The publishing industry is in an interesting place. Monetization has been a challenge since the dawn of digital and Facebook’s recent algorithm change, prioritizing posts from your actual friends, demonstrates just how much publishers need to look beyond ad revenue. While many try to figure out how to create subscription models, USA TODAY is doing something anomalous for the industry: investing in emerging technology.
Last week, USA TODAY debuted an augmented reality (AR) app called 321 Launch. Designed to be the definitive place for space content, the app is part of the network’s goal to revolutionize journalism.
“We didn’t do this just so we can say we’re doing AR,” says Ray Soto, the USA TODAY NETWORK’s Director of Emerging Technologies. “When you consider the future of what AR could be, it’s taking these building blocks and leveraging location-based data to really change storytelling.”
Experiencing space from cyberspace
321 Launch is the result of a partnership between USA TODAY and the network’s Florida Today newspaper, which is based in Brevard County, home of Cape Canaveral. USA TODAY had been wanting to experiment with AR anyway and Florida Today reached out with an idea about collaborating around space rocket launches. In January, Soto’s team traveled to Florida to gather materials and test potential features.
“I’ll never forget watching our Falcon 9 launch from the Kennedy Space Center,” he says. “We wanted to build something to capture that and bring the experience to people who couldn’t be there.”
Space is a natural fit for an AR experience because most people can’t truly experience it, fueling ther fascination. Three of the 10 highest-grossing movies of all time take place in galaxies far, far away. And remember how much everyone lost their minds over the solar eclipse in August?
“Watching the eclipse is an event. It’s something everyone wants to be a part of,” says Soto. “The app delivers a seamless user experience that lets you feel like you’re actually there. It’s as easy as putting those glasses on.”
Maintaining in-app engagement
Features include the ability to view a launch’s predicted flight path by pointing your phone at the sky, a table-top AR hologram of the rocket from lift-off to landing and expert commentary. 321 Launch also offers a split screen so you can watch a video while simultaneously hearing an explanation from space reporters.
Because it’s all in real-time and live, Soto believes users will keep coming back. There will also be a regular cadence of new features and launches.
AR is a tricky technology because it’s dependent on people downloading apps. And while consumers spend the overwhelming majority of their smartphone time in-app, they mostly stick to a handful of favorites.
“We didn’t want to create a one-and-done,” he says. “We want to respect users’ time. If you fire up the App Store, look for the app and download it, we want to give you something exciting in return.”
USA TODAY and emerging technology
The fact that USA TODAY even has a Director of Emerging Technologies is pretty noteworthy. Soto’s job is to figure out how to use technology to tell stories in fresh new ways. This is second-nature to his team, former game developers from companies such as EA and Disney.
USA TODAY has already done this with virtual reality (VR), sending 30 journalists to the U.S./Mexico border for “The Wall.” A massive award-winning multimedia project involving aerial footage and a comprehensive digital map, “The Wall” tells the story of the potential border wall and its impact.
“We were thinking about the story in terms of putting users on the border. VR was the only way we could do that so we leveraged the platform to make this strong narrative arc,” says Soto. “AR gives us the flexibility to take what we learned with VR and build out the user experience. With AR, we bring the content to the user. We want to display graphics and make it as interactive a possible. It’s not just a narrative story arc, but a user experience that has a beginning, middle and end, all of which users get something out of.”
What’s next for Soto and his team? Continuing to experiment with technology in order to bring journalism to life in more new, exciting, interactive ways.