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InContext / An inside look at the business of digital content

The time is right for AR: Inside Axel Springer’s immersive travel experience

April 14, 2020 | By Peggy Anne Salz, Founder and Lead Analyst—Mobile Groove @peggyanne

Life in unprecedented times is propelling our collective experiences enhanced by Augmented Reality (AR) an unexpected boost. Companies are scrambling to provide audiences with meaningful ways to spend days stuck at home or add value for the over one billion students continuing their education from home, rather than school. People can tour colleges, national parks, and museums online. Google’s AR objects in search—announced last year—are finally getting their due as people bring virtual tigers, leopards and cats into their living rooms to keep a nation full of home-schoolers entertained.

Businesses are also getting in on the action. They are sending a clear signal to publishers that the ability to offer immersive advertising experiences may be their best way to monetize their platforms and properties. From shoe company Asics’ virtual-reality shoe launch to Animmersion’s fast-tracked immersive meeting spaces, AR and VR is crossing the chasm and blending the boundaries between content and advertising.

Smart content companies are moving quickly to take advantage of the burgeoning interest. One of those companies is Axel Springer, which commands one of the biggest media portfolios in Europe. Made up of about 100 print titles, over 70 online sites, and more than 200 digital ventures worldwide, Axel Springer is a venerated German publisher. However Chris Krauss, senior product manager with spring_, a division of Axel Springer, told me that they have more than media ambitions. “We want to become a media tech company,” he said. With 400 employees, spring_ is an “enabler” to help all of Axel Springer’s brands adopt digital technologies to engage audiences and attract advertisers.

AR for the masses

A key part of executing that strategy is a partnership with HEADGEAR. The mobile-first agency for immersive B2C activations has expertise in building experiences for educational, entertaining, or visualization purposes. To make the experiences accessible to all consumers, not just those with VR goggles or AR glasses, the company has prioritized mobile AR for consumer adoption.

Together, Axel Springer and HEADGEAR are working to bring AR to the masses. Their first effort is a virtual tour of the California coast. It premiered in the print edition of the Welt am Sonntag (a Sunday newspaper belonging to the publisher Die Welt) in March. The tour lets people grounded by coronavirus take in the breathtaking view from Pacific Highway 1 at Carmel-by-the-Sea or check out the California sea lions near San Simeon.

It’s stunning. But, more importantly, it’s seamless. “You touch your screen to place this AR portal,” says Krauss. “Then literally walk through it and you find yourself in another place somewhere in the world.”

Empowering editors

The collaboration with HEADGEAR effectively allows editors to create AR portals – which appear in front of a user – that will transport a reader to a new location. In practice, any content team member with some experience in 3D modeling has the skillset to build a “simple doorway” into an AR world, according to Philip Wogart. He is co-founder of HEADGEAR and Executive Director DACH for the VR AR Association, an international organization designed to foster collaboration between companies and brands in VR and AR. “Once you have the portal, it’s no different than any other kind of filming, except that you need a 360 camera to do it.”

However, HEADGEAR’s tools aren’t just easy for publishers to use, they also simplify the experience for readers. It is built on top of the 8th Wall platform. So, readers don’t need to download an app to access the AR experience. Instead, audiences can access other worlds and rich experiences right through their browser.

This means “publishers can add Augmented Reality to any type of online advertising or any type of content really,” Wogart explains. “In this case, the Travel section of Sunday newspapers got enhanced with our portals. The print and desktop article included QR codes that readers could quickly scan with the smartphone camera app. Then they’d be automatically redirected to the AR browser experience.”

“WebAR is compatible with more devices than standalone apps (IKEA Places) and apps with embedded AR experiences (Messenger, Instagram, Snapchat) because the tech is not dependent upon iOS or Android versions but rather a JavaScript library for Chrome or Safari.” –Philip Wogart

Easy AR for everyone

This web-based experience is not just immersive, it’s also frictionless. Consumers don’t need an app. And brands and publishers don’t need to be convinced that AR is a new tool in their toolkit they can start using now to engage audiences. “A simple experience is the first step to reaching massive audiences,” Krauss explains. “So this first AR experience is kind of a test.

But it’s not a one-off.” He sees this as a tool they can provide to editorial departments across Axel Springer). It will allow them to create and run AR portals and experiences. This, in turn should make it easier for them to start their own series. It will also allow their readers to get immersed within the world of the article (360° video) all using just their smartphone.

In this scenario, the tool is part of a white-label package. “We customize it for the new customer and then they can create their own editorial AR content with 360-degree immersive video,” Krauss explains. The goal is to roll it out within Axel Springer. We’ll make it available to all the publishers and titles within the group.

Significantly, AR, which used to be a hard-sell to publishers, just got easier for Krauss and his team. “Within the first 24 hours of publishing the print and digital editions, we had over 20,000 views of 3 AR experiences,” he explains. “This is an impressive number alone. But we are also calculating a 30% conversion rate for those completing the entire experience. This is amazing as it’s not a tech-savvy audience we’re addressing here. It’s 40 and up. These readers haven’t been experimenting with AR the same ways teenagers have on Snap and other platforms.”

WELT am Sonntag in March 29th edition – p. 62 Travel Section full-page spread

The potential for AR

This pilot, and the positive initial results, give the companies the support they need to pursue a mission that has been top of their agenda for years. It’s all about making AR exciting and inclusive for audiences and removing the friction that has slowed its move to the mainstream.

The implications here aren’t just editorial. Smart publishers can work with advertisers to create immersive experiences that will help keep brands top of mind during the coronavirus outbreak. It will also allow grateful readers to escape reality for a few minutes.

Just imagine if a tourism board or automotive company sponsored Axel Springer’s virtual drive. Well, that opportunity is exactly what Axel Springer’s in-house agency Brand Studio is offering to advertisers and their clients across all their publications using HEADGEAR’s AR tools. It is pretty compelling stuff. In fact, after the AR experience, consumers might find themselves inspired to book the first flight to San Francisco as soon as travel bans are lifted.

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