumbling block is in how people experience the AR execution. Most of the time, you have to download an app you don’t already have. Many consumers won’t do that, or won’t understand that they need to. And once they download the app, it just sits there on their phone.”
An app like Snapchat, he says—particularly for a younger demographic—reduces that friction. Facebook offers an even larger addressable userbase, but, Mallin said, Facebook’s technology and commitment to AR isn’t quite there yet. Publishers like Time Inc. can succeed with their own apps, but need a steady stream of compelling experiences to keep their subscribers coming back to the app.
“The real trick is that AR was big five years ago, and then nothing happened,” Mallin said. “Now the right set of experiences have emerged—Pokémon Go, Snapchat, etc.—to make it mainstream.”
This is as true for marketing content as it is for editorial. At Ryot, Mooser’s team recently created what he calls “the first augmented reality banner advertisement experience” in partnership with Home Depot and Yahoo Mail. The user clicks a banner ad for Christmas trees, and then, using the camera on their phone, can select and place a tree in their living room. Mallin described a similar AR experience in IKEA’s app, selecting and placing individual pieces of furniture. Activations like these, that blend ads with retail, can be deployed in either print or digital publications.
“Advertisers are seeing immediately what the opportunities are and are very excited to engage with us in pushing what the technology can do,” Tramz said. “A lot of the response we’ve gotten is, ‘What can we be first at with you? What can we really make an impact with?’ It makes people excited, and shifts the perception of our company as being forward-thinking, curious, and willing to explore new technologies. And there are some really fantastic possibilities both on the marketing and editorial side that can come together.”