FEATURE 

Print’s digital dimension

Could digital be the saviour of print? The last twelve months have seen increasing numbers of publishers starting to use augmented reality technology to add an extra dimension to their print offering, and readers have responded positively. Jo Bowman talks to publishers about their AR experiences.

By Jo Bowman

It can make catwalk models leap out of the page, bring retail displays to life and take readers in an instant from a product image to an online checkout. Augmented reality is in increasing demand by publishers and their advertiser partners, who are using it not just to create buzz around a one-off novelty but deepen reader engagement with brands.

A kind of bridge between the real world and the digital world, augmented reality superimposes imagery and messaging over the real world and – in the case of newspapers and magazines – over the printed page, when viewed through an app-enabled smartphone. The technology is being employed across business sectors to tell consumers everything from which properties in a street are for sale, to where the nearest toilets or tube stations are. Augmented reality-enabled packaging and outdoor billboards allow people to see objects through their phone screens that no one else can see, not just for the entertainment value but also to enter competitions, find out more about a product and, ultimately, to buy it.

Smartphone penetration

With YouGov research showing smartphone penetration in the UK now at 47 per cent – up from just 18 per cent in December 2009 – interest in augmented reality is on the increase. Juniper Research predicts that by 2015, there'll be 1.4 billion AR downloads a year, enabling users to see a whole new dimension to shop windows, shelf displays, events and products. For publishers, venturing into this brave new world, there’s huge appeal in being able to give readers animation, video, games, 3D product demonstrations and share-ability – without the need for special print runs. AR can also be used to gather reader feedback and data, and even as a revenue raiser.

In the UK, publishers of daily newspapers, business and consumer magazines and store catalogues have been experimenting with augmented reality to breathe new life into both advertising and editorial – and sometimes both at the same time.

The Sun created an interactive poster for the 2012 Olympics that, viewed through a smartphone with an AR app enabled, became a 3D model of the Olympic Park with clickable information about what was on in each location. Titan Magazines has also used AR in its editorial, with an augmented reality app for its How to Draw … Awesome Animals magazine, in which the front cover revealed an animated charging elephant, and how-to videos on inside pages. The Daily Mail presented regularly updated video presentations through its football pages on the last day of the Premier League transfer window.

Top Gear magazine has been using augmented reality for a year now, adding three or four videos to each issue. “Cars move, they make a noise and they spin around,” says publisher Simon Carrington. “It helps us overcome some of the limitations of print.” The magazine’s experiment with AR was initially aimed at driving some PR for the Top Gear brand by doing something innovative, and was intended to be a brief effort over just a couple of issues. Its popularity with readers, though, ensured it has been used routinely; research among consumers found half of readers had seen the videos embedded in the magazine, and there were 100,000 downloads. “We can’t augment every page, because the costs would be staggering; I think we have to keep it to four or five snippets, but we’ve only done video so far, and there are a lot of other things that can be done.” Augmented advertising is yet to be introduced, though. “We haven’t cracked the commercial issues yet,” Carrington says. Talks are ongoing with advertisers who could potentially use AR in their ads, but that won’t happen until a critical volume of downloads and readers has been reached.

Harry Potter stuff?

Hugh Mark, head of ad innovation at News International, was initially sceptical about the real value to publishers of AR, but is convinced that its true value lies in enabling both editorial and advertising on a page. “There’s a lot of 3D gimmickry around AR; I started thinking, was this just all Harry Potter stuff? I was almost put off using it,” he says. The Times trialled augmented reality in a special issue for London Fashion Week in September, though, and the reaction from readers and advertisers has been so strong that AR is now a regular feature in the T2 section of the paper, with editorial and ads augmented, and more special issues are in the pipeline. “It’s brilliant for something like fashion … and it would be good for things like gadgets and cars too.” Readers who downloaded the Aurasma lite app being used by many UK publishers working with AR could point their phone at a picture of a model and watch the catwalk come to life. Featured items of clothing could be bought with a few clicks of the screen, and interactive polling – in this case, a vote on some controversial trousers – created an infographic on readers’ views. One advertiser using AR in the Times reported doubling their sales on the day the technology was used, and Mark is convinced the paper has generated ad revenue that it wouldn’t have had without the AR offer. “We think it’s an encouraging start. People are getting more tech savvy and the technology is getting quicker and easier, but it’s still early days for this stuff.”

Game changer?

GQ magazine has also used the technology to liven up both editorial – the cover of its Man of the Year Awards issue – and its advertising in the same issue, with an AR-enabled campaign for Dunhill.

Eve Williams, Managing Director of Cedar Communications, which produces the Tesco Real Food magazine, says the move into augmented reality in August – when the entire issue was augmented, not just selected pages or articles - was the next logical step on from providing print, digital and social media content. “AR is a real game changer because it is the first technology to genuinely blur the boundaries between print and online content - directly integrating the magazine with the digital offer. This enables customers to seamlessly travel from one to the other - with potentially significant implications for both brands and for consumers,” she says.

The wealth of new content available through AR enables deeper engagement with the brand by consumers, who can hover over a recipe in the magazine with their phone, add the ingredients to their online shopping basket in an instant, and watch a video on how to make the dish. “Our aim is to make the content so useful, practical and inspiring that it, quite literally, jumps off the page.” The technology is also being used in the Tesco Gift Guide this year, enabling quicker, simpler online shopping via mobile, and providing video content on parties and festive decorations.

Online fashion store ASOS has also used augmented reality in its catalogue, as have White Stuff, while other retailers are using the technology in physical stores. “We know our readers love fashion and their mobiles, and this app unites the two,” says ASOS magazine editorial and design director Duncan Edwards. Marks & Spencer used AR in its Valentine’s promotions, menswear retailer Dunhill used AR in its outdoor advertising ahead of a new store opening this year, and John Lewis has used virtual mirrors to allow shoppers to try on clothing without getting changed.

Specialist suppliers of augmented reality solutions in the UK include Aurasma, Blippar, Layar, Inition, Powered by String and Total Immersion.

Cambridge-based magazine Business Weekly was an early adopter of augmented reality technology in publishing; it’s seen recent success with a popular Aurasma-enabled front page image linked to a campaign by The Rolling Stones to promote its GRRR! Greatest Hits album, and other video links it’s been able to provide through AR.

IPC’s InStyle magazine has augmented its cover, running a leopard-print cover that melts away when viewed through an app-enabled smartphone to reveal runway videos from House of Holland’s Spring / Summer collection at London Fashion Week. Readers can then click through to the brand’s website to “shop the look”. The launch in InStyle of a new Vivienne Westwood Naughty Alice fragrance also used AR, featuring a playful animated character who becomes mischievous after spraying the perfume, and an opportunity to buy via Selfridges.

The challenges

Business Weekly CEO Tony Quested is a big fan of AR and its potential to liven up the printed page, but says there remains a big hurdle to clear in getting many advertisers to the point where they’re equipped to use it – or to put a value on what AR adds to readers’ engagement with an ad. “We run a commercial property section and agents could Aurasma-enable their adverts and provide executives with a virtual ‘walk round’ the offices, factories and business parks they’re advertising. Ditto car dealers and many technology companies. So, there are three linked problems: one is cost, the second is market readiness. We’ve talked to marketers and they don’t grasp the value-add - yet. The third, and, I suspect, biggest, is that even world-class, world-leading companies whose stock in trade is technology and innovation simply do not have decent and bespoke video libraries.”

Getting advertisers to understand the value of the technology and then to deliver relevant videos – Business Weekly works with Aurasma, which says videos shouldn’t exceed 3.5 minutes – is a real battle, Quested says, and is working with the AR company on awareness days with advertisers. “Companies are hopeless at selling themselves clearly and quickly … that shouldn’t be the case of course but we struggle to get some world-leading companies to even provide decent photographs of their key players with press releases,” he says. Even those with big marketing departments fail to supply good, straightforward video links that would work with AR.

“The technology is great but a major job of educating the markets remains to be done. If, as partners, we can all work together on that educational programme, there are no limits to this technology.”

While the technology is best suited to phone users – few tablet users would hover their device over a printed page, but would, more likely, read a tablet edition of a title – there is potential for content to be shared as tablet use increases. As Carrington points out, video created for augmented reality in a printed product can be embedded in an iPad or other tablet e-magazine.

Cedar’s Eve Williams says: “The possibilities with augmented reality are really exciting and I've no doubt we'll see much more of it as the technology develops. As with all new technologies however, we're still in the early stages of the adoption curve; people are still learning what AR is, how it works, and how it can be useful to them. Right now, our job is to make the content valuable enough, and the user experience seamless enough, to encourage customers to give it a go. It's only a matter of time before 'augmented reality' is just 'reality', so media owners and publishers need to be on the front foot in understanding how the technology is developing and what it can do for them.”