Virtual reality (VR), and its cousin augmented reality (AR), have not quite reached maturity . . . yet. Despite massive leaps in recent years, these technologies are still working through their awkward adolescence, not sure what they will be or what they mean in the context of the unprecedented technological wave of which they are a part. Yet the power that VR and AR hold for transformation across many areas of society is making itself known. From real estate to healthcare, industrial, construction and training, to education and, of course, entertainment and publishing, the potential is there and is already blooming in many areas. Publishing, however, is still an area for which the use of these technologies is still in bud, awaiting deeper exploration.
“Publishing” is a pretty broad term. It encompasses everything from novels to journalism, scholarly monographs to children’s books, all of which speak different languages and target different audiences. There are certainly use cases across most of these different factions, though it’s fair to say that some will be more amenable to a relationship with VR or AR than others.
Barriers To Adoption
This raises the question of what exactly people want from VR and AR. Most people still aren’t taking much time to use even the simplest VR headsets to regularly access content. What does it take for somebody to actively make the choice to get behind the goggles?
VR requires audiences to take physical steps to access. For low-level devices such as the Google Cardboard or Daydream or the Samsung Gear, they must retrieve the headset, place their phone within it, access the app, and locate the content before getting going. High-end devices like the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive require powerful computers and a good area of physical space to use, which is currently price prohibitive for all but the most enthusiastic VR users. The midlevel PSVR is perhaps easier to use, but requires several steps before the experience can ensue. This is a fundamental block to VR adoption, but AR is more straightforward.
Successes So Far
AR has already had success in the form of the hugely popular Pokemon Go game, which took the world by storm in 2016. The ease with which users can access AR apps on their smartphones gives AR the edge when it comes to driving widespread adoption. So far, mobile gaming using AR has been very popular, several brands have used the tech for marketing and advertising campaigns, and it shows great potential for our key focus here: publishing.
A great example of a publisher who has taken steps to engage audiences with AR is Puffin, which has worked with developer StoryToys to create the “My Very Hungry Caterpillar” app using the Apple ARKit. Children can use the app to interact with the star of the classic storybook, raising him from an egg to a butterfly, almost like a modern-day Tamagotchi. The app offers a new way for young children to delve deeper into the story, which has been popular with kids for over 50 years. The app’s success demonstrates the potential for expanding engagement with children’s literature with AR, how the medium is well-suited to the demographic, and what kind of storytelling strategy works well with AR.
What seems to be becoming clear is that books that are very image-based, such as kids’ storybooks and graphic novels, are an ideal choice for AR adoption. An example from the latter genre is a graphic novel Masters of the Sun released by the pop band Black Eyed Peas. The book was released along with a parallel AR app, which enhanced elements of the story and brought another level of engagement for readers.
The apps for Very Hungry Caterpillar and Masters of the Sun both had one drawback, however. Both AR apps were purchased separately from the book. Though there are obvious costs involved in the creation of such an app, there is a danger that selling these items separately will be perceived as a cynical extra revenue generator, or simply dismissed outright as a gimmick, diminishing readers’ interest. It is the additional cost here that creates a barrier to adoption, whereas an AR app positioned as “free with purchase” would stand a greater chance of being used and might also encourage more consumers to buy the book.
As with VR, publishers must choose wisely when it comes to whether or not to use AR to supplement a print offering. Books with a strong visual angle exhibit demonstrable success for the medium. But can the same be said of a John Grisham novel? Or Jane Eyre for that matter?
It’s hard to say for sure whether VR will be as amenable to adapting or supplementing literary print material in the way that AR is demonstrating. Where VR has shown promise, however, is in journalism. The BBC, the Guardian, CNN, the Economist, and many other news outlets have released VR apps or footage, primarily for the low-end Cardboard, Daydream, or Gear headsets, as simple 360-degree experiences that can also be accessed without a headset or via a smartphone inserted into the device. The Guardian even went so far as to distribute free branded Google Cardboard headsets with their print newspaper in 2017. A wealth of high quality journalistic content in VR has earned strong viewer numbers covering a wide range of events such as the Syria crisis and the 2018 World Cup. While the numbers have been promising, there is still room for improvement. Increased exposure to and distribution of the content along with a strong call to action are required for VR to reach its full potential.
To VR or Not to VR
Publishers from all factions of the industry must think carefully before plowing ahead with a VR or AR offering. There is a tendency with new technology to adopt for adoption’s sake, to show that an organization is up-to-date and moving with the times. A frivolous decision based on novelty value is likely to be a huge mistake unless it can be firmly established that the work you are trying to sell is best suited to the VR or AR medium.
Before you make the decision to create VR or AR content, you must establish what it is you wish to achieve by doing so. Ultimately, it all boils down to the question of ROI. As with any marketing venture, which, after all, the entire enterprise really is, you need to begin by establishing the goal of the project. Identify your target audience. Is it a group that will be keen to engage with VR/AR media? What will be the motivation to engage with the content? How will you encourage users to engage in the first place?
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