USA Today Enters the Realm of Virtual, Augmented News

Whenever a new form of electronic media enters popular culture, it will inevitably face a significant amount of challenges to define itself as something different from other mediums while simultaneously making itself accessible and appealing to as many people as possible. Such is the case of virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR), both of which use features from established electronic mediums (e.g., video games, digital video, and portable computing) to create new kinds of content.

Of course, creating new kinds of electronic media is one thing; creating new kinds of electronic media as an extension of a pre-existing media platform is something else. The later issue was the main topic of “Designing the Next Generation of News”, a presentation that was held last Thursday evening at the Washington DC office of AARP and was co-sponsored by DC Virtual Reality (DCVR) and USA Today.

“Designing the Next Generation of News” was presented by the Emerging Tech team from USA Today: Ray Soto (Director), Alan Davies (Senior Developer), Alex Daley-Montgomery (Associate Developer), and Will Austin (User Experience (UX) Design). The presentation covered a variety of VR and AR projects the team has designed for USA Today as a means of broadening the newspaper’s scope of informative media content into the latest advancements of interactivity and immersion.

"Designing the Next Generation of News" presentation at the Washington DC office of AARP.

Each Emerging Tech team member shared his experiences with balancing the work with USA Today’s editorial staff and the various levels of AR/VR tech in order to create storytelling experiences that are intuitive and engaging to as many different audiences as possible. Sometimes, the option of using AR and/or VR technology to tell a story simply isn’t practical when other mediums (text, audio, 2D video) can do a better job and at a lower cost. Furthermore, the amount of AR/VR interactivity that’s provided by Emerging Tech’s projects are dependent upon the kinds of technology to which consumers have access. Some require high-end VR systems such as HTC Vive (the USS Eisenhower VR experience), others require certain types of smartphones and tablets (the 3-2-1 Launch app), and some only need a device that can display 360-degree videos (the VRtually There channel on YouTube).

When designing immersive and interactive content, the team emphasized the importance of providing users with greater perspectives of a particular topic. The content has to be scaled and configured into a welcoming space that prompts users to explore, to remain engaged, and to keep coming back for more experiences. For every project, the team has to consider points of hindrance presented by the technology and provide opportunities for interaction that users can readily identify and understand. The degree of interactions available to users should also provide multiple levels of depth. As one of the team members remarked about the early development of USS Eisenhower VR, some of the test users would play with the virtual aircraft carrier as if it were a G.I. Joe toy.

A virtual pop-up book: An interactive rocket launch site from the 3-2-1 Launch app.

In some cases, it's difficult to find the right technology for a project--or to make the right technology ready for a tight deadline. For the Vive VR component of The Wall, a multimedia project about the Trump administration’s proposed boarder wall, the team had to figure out how they were going to convert Light Detection and Ranging (LiDAR) terrain and elevation data of the locations where the proposed wall will cross into interactive 3D models. In another situation, the team had to create an interactive hurricane tracker AR app for the recent Hurricane Florence. Not only did this app have to be accessible through the USA Today app, but it also had to be ready for launch within a single day (!).

It should also be noted that this presentation was held in an area within AARP that’s known as “The Hatchery”, an “innovation accelerator” lab that works with tech start-ups to nurture innovations that will assist people as they grow older. Two of the technologies that I saw on display at The Hatchery were Pillo, an interactive “healthcare companion” that dispenses medications and provides access to telemedical services, and VRHealth, a software platform that uses VR to address a variety of medical needs.

Meet Pillo, your personal home health companion.

When many people think of VR and AR, they probably think about video gaming. Yet as the Emerging Tech team from USA Today showed during their presentation, VR/AR technologies can bring a wide variety of experiences and information to the public at varying degrees of technological investment and sophistication. This is only the beginning, and I’m sure that many more interactive wonders will emerge in years to come.


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