Augmented reality as a storytelling medium can do some extraordinary things words and images alone can’t convey — such as transporting readers 400 years into the past.

On Thursday, to recognize the 400 year anniversary of the first African slaves arriving in North America, USA Today launched a multimedia series titled “1619: Searching for Answers.”

The series includes an augmented reality experience on the USA Today app for iOS and Android that opens a portal to a 3D recreation of the San Juan Bautista, the ship that carried enslaved Africans through the tortuous and often fatal Middle Passage.

Images by Tommy Palladino/Next Reality

“The landing of the first enslaved Africans in 1619 is one of the most important events and dates in our history, but it hasn’t been treated as such,” said Nicole Carroll, editor-in-chief at USA Today in a statement. “We set out to correct that. Our goal is to educate and inform Americans about the history that continues to shape and influence the country we are today.”

The AR experience includes content written by author Dolen Perkins-Valdez and narrated by Tamara Winfrey-Harris. Visual hot spots throughout the virtual exhibit give users more information about the voyage.

As users explore the virtual ship, spatial audio recreates the atmosphere of being at sea. In addition to walking through the ship, users can view a painting by artist Richard Press, Sr.

Images by Tommy Palladino/Next Reality

According to a USA Today spokesperson, the project is the result of months of research and production. The augmented reality aspect of the project was important to USA Today, as it immerses readers in the experience.

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Coincidentally, The New York Times published its own 1619 project last week, but without an AR experience. Earlier this year, Graham Roberts, who leads immersive content for the Times, noted that the company has taken a step back to re-examine its AR approach, with plans to be more selective in the subjects it showcases in AR.

In contrast, after tentatively dipping its toes into the AR waters last year, USA Today is now diving into the deep end this year, with nine AR features published in 2019 alone. The stories have covered topics ranging from the Cathedral of Notre Dame and Oscar-nominated costumes to the NHL and the USA Women’s Soccer Team.

Evidently, the news outlet’s augmented reality coverage has reached the point where it now merits a dedicated augmented reality section on the mobile app (after some very public bellyaching from this writer), making it easier for readers to easily find the interactive stories.





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