USA Today gamifies social distancing with AR app

By Jordan Erb


Austin, Texas, United States


As the coronavirus pandemic swept the United States in the early months of 2020, the nation quickly adapted to new ways of life, from wearing masks to sheltering in place and social distancing.

In response, USA Todays emerging tech team released an Augmented Reality (AR) experience geared at helping audiences better understand how to social distance. The interactive tool, Flatten the Curve: A Week in Social Distancing, came just as the coronavirus pandemic was ramping up, causing nationwide economic and social shutdowns, and highlighting the importance of social distancing. 

The Flatten the Curve app made learning about social distancing fun and engaging while still being educational.
The Flatten the Curve app made learning about social distancing fun and engaging while still being educational.

This whole thing came about just from the conversation that was happening, that everyone was talking about — social distancing, said Ray Soto, who oversaw the project as director of emerging technologies. We just wanted to do a slight variation in the sense that we’d help inform, but in a very fun way that presented real-life situations.

Better distancing through animation

The interactive experience, which was built in just under a week, is set in an animated city block. It guides users through five activities, where they’re required to choose the course of action that will result in the best social distancing practice. It then scores their choices on a scale of 1 to 10, with 1 being the best score and 10 requiring the most improvement. 

Users are tasked with navigating everyday life, from taking a walk outside to getting groceries, all while maintaining proper social distance. Something of a choose-your-own-adventure game (Should I go to that party or stay home?), it offers different choices that result in different consequences — in this case, heightened risk for contracting and spreading the virus.

Analytics showed the average score was a 3, indicating that most users were able to fairly safely social distance but could benefit from some tips to improve their behaviour.

Rather than writing an article or producing a video, Soto and the emerging tech team wanted to build a more engaging way to learn about the impacts of social distancing. By presenting the user with a dilemma, Soto said, it gave them the opportunity to learn through decision making, get advice, and come back and try again.

For us it was all about the way we’re engaging our users, Soto said. Sure, they could watch a video, but that’s a bit more of a passive experience, and this was much more engaging and interactive.

Lightening the mood

Will Austin, a designer on the emerging tech team, was charged with creating the illustrations and working with journalists and editors to make AR a conduit for storytelling.

To emphasise audience engagement, the team chose to take a step back from dark and heavy news and make the setting a bit more playful. They wanted the experience to be informative but not overwhelming, a choice reflected in the illustrations and animation. 

We kept it more playful, with heavy saturation on the colour palette, thinking kind of like a board game, in a way, Austin said. It’s very SimCity or Monopoly-esque. It’s colourful and vibrant.

Flatten the Curve is the 15th project by USA Todays emerging tech team in less than two years, and it quickly became the site’s second-most-popular experience. Among other statistics, the experience received 7.4 million impressions and 2.3 million seconds of engagement.

The AR experience can be found on the USA Today app in the Augmented Reality section. 

About Jordan Erb

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