3D AR Modeling: Q&A with Ray Soto of USA Today

by Hunter Pendleton, University of Missouri student 

This month for innovation in focus we used AR 3D modeling to make an interactive experience for our readers. For our Q&A piece, I spoke with Ray Soto to learn more about how this type of technological creativity can integrate with journalistic storytelling.

Raymond Soto

Raymond Soto, Director of Emerging Technology at the USA Today network. Soto’s career began in the video game industry before he transitioned to news. He won a Pulitzer Prize for Explanatory Reporting with the Arizona Republic for their piece,”The Wall.

Pendleton: So your background is in video games — how does that translate to working in journalism?

Soto:  What was pretty surprising to me is that not once did I ever expect that the technologies that we were leveraging to create video games could be applied to news for storytelling.  What’s really amazing is that there’s so much that can be applied, and that fact that USA Today identified that opportunity over five years ago when they had reached out to me to start diving into this, well it seemed like a natural fit.  

Pendleton: What is the scope of some of these immersive projects, and how do you see them affecting the everyday consumer of news?

Soto: Well, when big tech companies like Google and Apple supported augmented reality natively within their phones, that provided us the opportunity to reach a much wider audience and allowed us to ensure that there’s really no barrier to entry for not just our existing audience, but for new audiences that we’re trying to impact.  So we’ve used virtual reality, we still support it, but AR is the thing we’re really diving deep into now, and those technologies could converge moving forward, which is very exciting.

Pendleton: How does accessibility affect what types of stories and experiences your team creates?

Soto: For us, accessibility means that audiences understand what the tech is and are able to interact and go through that story.  We have a really strong existing audience, and we don’t want to alienate them, but at the same time we want to attract an audience who understands it and finds value in what we’re trying to do. We have to make sure that from an accessibility standpoint with experience, from the diversity of the stories that we’re telling, we’re not alienating any group.  We want to make sure that folks feel compelled to actually interact.

Pendleton: What has been the biggest lesson you’ve learned so far in your experience working with AR?

Soto: One of the things that’s most difficult is that there’s no one template that works for every audience. We quickly learned that early on last year once we started diving into AR storytelling; but what we noticed is that if the on-boarding sequence, if the interaction mechanics, if those can stay the same throughout, it’s ultimately all about the stories.  It’s about how we’re presenting the stories, it’s the narrative thread that we have to be cognizant of based on the audience we’re trying to reach.

Pendleton: What advice would you give to journalists who have never utilized AR before but want to get started?

Soto: AR is so much easier to get into now than it was even just a handful of years ago, that it’s very important to experiment, and not be afraid to fail.  That’s the only way that any of us can grow, and it’s the only way that any organization can truly understand the opportunities for interactive experiences especially on the immersive side of VR and AR.  I can list off a catalog of software to experiment with, but ultimately, treat this like you would any other story. Flesh out and develop an outline, storyboard the experience, develop prototypes in any kind of software, whether it’s Sketch, Photoshop — it doesn’t matter. Then, start to develop a very loose interactive experience.  Leverage Spark AR, Instagram, Facebook as a step forward, start to play around with Unity 3D. Folks are very fortunate because this is a technology that is continuing to grow.  

Pendleton: What do you feel are the biggest challenges to working within AR software?

Soto: It’s a very unique workflow that not a lot of folks are familiar with — essentially, every project is going through a game development pipeline.  I would say it’s a challenge.  You have to set series of milestones — as I mentioned before, develop your story outline, storyboard it out, prototype.  When you start to collaborate with folks who are traditional journalists, sure they’re very eager and understand the opportunity and are excited to work with us, but with our development pipeline, there’s a structure that you need.  So, not a roadblock, but something that could be a slight detour that folks should consider, but not be frustrated with. When you know what you’re trying to aim towards, whether you understand the entire process or you don’t, expect that you might have to hit a few speed bumps here or there, but nothing that will stop you from reaching your goal. Once you figure out that first project, that entire workflow, the rest is going to be so much more easy to manage – not just within the development team, but with others outside the process.

Pendleton: How can journalists start this conversation and begin to explore AR and 3D modeling in their newsrooms? 

Soto: Find that advocate within in your organization who’s willing to try something new, who understands some of those risks, but start small.  That’s the biggest piece of advice I can give. Even if it’s just a social media AR filter, that’s fine.

Pendleton: Anything else you’d like to share? 

Soto: One of the things that excites me most when it comes to emerging technology such as VR and AR within our space is that it’s gaining so much momentum.  When you consider the entire industry, it’s really eager to try something new. When you consider these sets of interactives, being able to attract a new audience is great, but the fact that these stories are so different, that they provide that unique perspective, that opportunity to explore and discover and build a sense of wonder — that’s something that is so unique and exciting to see.  Not just within USA Today, but even with our counterparts across the industry. Ultimately, my hope is that folks don’t get discouraged.

Editor’s note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity

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