Ten years: that’s the life expectancy New York Times´ CEO Mark Thompson gave the print version of his newspaper, in a February 2018 interview. It’s a point other publications have arrived at already, either turning to digital-only editions or shuttering altogether in the face of economic headwinds. But some print publishers see a helping hand arising from an unlikely source: Augmented Reality (AR.) Unlike Virtual Reality (VR), which plucks the reader out of their environment and takes them elsewhere courtesy of a headset, AR is designed to enhance the environment in which the reader finds herself by overlaying digital information onto the real world, via a phone screen or AR-enabled headsets.

The 2016 Pokémon Go craze—the AR-centric game that was downloaded over 750 billion times around the world in its first year and sent legions of players outdoors to search for Bulbasaurs and Charizards—probably did as much to boost mainstream AR familiarity as anything else. Snapchat was another early AR adopter, rolling out AR lenses in their app that allow users to put avatars and Bitmojis into real-life settings, first targeting marketers and now available to anyone.

“You have to give huge credit to Pokémon Go and Snapchat for bringing AR to the masses,” says James Andrew Felts, co-founder of Moviebill, an AR-enabled print publication that will be handed out free to ticket buyers at Regal Entertainment Group theaters starting in spring 2018. “Consumers don’t even call it AR; on Snapchat they think of it as ‘face filters’ and with Pokémon Go, it’s just the game itself.”

The numbers and projections bear witness to the pace of AR’s rapid move mainstream. IDC’s 2017 Worldwide Semiannual Augmented and Virtual Reality Spending Guide forecast worldwide revenues for the combined AR/VR market to reach $14 billion that year, then skyrocket to $143 billion by 2020. The sudden boost to AR appeal has publishers thinking about how they can leverage consumer interest to increase engagement with their legacy print publications.

The New Yorker boarded the AR train in 2016 with the release of an AR-enhanced “Innovation” issue that allowed readers to use a free smartphone app pointed at artist Christopher Niemann’s “On the Go” cover to delve into an animated cityscape. Time magazine’s first issue of 2018, which was guest edited by Bill Gates, took it a step further with an animated cover, immersive infographics, behind-the-scenes videos, and animations created by RYOT Lab.

In 2018, those early one-off experiments are giving way to a more integrated, durable AR approach. “AR is no longer a gimmick, but more a strategic tool,” says Mikela Eskenazi, chief commercial officer of Blippar, a UK-based technology company specializing in augmented reality. “We saw a lot of publishers doing ad hoc experiments in the past twelve months, but the demand we see for next year indicates it’s an essential part of growth strategy.”

According to Eskenazi, the drivers that make AR a perfect partner to print include AR tools that have become easier to use and cheaper to deploy, and a customer base whose smartphones are never far. “User behavior has changed with smartphones, and the camera has become a primary feature,” she says. “People read a magazine, use their phone to scan an image, and can buy it immediately.”  AR simply adds a level of engagement and interactivity to behavior that’s already taking place.

That’s the idea, anyway – offering an AR element to an existing user experience in a way that makes sense for that user. “It has to begin with who the audience is, and what their level of attention is,” says Felts. “AR is a tool, like words on a page are a tool.” In Moviebill’s case, with each issue focusing on a single film, readers will be able to view floating videos of cast interviews or character animations; for a B2B publication, perhaps the goal is to allow readers to scan a picture of a piece of machinery on the page and then interact with a 3-D rendering of that machinery.

Despite consumer’s general warming to AR, there are still a couple of obstacles to making it a regular part of the print reading experience. The first challenge is getting them to download an app with which to view it. “If you already have your own app that serves a strategic need, you could enhance it with AR capability,” says Eskenazi. “But if the only point of the app is to have an AR scanner, don’t bother.”

Eskenazi believes there is a case for publishers with a common user base to come together and offer an AR viewer that all could leverage. Another approach would be what Moviebill is doing; its AR app is a module embedded in the Regal Cinema app, something that hardcore movie fans who would appreciate an AR experience built around their favorite movies likely already have installed on their phones.

The second challenge to broader adoption in the print publishing world is the imperative to create an ongoing stream of content, so that AR becomes a fundamental part of the subscribers’ reading experience. “Every single page of Moviebill will include AR features, including the Table of Contents,” says Matthew Shreder, co-founder of Moviebill. He’s a strong proponent of templatizing the AR experience so that it is easier to replicate across pages and issues as time passes.

If publishers can find a way to engage and enchant their readers, it could be that AR comes not to conquer, but to save, print. Blippar’s customer studies have found that issue “dwell time” – i.e. the undivided attention a reader spends with an AR-enhanced print magazine – far outpaces that of a regular print magazine.

“In the next few years, there will be an incredible shift in the way people interact with information to use more visual search and AR augmented search,” says Eskenazi, who points to plans from Apple and Facebook to lean more heavily on AR. “Publishers need to start experimenting now and considering ‘what does this mean to me?’ Because the early adopters will win.”