Steven King lends insight to augmented reality panel at SXSW

Steven King, Chief Innovation Officer of the Reese News Lab and the Emerging Technologies Lab, spent his Spring Break in Austin, Texas, at the South by Southwest festival (SXSW) where he spoke about the use of augmented reality (AR) in news media. The panel, called “Reality but better: Augmenting the world with news” also included: Erica Anderson, Google News Lab’s Head of Immersive Storytelling; Jeremy Gilbert, Director of Strategic Initiatives at The Washington Post; and Steve Raymond, CEO of 8i.

We spoke with Steven prior to his trip to Austin to talk about the future of AR, the widespread use of 360 video, and a new project partnering with UNC Children’s Hospital to encourage children with terminal illnesses to get up and move with a custom AR app.

Tell us about your panel at SXSW discussing the potential of augmented and mixed reality in news.

While this is my first time speaking at SXSW, I have given talks on AR and virtual reality (VR) for other organizations. What’s exciting about SXSW is that it brings together people from different industries and disciplines to discuss these products and concepts in a unique way. Our panel will focus on how we can use AR in the news media in the present day and the immediate future. We’re not dreaming about the future or talking about years down the line – we’re talking about right now and how news organizations can go ahead and leverage that technology to better engage their audiences.

Panel photo
Steven King (far left) moderates the panel for “Reality but better” at SXSW on March 12, 2018. Photo by Alina Mikhaleva

How will AR enhance news for audiences or engage them in a tangible way?

Think about AR as just another way to display data and information. But, with AR, you can display information in a way that contextually makes sense. So, can we display data when you need it exactly when you want it in a way that’s non-obtrusive?

The other piece about AR is that it gives you an opportunity to bring in visualizations and 3D graphics into a real-world space so you can see them in context. That helps audiences understand scale, how things relate, how it relates to their life, their home, their business or their community. This is all possible because we can put those pieces of information into those themes.

What are you looking forward to seeing and talking about at SXSW?

There are at least 10 or 12 AR and VR discussions that are going on over the next couple weeks. I’m excited especially in looking at artificial intelligence (AI). I think AI and AR go really well together because it helps us give better contextual interfaces if we know exactly what people want.

I’m also excited to see how people are using AR in other spaces like health care and education. Gaming has already been done, but what are people doing in other informational places? What are other industries doing in AR, and how would we leverage that for news?

Out of all the emerging technologies, what has had the most traction and growth in the last year and why?

There are a lot of newsrooms trying things with 360 video and that price is really coming down. A year ago it would have cost three or four times as much. Now that there’s so many players creating tools and devices, it’s made 360 video affordable for many local media publishers.

Computer-generated full VR is still expensive. Even big publishers like The New York Times and The Washington Post are not making that money back on VR content that’s fully immersive. So, 360 video is a great place for local publishers to start. As products improve in computer-generated VR, it will be easier and less expensive to work with in the future.

You have a lot of projects going on at all times through Reese News Lab and the Emerging Technologies Lab. What are you working on now?

Yes, we have a lot going on! And we’re not just working with media companies. We’re working with other people doing innovative things and seeing how we can be helpful to our community. One of the things we’re doing is working with UNC Children’s Hospital to create an AR experience for children with cancer and cystic fibrosis to get them up and moving in the hospital. They are in bed at the hospital for days, weeks, or sometimes months at a time. Can we engage them in a new way to get them walking around and having a little fun? So, we put about 12 of our students on this project to create an AR experience that’s custom-made for these patients. We’ll test it out this summer and then hope to roll it out to other hospitals later this year.

We’re also working with North Carolina’s Gear Up program that helps with college access. We’re producing 360 video at 16 campuses across North Carolina to get middle and high school students excited about college. It might be the largest 360 video project ever done by a statewide agency! I can’t imagine anybody has done anything as extensive as what we’ve done. It’s really exciting to see how we can show people what college life is like across the state and get more students excited about college, especially in rural areas.

Faciem AR is an app developed out of graduate research work by Elizabeth Hammond on the user experience of the Microsoft HoloLens. We learned a lot. HoloLens is not at a point of wide adoption on a user level, but we are talking with some of the big publishers about how it could be a journalist’s tool. Could reporters use AR or the HoloLens to find lobbyists who are meeting with public officials? Are there other ways we could leverage this technology to help journalists know who people are, who is on the Capitol grounds, and see who is meeting with whom?

We also have several projects in how journalists could use AI. Is it in how they research their stories? Is it also how they engage their audiences? We’re working on a project that has an AI video experience that hopefully will get some legs during the summer and we’ll be able to test.

We’re in VR, too. Can we make processes, tools or workflows to make it easier for publishers to work with VR? We’ve been experimenting with different formats: greenscreen the journalist, or make a 3D model, or just shoot 360 video. What are the trade-offs? We’re experimenting in different ways to make VR and AR content a little cheaper and easier to make.

Follow Steven King on Twitter @steven_king