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Augmented Reality for Publishing

Is AR the bright distant future or just something blowin’ in the wind?

It depends. It could be both. The answer lies in how the following questions are answered for potential AR customers.

Are they:

  • into technology and heavy smartphone/tablet users?
  • curious and adventurous about the innovative and unusual?
  • happy taking extra steps when these steps improve their experience?
  • willing to pay extra for convenience and adventure?

The more yeses there are, the higher the probability that AR is the next big thing.

Let’s take a more detailed look at AR opportunities, some issues it is aimed to solve, and the cases where AR made the difference.

How Does Augmented Reality Affect Reading?

AR makes it possible to combine traditional, slow, word-by-word reading with fast access to digital information, nurturing readers’ curiosity.

It is no secret that the smartphone is the most personal device ever in terms of amount of time people spend on it texting friends, communicating globally, and viewing images. But more importantly, how do people consume information on the Web? They do diagonal reading, scanning texts for key phrases and sentences. Thus, surfing, scanning, and skimming the virtual does not replace the old habit of experiencing the perfect tangible pleasure of picking up books and thoughtful reading word-by-word: fast scanning = low memorizing.

Reading a large text word-by-word is more comfortable with a bound book format than on a palm device. And a paper book’s battery doesn’t die and it does not annoy with undesired notifications.

However, books lack dynamic web content such as electronic search, hyperlinks, embedded videos, picture zoom, and many other features users of digital devices enjoy with a simple touch.

This is where smartphone apps provide an extra opportunity to attract and hold audience’s attention. AR apps help establish a bridge between traditional and digital reading: users still read books, but they have instant access to extra content right here, right now, not “must Google it now and read the book sometime later.”

In addition, while AR might not work for news media because readers often just scan and skim through breaking news and digital resources are simply faster in delivery. However, when the newspaper already has or plans an app, AR-based content works for newspapers and illustrated magazines in genres such as analytical articles, reviews, and surveys—all types of content that requires reflective reading where quick access to extra context can make all the difference.

Augmented Reality and Publishing: Cases and Opportunities

AR technology has been around on smartphones for almost a decade, supplying printed materials with interactive models. During this time, AR has been used for various purposes, including marketing and promotion, learning, gaming, entertainment, and more. Publishers targeted audiences in different age groups experimenting with various genres:

  • interactive print
  • magazine advertising
  • book illustrations
  • atlases
  • flashcards and puzzles
  • learning materials
  • children’s literature

AR can be used in several ways. First, to create new, more-engaging and persuading narratives through a combination of digital and traditional storytelling. Also, AR can be used for reinterpretation of many classic books providing details from that epoch, several storylines, and alternative endings. This works particularly well for Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Little Mermaid” and “The Steadfast Tin Soldier,” have sad endings. AR helps make them more optimistic.

Of course, AR can help animate dry facts or abstract characters, bringing more fun into reading.

To make this happen, common types of AR content include the following:

  • 3D, interactive models of illustrations
  • image filters: change a picture by putting different effects onto it, such as seeing how fashion changes depending on the chosen century
  • pointers and instructions: demonstrate how a product works by letting users control them using interactive instructions
  • text descriptions: provide background or fun facts about the person or situation depicted in an image
  • videos: activate a related video that starts playing upon scanning the marker
  • sounds: provide immersion through relevant sounds
  • mini-games: bring fun into reading and help create alternative stories

New AR books arrive every year. Most of them start as an experiment under the label “discover the magic inside,” making potential buyers aware that they pay extra for technical novelty. The AR apps are free for download but often contain in-app purchases. When readers keep using the book, the publisher expands the series. Here are some remarkable examples targeted at different audiences.

  • Crayola Color Alive (2015): A special series of AR coloring books so successful that it was followed by Crayola Color Alive 2.0. The Color Alive books contain pictures of children’s favorites, including characters from Frozen, Avengers, Zombies, and others. Apart from a coloring book, a free mobile app is available from the app store (100,000+ downloads on Google Play). After coloring a picture in the book, users open the app, scan the picture, and a 3D model appears on the smartphone screen that is identical to the original. Users can add animated effects and filters on the photos, record videos, and use some other interactive features.
  • AR Flashcards (2013): This company presented its app to help young children learn letters, shapes, colors, and space objects. There is also a special series with 3D numbers to help elementary school students cope with mathematics. The app has 10,000+ on Google Play. Users scan the card and then interact with a 3D model, listen to sounds, and make screenshots to save images.
  • The Little Mermaid by Books & Magic (2013): This comes from a Danish startup company whose founders previously worked on an AR app for Lego. The book combines Hans Christian Andersen’s story with beautiful pictures and an AR app. Readers can enjoy finely detailed 3D models, play mini-games, and try to find hidden objects.
  • Masters of the Sun: The Zombie Chronicles (2017): Written by of Black-Eyed Peas fame, this AR app lets fans explore the comic book. Apart from 3D illustrations, the app contains narrative from Stan Lee and voiceovers by celebrities.
  • The Good Fight: America’s Ongoing Struggle for Justice (2017): In this book, author Rick Smolan collected over 180 photos to illustrate progress in US society over a period of 100 years and wrote essays on topics related to the photographs. Also, the book was accompanied by The Good Fight Viewer app aimed at providing more context. When the reader pointed the camera at one of more than 60 significant photos, the app streamed related videos to help readers discover more content.
  • AR provides publishers with opportunities in a rapidly digitized world and helps them mix various sources of information into one solution. It suits a wide variety of books. However, the most successful AR books are experiments or startups focused on delivering new experiences to the engaged audiences.

Challenges for Publishers

Is AR already disrupting markets? Not yet. While almost everyone predicts a bright technological future, AR lacks hyped, headline-making apps that will completely redefine reading activities.

AR has worked for both mass and niche markets, but the vast majority of AR-based novelties were aimed at niche audiences who love innovative technologies.

On one hand, Pokémon Go became a mass game. However, it is probably the only celebrated, self-explanatory case in which AR was the killer feature that truly blew the market out of the water. Three years have gone by since that time and there is still nothing that compares to Pokémon Go’s ability to capture users’ imaginations and catch on like wildfire all around the world.

There are three ingredients to Pokémon Go’s success a large, engaged audience who dreamed to become Pokémon trainers in real life (and the audience grew up surrounded by gadgets!), a simple social game concept, and of course, the technology that made the old dream come true.

But these ingredients do not apply to all AR apps.

AR has been adopted for smaller user groups by different industries such as retail, gaming, learning, advertising, and more. Recognized brands such as Lego, IKEA, Nike, and Timberland were successful when they offered AR experiences to help people evaluate their products. They also increased their brand awareness through AR-based activities, although they did not substitute traditional campaigns.

In case of publishing, AR is more than just about fun: it also opens up a channel for an interaction with printed texts. AR is an exceptional visualization technology aimed at succinct presentation of complex concepts. As already mentioned, AR illustrations provide users with a clear overview of an item from all angles. Also, users get extra content that does not fit in with a printed format, such as videos, sounds, hyperlinks, and so on, which users would otherwise need to spend time searching for on the Internet.

However, AR does require additional effort: pull out a smartphone, activate it, tap on the icon, scan the image, try not to get distracted by messenger or any social network feed, wait until the fun starts (and if it doesn’t, frustration ensues). Average users want a generous reward in return for opening an app and they need even more reward if they have to do so several times a day.

A Few Takeaways

Consider the following before starting AR app development:

Hardware. Both periodicals’ and book publishers’ target audiences are smartphone and tablet owners; no other AR gear is available. The only AR glasses present in the market are Microsoft Hololens, which are restricted for enterprise use only. Also, the time of VR content has not yet arrived. VR gear has low adoption rates due to its price and technological novelty, so it is probably too early to start considering VR content development. The only exception is 360-degree videos that can be viewed from any type of device, including smartphones and desktops.

Choice of technological stack. Different AR platforms suit different needs and the selection of an SDK is based on the type of AR app (marker-based, markerless, projection- or superimposition-based) and on the desired feature list. The development team decides on the technological stack after analysis of project requirements to provide maximum software performance and avoid draining smartphone batteries within minutes. One thing is for sure: both Google and Apple provide their AR frameworks—ARKit and ARCore—to help developers integrate apps.

Costs of app development. Associated costs vary greatly based on scope of work, target platform and fragmentation, location of the team (in-house, onshore, nearshore, offshore), its experience, and domain expertise. But as soon as costs of app development directly affect a book’s end-price, there is no ready receipt for development and monetization strategy. Buyer beware: the cheapest hourly rate does not mean the lowest total price. Cheap could mean just what it says.

Short app lifespan unless maintained. AR technology evolves at a similar pace as smartphone OSs and hardware do. Apps require support and updates when an OS or AR engine is updated. Otherwise, an app may stop functioning, resulting in angry users and bad reviews. A short life cycle does not affect demo and promotional apps, but it is recommended to maintain “regular” apps with longer life cycles. Also, when you plan a series of AR books or an extra AR section for your periodical, you might need a dedicated department engaged in production and management of AR content as well as a special management system.

Reviews and feedback. Amazon reviews show that audiences cheer AR books. Five-star reviews prevail from a tech-savvy and curious audience that knew what to expect from AR books. But when such people buy a book with an AR label, they expect it to work as promised, and will not tolerate flaws or discontinued support. Many one-star reviews claimed an app was either incompatible with their device, not working at all, or abandoned by its publisher. Such were the problems of Lego, Crayola Color Alive, and many others. Certainly, maintenance cannot last in perpetuity: no one wants to support an older app when a new book in the series is out. A possible solution could be including an expiration date after which support stops and keeping the last app version available in the download section for those who might want it.

Regarding technical flaws, Pokémon Go received many one-star reviews due to technical failures. The game became popular within days of launch, leaving both its creators and servers overwhelmed and incapable of reacting in a timely fashion. Servers froze and requests and other technical issues went unanswered and unsolved. Many users quit the game. But millions more were patient—and were rewarded with a magnificent AR game.

Augmented Reality is neither a silver bullet nor a disrupting technology. But it is an extra tool that simplifies users’ lives, thus pushing them her toward purchase decisions. AR can be an additional reason to pick up THIS book instead of the other books on the shelf. And it can be both the source for positive book reviews and extra revenue via in-app purchases.


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About the Author

Anthony Suddia is a content specialist at IT Craft, a web and mobile development company that focuses on helping businesses build the right apps for their target audiences. Anthony enjoys describing how cutting-edge digital technologies make it possible to meet business needs and helping readers figure out answers to their managerial or technical questions. He works toward bringing the future to the present.

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