How We Achieved an Olympic Feat of Immersive Journalism


View of figure skater Nathan Chen in AR. Credit Graham Roberts/The New York Times

On Monday, The New York Times published its first augmented reality feature. The article, written by John Branch, includes four AR moments and is a preview of the Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea.

Readers are able to meet world-class Olympic competitors — the figure skater Nathan Chen, the big-air snowboarder Anna Gasser, the short-track speed skater J.R. Celski and the hockey goalie Alex Rigsby — midperformance. Through your phone, the room around you looks just as it is, except the athlete is in it with you.


View of big-air snowboarder Anna Gasser in AR. Credit Graham Roberts/The New York Times

Augmented reality allows us to bridge the digital and physical worlds; graphical elements can be superimposed on your immediate environment. The Olympics project — a major collaboration among the newsroom, design and product staffs that I led, as The Times’s director of immersive platforms — demonstrates one of AR’s richest benefits: deepening the explanatory value of visual journalism. Scale, for example, is incredibly difficult to represent on your phone screen. By conjuring athletes as if they were in the room, scale is conveyed by the context of your surroundings.

Another advantage is the mode of interaction we provide. Instead of the abstractions of pinch-to-zoom or swipe or click, we simply ask readers to treat the graphic as a physical object. If you want to see the form from another angle, you simply walk around to that area. If you want to see something up close, simply lean in to that spot. News becomes something you can see, literally, from all sides.


Graphics and multimedia editor Karthik Patanjali testing interactivity in AR. Credit Graham Roberts/The New York Times

Bringing the four Olympians into augmented reality required finding a technique to capture them not just photographically, but also three-dimensionally, creating a photo-real scan that can then be viewed from any angle.


Karthik Patanjali scanning short-track speed skater J.R. Celski. Credit Timothy Chaffee/The New York Times

We asked each athlete to demonstrate his or her form at specific moments. Nathan Chen held a pose showing exactly how he positions his arms tightly to his body during his quads to allow his incredible speed of rotation. Alex Rigsby showed us how she arranges her pads to best guard the net from a puck traveling at 70 miles per hour.

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