The world of Virtual Reality is about to get very exciting, especially for the video game industry. It has a clear and recognisable opportunity, which has been prophesied for years. The creation of an immersive 360-degree environment that you can physically engage with? People will pay for that.

What about other publishers, though? Particularly news publishers?

Before we explore that, we need to understand the difference between the realities: Virtual, Augmented, and … reality?

Publishers are started to experiment with Virtual and Augmented Reality, but it is unclear whether there is a true payoff.
Publishers are started to experiment with Virtual and Augmented Reality, but it is unclear whether there is a true payoff.

VR is created with the user engaging with it from start to finish. That is, the user knows and has decided he is going to use it and will spend 100% of that duration of time engaging with the VR. This is likely to take the form of a headset, which you can acquire for smartphones now for a very low cost.

The next stage will be interaction. Those of you that have sent your Wii controller smashing though your TV will know how accurate and engaging that can be.

Add the two together with a good game and you have instant fun. All that’s left is to create a safe space in your home, devoid of sharp objects.

Augmented Reality is far less immersive. This “reality” requires you to use a smart device (phone or tablet) to engage with “real” world things and places. A billboard poster can act as a trigger, for example. Point your phone at it and it comes alive or plays a video.

I have worked with some AR companies that work with book publishers, especially in creating educational materials for children. They can point their tablet at a T Rex and up pops a remote-controllable T Rex.

My 6-year old daughter loved the fairy book, and she managed to make the fairy fly on my device. It was incredibly engaging and led her to say, “I really wish it was real.” She read the book and augmented her experience with a tablet. It was a success — she’s happy, her parents (me) are happy, and the publisher is happy.

What about us, though? News publishers can be, and probably are, inundated with ideas and opportunities. Our print products have to compete harder, and digital is both growing and taking market share. We need to be more relevant than ever, and we need to try new things to find our groove.

I can see a sci-fi novel/movie in which the news service of the day places you at the scene, using VR, of course. That’s fiction for you. Triggering a video taken at the scene from a photograph in a newspaper via a smart device — you can do that today.

The reality here, though, is that by the time you have used your AR app to scan the newspaper, you’ve already used the Internet to find and view it. It’s a clunky way to engage.

Harry Potter-style newspapers are possible today, if you read them on a tablet, but not print. You could read the newspaper with a VR/AR headset … maybe. That could make the experience more normal.

However, how much extra did it cost to create the publication? It is a lot of extra effort to apply this treatment to your newspaper. The point is still relevancy. Does it touch enough people to drive a material change in circulation?

What happens to your advertisers? Do they get kicked out of print, and you sell the pages again in AR? What is the effort versus the reward?

The “reality” today is still one of wait and see. We ran a trial at Archant — a well-managed and executed trial, of course. We took a lifestyle magazine and created additional content only accessible via AR, triggered through the photography in print. We marked it up so the users would know to download the app and hold it over the pages. We followed this up with more imagery, video, and, of course, a sponsor.

We even made some of the advertising AR, allowing the advertiser to show a commercial, more information, and links to its Web site and social media.

The editorial and advertising teams liked it, the customers liked it, and some readers engaged. We hit our sales targets, we delivered the publications on time, and they were correctly marked up — it all worked.

However, it was incredibly time consuming and a distraction from our core objectives, not least of which was trying to make the augments worth engaging with in the first place. We were never going to build 3-D dinosaurs and flying fairies.

The problem we had was the reader engagement wasn’t strong enough, especially for the advertisers. Also, it had no positive effect on the sale of the magazine. This led to us stopping after the trial. This is what a successful trial looks like, I guess; it told us what to do.

The tech is changing, fast, and more people will engage with it. There is no doubt about that. And, maybe a material and sustainable opportunity for news media is coming. Imagine viewing a house, a car, home improvement ideas, a hotel, your vacation, or trying on clothes or jewelery.

It’s not here, yet. That’s the “reality,” I guess.