PopSci's Augmented Reality Check: A Q&A With Editorial Director Mark Jannot
Popular Science has been pursuing its mission to deliver "the future now" for more than 130 years. This past summer, that mission meant creating the magazine's first-ever augmented reality cover. Readers were able to hold the cover up to a Web camera while visiting www.popsci.com/imagination to bring a unique 3-D image to life. They then saw wind turbines, which were highlighted in the issue (PopSci's annual "Future of Energy" issue) as an important clean-energy solution, appear on their screen. The 3-D hologram was provided by GE and the technology was powered by Metaio, a San Francisco-based software development company.
Editorial Director Mark Jannot discussed the magazine's first encounter with augmented reality technology, the reaction it stirred from readers, and PopSci's unending pursuit of innovation and creativity.
INBOX: Can you briefly explain how the concept of augmented reality works?
MARK JANNOT: As I understand it, broadly speaking, augmented reality refers to the concept of using digital/computer technology to add an extra layer of content, information or experience to what I suppose we can still get away with calling the real world—i.e., the one on this side of the computer screen. In the specific definition that we're talking about here, it involves holding a physical object up to your computer's Web cam and watching (in the video window on the computer screen) as the thing you're holding comes to life: 3-dimensional, moving dioramas pop out of it; videos start playing on it; that sort of thing. It's basically an ingenious way of creating an entirely fresh, much more tactile way of interacting with your computer—of in some sense erasing the barrier between this side of the screen and the other.
INBOX: How is it applicable to the magazine space?
JANNOT: Used well, it can be a way to take what is normally a two-dimensional medium and adding a nifty layer of texture and surprising, entertaining content to it. It might also serve to help bridge (where appropriate) what can be a surprisingly intractable divide between the physical magazine and enhanced content on the Web. It tends to be rare, at any magazine, for more than 20 percent of the magazine's readership to visit its Web site—ever. Augmented reality makes the connection between the magazine and the computer feel much more concrete and seamless, and can actually be used to trigger what would otherwise be Web features (videos, animated infographics) that normally far fewer magazine readers would bother seeking out. Finally, it's a great way to bring ads to life. There's a huge, appealing novelty aspect to all of this—the challenge, of course, being to find ways to make it more than a gimmick, to make it feel meaningful even once the novelty wears off.
INBOX: You experimented with it on your July cover. What can you tell us about that experience?
JANNOT: Our July "Future of Energy" cover was the first-ever augmented-reality magazine cover. Someone in our marketing department had seen augmented reality demonstrated nearly a year earlier, and we'd been looking for a way to use it in the magazine ever since. (At Popular Science, we editors of course pride ourselves on being far out ahead of the curve on new technology and innovation—so I think it was a bit of a blow to editorial pride when one of my senior editors stumbled upon a video demonstration of the technology and e-mailed it around, getting an enthusiastic, awestruck reaction, only to discover that the marketing department had discovered it several months earlier.)
Because it was a marketing department initiative, and because it's not cheap to implement an augmented-reality feature, the obvious intention was to pitch it to an advertiser as a way to create a unique, high-impact unit. The perfect opportunity to do that, in way that would appeal to our readership on a genuine level, emerged in the Future of Energy issue. The cover image that my Creative Director, Sam Syed, developed with our regular cover illustrator, Nick Kaloterakis, was a photo-real depiction of a phalanx of mildly futuristic-looking wind turbines stretching across San Francisco Bay. Someone on the sales side saw that and remembered that GE had developed an augmented-reality piece in which a 3-dimensional turbine pops off of a 2-dimensional page (they'd debuted it in a Super Bowl ad). We made the connection with GE, sold them on the first-ever opportunity to have their unit popping off the magazine's cover, and repurposed the animation they'd already done to make it work in this context. One of my concerns was that every augmented-reality animation I'd seen required a big high-contrast black-and-white image to serve as the trigger. But we found a company called Metaio that had pioneered a way to use any image as the trigger—so we didn't have to change our cover art or junk it up in any way. The whole thing is very cool—once the turbine pops off the cover, you can even make the blades spin faster by blowing into the microphone on your computer. (Check it out for yourself at http://popsci.com/imagination.)
INBOX: What sort of response did you receive from your readership?
JANNOT: The readers absolutely loved it, as I anticipated they would. Our mission statement is "Popular Science is the ultimate guide to what's new and what's next. We deliver the future now." And that's really what our readers come to the magazine for—to see a first glimpse at dazzling new scientific breakthroughs and technologies. So it's squarely in the spirit of the magazine's mission to be the first to deliver this experience to our readers. Nearly 100,000 people went to the Web site and activated the 3-D augmented reality cover, and the comments we received were overwhelmingly favorable.
INBOX: Have you used it since? Are there plans to use it again?
JANNOT: Not yet, but I'm sure we will. As I say, it's not cheap, and so for the time being it's hard to justify the cost if its being implemented on a purely editorial basis. In the near term, it'll probably be used primarily to power creative ad executions. That said, we're in the early stages of developing an innovative Web project, and I'm thinking that we might ultimately use augmented reality to essentially demonstrate that project by having it pop off the pages of the magazine—thus helping to drive traffic and engagement over to the Web.
INBOX: Can you forecast any other ways publishers could conceivably leverage augmented reality?
JANNOT: Esquire did an excellent job of implementing augmented reality in several places throughout its December issue, bringing the cover, a fashion portfolio, and other pages (including one spread ad) to life. They had two different "funny joke from a beautiful woman" videos that sprung off the pages of the magazine; the bawdier one would only play if it was after midnight wherever you happened to be. As I say, the danger is that it ends up being a flash-in-the-pan gimmick, but I really think the lasting strength and impact of the medium is limited only by the creativity of the people who implement it.