Is local media ready for Augmented Reality?

Elizabeth Hammond photo

Elizabeth Hammond studied the usability of Microsoft’s HoloLens, which are large glasses that add digital information on top of a user’s real environment.

Emerging technologies like augmented and virtual reality, 360 video and artificial intelligence are sweeping some media companies by storm, but the majority of newsrooms have not yet committed their limited resources of time and money to develop widespread usage. Are they missing an opportunity or are the costs for experimentation too limiting?

Elizabeth Hammond recently completed her thesis for the UNC School of Media and Journalism’s Masters of Technology and Communication program. She conducted usability studies using Microsoft’s HoloLens, glasses that add a 2D or 3D layer of digital information on top of the user’s actual reality.  We spoke with her about her findings and what it means for the future of digital media and advertising.

How did you become interested in Augmented Reality (AR)?

At a young age I started reading science fiction, which set the course for my interest in emerging technologies, but I’ve only developed an understanding of what AR is over the last couple of years. As a student in the UNC Masters of Technology and Communication program, I was first exposed to AR and Virtual Reality (VR) through a New Media and Society course. We explored the current state of these and other emerging technologies, and we visited the Duke Immersive Virtual Environment (DiVE), a 6-sided room that gives those inside the experience of being in a virtual world.

The Pokémon Go phenomenon was taking off at the same time. I started seeing small groups of people in parks and neighborhoods looking for Pokémon. Technology was the impetus for people to move around outside and socialize with others. Once I realized that AR has the power to release us from our desks, I was hooked on visions of what a future with wearable AR devices might look like.

You studied the usability of Microsoft’s HoloLens, their “Mixed Reality” (MR) glasses. What did you learn?

My study involved a facial recognition application, FaciemAR, which was designed for the HoloLens. FaciemAR is used to identify people (only those who have chosen to opt-in) and display digital information about them. One potential use of the app is by conference-goers who would like to identify other attendees.

Microsoft HoloLens glasses image

Microsoft HoloLens (photo from Microsoft)

I interviewed, surveyed, and observed 6 tech-savvy UNC undergraduates as they used FaciemAR and the HoloLens for the first time.

I found that there is a learning curve for the HoloLens. Simply opening an app in the HoloLens requires the user to be familiar with the following concepts:

  • Looking at a digital object (hologram), or targeting it with their gaze as a first step to selecting it (like hovering over an object with a mouse)
  • Using hand gestures to actually select and move holograms
  • Wearing the HoloLens in a way that allows for the best view of holograms, which can be tricky because the field of view, or window through which the users views holograms, is currently quite small. This is expected to change in the future.
  • Positioning holograms in the MR environment before using them

After completing a 20-minute training process, each participant reported that they were approaching expert level in terms of controlling the HoloLens. Even so, once they were asked to test the app within the HoloLens they experienced difficulties with some hand gestures, the small field of view, and managing holograms in the MR environment.

I found that the physical comfort and safety of a user must be considered by MR designers in a way that isn’t necessary for flat screen experiences. By the end of the study some participants reported tired arms, difficulties positioning the HoloLens on their heads, and even an inability to push glasses up when worn under the HoloLens.

Additionally, I learned that distance must be considered when designing for a head-worn display. A HoloLens user is mobile—they can simply walk away from the holographic interface they’re using. Addressing issues caused by distance is a fascinating new part of user experience design.

What are some of the major implications of AR in journalism, media and advertising? What about the limitations?

If it’s broadly adopted by consumers, I think AR will present opportunities for advertisers to create more compelling and informative messages. With access to big data and geolocation to determine a consumer’s preferences and location, advertisers should be able to create powerful half digital/half real-world experiences for consumers.

For instance, let’s say you’ve been shopping for a new car. A car manufacturer could drop a virtual version of the car you’ve been searching for into your driveway so you could take a closer look.

I also think AR will be a very social medium. People will be able to see and interact with the same digital information overlaid on the real world, together.

One current limitation is that we use our smartphones to access AR. Being able to move around at will in the real world while experiencing digital aspects is a more powerful experience than looking through a handheld window. Tech companies are working toward shrinking the hardware necessary to power AR. If that happens, we can look forward to mainstream wearables which will expand the possibilities of AR.

Of the emerging technologies (AR, VR, AI, or “mixed reality”) which do you think are most tangible at this time for smaller media organizations?

I think VR in the form of 360 video will continue to be the most tangible for smaller media organizations since the hardware is available at a relatively low cost, and the learning curve for videographers to produce 360 videos is surmountable.

There are significant roadblocks to smaller media organizations entering AR and MR:

  • The technology isn’t very accessible. AR and MR require programming skills that smaller media organizations don’t typically have, and acquiring people with those skills can be expensive.
  • Mainstream consumer interest isn’t there yet. Consumers aren’t making heavy use of AR or MR yet, so sinking resources into those technologies may be risky at this point.
  • There is no proven business model. Smaller media organizations don’t typically have the resources to fund experimental technologies that may not yield a return.

I expect that tech companies, many of which see great promise in AR, MR and VR, will lead the way.