See what perfect sound looks like

This year, I’m spearheading a small team focused on telling stories with augmented and virtual reality. See what perfect sound looks like, our first AR project, tells the story of Germany’s Elbphilharmonie concert hall. Elphie boasts to have engineered “perfect acoustics” so we set out to explain what that means and how they achieved it.

The big question is: why tell stories in AR and why tell THIS story in AR? We’re in the business of adding context to the world and this technology allows us to layer information on top of a reader’s reality — potentially making ideas and issues more tangible, personal and memorable. Also, when you compare AR to other immersive technologies such as VR, it’s far more accessible to the average person because you don’t have to own or wear a headset.

This story is a good match for AR because the architecture itself is visually captivating and something that readers won’t be able to easily visit. Bringing an element of the architecture into your personal space builds a connection with the story that we couldn’t have otherwise. It was also a great opportunity to learn about the strengths and weakness of the tech and to develop a workflow for AR projects because the story didn’t need to publish alongside a news event.

Design challenges

One of the challenges of AR storytelling is to truly tell a story as opposed to creating a tech demo. We thought about projecting a 3D rendering of the concert hall on a table, but the building isn’t something you could fathom seeing in a home or office. And I wasn’t convinced that would enhance our ability to tell this story. 

I honed in on the idea of bringing an element of the building into your space in a way that feels realistic. The acoustic panels were a perfect match because they were key to what makes the building unique and they could be rendered on your ceiling, creating the illusion that they are really there. 

Another challenge of AR storytelling is targeting and tracking. Most AR needs an image or geo-located “target” to latch on to and render your object or video in relation to. But restricting the experience to people in a particular location or to people with access to a target image, greatly reduces our potential audience. Luckily, our engineering team found Wikitude, a framework that does “marker-less” AR, which worked with us to use a ceiling — something we could count on people having nearby — as the target.

Favorite Takeaway

My favorite part of working with new technology is the expression on people’s faces when they try something for the first time. It’s easy to dismiss AR and VR and assume they are silly trends that will pass, but the moment you try a great immersive experience, you get it. I witnessed many people try our story and their faces lit up when the acoustic panels are rendered on their ceiling. 

Along the same lines, we worked with an amazingly talented team at Bose Collins to produce the video animation. They make incredibly beautiful, hi-definition video and AR is still at a point where keeping file size and resolution low is a must. At first they felt like we were sacrificing too much — both in quality and in methods to make a 2D video seem 3D — but with some coaching and once they saw it rendered on the ceiling, they were really stoked about the project. So much so, that they want to work with us on our next AR project. 

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How to view this project
Download the Washington Post Classic iPhone app.
Tap the "Sections" button.
• Tap "Augmented Reality"

If you already have the Washington Post Classic app downloaded, follow this link straight to the story. 

The Washington Post is diving into augmented reality (DigiDay)