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Sept. 19, 2017, 12:44 p.m.
Mobile & Apps

Quartz is using Apple’s new AR tech to “help people understand objects in the news” on iPhones

Apple’s new augmented-reality tools will open up new ways to illustrate stories: “It’s not quite drag-and-drop for producers, but it’s super close to that when it comes to the backend.”

Of all the emerging technologies that Apple has its eyes on, CEO Tim Cook has seemed particularly excited about augmented reality. Before long, many people will “have AR experiences every day, almost like eating three meals a day. It will become that much a part of you,” Cook predicted at a tech conference last year.

Developers aren’t wasting any time attempting to make Cook’s vision a reality. Alongside the launch of iOS 11 today, Quartz is updating its iOS app, which will use augmented reality features to illustrate some of its stories. For instance, its coverage of the demise of the Cassini spacecraft is joined by a 3D model of the ship that users can examine as if it was physically in the same room with them.

John Keefe, head of Quartz’s Bot Studio, said that stories like this one showcase the potential of augmented reality, which can expand stories by bringing users face-to-face with objects they would never see otherwise. “In the same way we can use images and emoji and gifs to bring alive the stories we’re sharing, we think we can use AR to help people understand objects in the news,” he said, adding that the tech could also be used to illustrate stories with 3D landscapes, models of landmarks and historic structures, or even certain kinds of data visualizations. “When it comes to the news, if you want to help people experience an object or space, large or small, we think we can help people better understand something if they can manipulate it themselves.”

The AR features are built using ARKit, the augmented reality toolkit that Apple announced and released to developers in June. (See Made With ARKit for some pretty amazing examples of what it makes possible.) While phone-based augmented reality not totally new (see: summer 2016’s short-lived Pokémon Go fad), Apple’s operating system-level embrace of the technology will open it up to far more people. (There are now more than 700 million iPhones currently in use worldwide, according to BMO Capital Markets.) Google, too, has released its own AR development kit for Android developers, expanding that potential reach further.

The scale of the iOS and Android userbases will make building AR-based apps more tempting to developers, who’ve have already used ARKit to show off demos that include virtual pets, food ordering, bar charts, and, yes, fidget spinners.

When it comes to journalism, augmented reality has gotten significantly less attention than its sibling technology virtual reality, which has captured the imagination of news organizations such as The New York Times, The Guardian, and USA Today. But VR technology has so far been held back by high development costs and the inaccessibility of its hardware. Augmented reality, in contrast, is already accessible to anyone with a smartphone.

Many assume that Apple’s current embrace of smartphone-based AR is a precursor to some kind of Apple AR glasses down the line. Bloomberg reported earlier this year that Apple already has hundreds of engineers working on various AR-related projects, which suggests that the company has big plans for the technology.

The question is, of course, whether news organizations will be prepared for the future that Apple imagines. Some, such as The New York Times’ Story[X] and Quartz are already looking ahead, but many others are likely to be left behind, as Nieman Lab editor Joshua Benton pointed out in our coverage of Apple’s event last week:

What was once the job of the iPhone is now being distributed, bit by bit, to a constellation of smaller and more personal devices — the Apple Watch on your wrist, the AirPods in your ears, the AR glasses that everyone expects Apple to bring forth in the next few years. And over time, as those each become more powerful and more connected, they’ll make the smartphone a little less central.

So why does that matter to news publishers? It’s another paradigm shift that they don’t seem prepared for. If users’ mobile attention is decreasingly focused on a good-sized screen in their hand, how do news producers get their attention, serve them what they need, and find a way to monetize it?

News organizations might, however, be happy to hear that the ARKit tools are, relatively speaking, straightforward to learn and implement in existing iOS apps. “It’s not quite drag-and-drop for producers, but it’s super close to that when it comes to the backend,” said Keefe. “Yes, Apple is putting AR in everyone’s hands, but they’re putting really easy tools for developers as well.”

POSTED     Sept. 19, 2017, 12:44 p.m.
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