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Augmented Reality as a tool for journalism



Picture: Gary Hayes

What does Augmented Reality (AR) do for journalism and how could it be used by journalists? Questions that have struck me while recently working using the geo-location capabilities of n0tice in combination with the Apollo prototype created during the hypARlocal project for Talk About Local.

Google searches reveal very  little experimentation in this area – in fact an article by former colleague Mercedes Bunz way back in 2010 is almost the final word on the topic. There’s a couple of conclusions that you could arrive at about the current state of play around perceived ease of access to these technologies but maybe the overriding factor is a perception that there’s not enough mainstream take-up of the technology to make AR commercially viable for big news organisations to get involved with so therefore work by journalists to experiment in this area isn’t yet an imperative.

One of the frustrations with talking to journalists and others about AR, is that it’s harder to describe than it is to use but sharing the experience isn’t easy to do remotely like this. (William Perrin made this video in an attempt to get over this problem.)

But leaving those issues aside, how about its use as a tool for stories told in a new, non-linear way?……….here AR could be a completely different scenario for those individuals who want to explore the new ways no/ low cost mobile technologies can help to engage people in their stories, maybe even develop a mobile-native form of journalism?

To explore this I started by thinking about the well-established building blocks and then attempted to  identify the differences AR could make to this set up. To my mind history has previously shown that the counter approach to something new in the space I.e. taking material from an existing structure and expecting it to play out using a new technology in the same or just slightly altered /re-purposed way doesn’t take full advantage of any new technology – just think back to the shovelware approach to online which newspapers took in the early days which denied the interactive opportunities the www made possible.

So if AR was to become more than just a distribution channel for content already created somewhere else, what would that look like? What would be an AR-native piece of journalism?

Starting with the building blocks drilled into every journalism student, every story is to contain the following basic pieces of information;
- who
- what
- why
- where
- when
- how or how much

The traditional structure for this information is an inverted pyramid with everything considered important as near to the top as possible and lesser information moving towards the bottom. A structure devised for the specific purposes of print so that copy could be chopped to fit from the bottom to fill spaces on pages in hot metal before the computerisation of layout.

Despite the advent of Internet-native forms such as live blogging, a huge proportion of journalism consumed via mobiles is still structured like this today. In the best examples an important new dimension has been added into the thinking ie. the audience  - the collaborative addition. This removes the start-end of the piece so you end up with a cycle more like this one described as a ‘news diamond’.

But that doesn’t take into account any aspect of the experience being about mobile technology per se, rather, the journalism encountered on a mobile is using the device merely as a distribution channel albeit  with concerns given to its design eg. For a small screen, multimedia etc.

What if that ‘where‘ element of the news story became the most vital part of the content experience instead of simply being one element? GPS technology and AR means we are no longer bound to a location as a non-dynamic word in a story, we can actually go there, we can experience the place via our handsets rather than just a picture, our imaginations or prior knowledge. Could the old model be blown apart to create a completely different way of exploring a story thanks to this technology being deployed?

To date, the closet activity I’ve come across which looks along these lines is the trans media work being done  in drama and fiction which uses approaches from gaming technologies to allow the audience of say a television programme to explore story strands in a non-linear way using the ‘red button’ or carried online, into gaming or onto other broadcast platforms such as radio. But what about bringing this approach into the news and information sphere as well?

Playing around with this idea the traditional story format quickly becomes cumbersome and it starts instead to feel as though there should be multiple clusters of story lines emerging. Each cluster of information, response, addition etc. bound by its location rather than a timeframe. Each of these  location based story clusters becomes a story in its own right, a way of exploring that aspect further – what does the place look like, who else is at that location, what other information is contained in the streets or buildings around? This isn’t necessarily information the journalist has had to gather, but can be simply  that the reader* can explore, reveal and, importantly, add to the story thread thanks to the capabilities of AR.
The story thread and clusters idea immediately throws up some new challenges for a journalist accustomed to creating one main piece containing what’s been sifted and selected to be the most useful information:

- one or more of the clusters could develop off on a completely new tangent thanks to the input of someone encountering it.
- the person encountering it might only ever discover one or several story threads rather than all of them – does this matter?
- how will entirely new story threads be created/discovered in relation to the early ones?

There is an irony that, by blogging it here, I’m having to describe the process on a non-mobile platform rather than demonstrate it via mobile devices which would be much more effective and intuitive.

That’s something I intend to work with in the coming months, see if there’s a better way of showing (rather than telling) how this might work so I’d be very interested in hearing from, or about, any other people experimenting in this area.

* reader – doesn’t seem the right description for someone who is participating at this level does it? But what to call those that read, encounter, browse, add to, take from etc. etc……..

Written by sarahhartley

September 3rd, 2012 at 2:03 pm