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Behind the Scenes of Esquire's AR Issue

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Last year, Esquire magazine attempted to evolve magazines into the digital realm with its October 2008 75th Anniversary issue featuring "E-Ink," which got a ton of hype and just about as much criticism. Nevertheless, Editor-in-Chief David Granger this year continues to ambitiously test the waters of integrating print and digital in the magazine's Augmented Reality issue, on newsstands now. Granger brought in The Barbarian Group and Psyop to implement the publication's AR components, which take a multi-dimensional look at cover boy Robert Downey Jr., its Funny Joke from A Beautiful Woman feature, and a Jeremy Renner fashion spread.

Creativity checked in with The Barbarian Group's Benjamin Palmer and Psyop EP Justin Booth-Clibborn on bringing Esquire into the world of AR.

So Benjamin, how did you guys get hooked up with Esquire? What were they hoping to achieve with this particular project?
Benjamin Palmer: We met because I was in last December's Best & Brightest issue, and since then we've kept in touch. David Granger and I see each other fairly often for a drink and a chat. He had been thinking of embedding a USB memory stick in the cover of an issue, and wanted to know what I thought would be good content to put on that, and we started brainstorming. We ditched the hardware idea, and our big idea was that we weren't going to just have "extra" content that you might as well put on a website; we wanted to enhance the experience of reading a print magazine, digitally. So, AR was it.

Robert Downey, Jr. on AR
Robert Downey, Jr. on AR
Can you describe the various AR elements that you created? Did any of them pose any new sorts of technological challenges in terms of AR?
BP: We did a bunch of pieces. On the cover, it's pretty splashy with Robert Downey Jr. and the typography leaping off the page, as he explains the technology. We did a really great fashion spread where Jeremy Renner shows you a variety of different combinations of the outfits in different weather, a video of Gillian Jacobs telling you a joke (and a dirty joke after midnight!), and a few other pieces. I think the most difficult piece might have been the Lexus ad, where we simulate the face-recognition technology used in the new car being advertised. The cool thing about that one is that it's a feature in the new car that would be hard to explain in print, but when you demonstrate it, it makes total sense and is really cool. Overall though, the most challenging thing was that we were just in some new territory in terms of programming for realtime OpenGL, so sometimes we had little idea how long it might take or what problems we'd encounter with what we set out to do.



A new look at fashion.
A new look at fashion.

Obviously, AR is a huge trend that's turning into another box that marketers want to check off when it comes to their digital campaigns. Where does this particular project take it? You guys talk about brand utility a lot --is there any usefulness to the AR applications here?
BP: Yeah, it is a trend right now, and we thought a lot about that - most of the executions we've seen have felt more like a demo of the technology than anything, and we've tried to take it a bit farther. So we really tried to push this experiment farther into being useful beyond just a gimmick. And yes, I think particularly on the fashion spread and the Lexus ad there is some genuine utility. The fashion spread uses AR to do something you can't do in the magazine - show you interactive views of the outfit(s) and different clothing combinations in a way you couldn't do in print. The Lexus ad takes an interesting and complicated pair of technological features that would be difficult to explain with photos and text, and shows you advanced simulations of the technology. We did some splashy things, but also, I really think there's potential to have this be a regular feature in the magazine.

Esquire had gotten a lot of flack for its previous digitally-driven promotion using E-ink. Did that come into play at all when you were doing this project.
BP: Well, Granger likes to experiment! I think despite any negative press from that cover, it's at least a gang of people trying out something new, combining digital and print. I would imagine the publishing industry is going to end up being some sort of hybrid format we haven't yet settled on, so it's going to take a lot of intermediate steps to figure that out. I think in both cases it feels like progress, right?

Beautiful Woman tells an AR-enhanced joke.
Beautiful Woman tells an AR-enhanced joke.

So you guys collaborated with Psyop on this--how did they come into the picture? What did they bring to the table and were there any particular challenges when it came to collaborating?
BP: We brought in Psyop when we figured out our general plan to do an AR issue, and we realized that we needed someone like them to help us pull it off. As far as collaboration, we've got complimentary skill sets and they brought a lot beyond just animation, they directed some of the shoots and added a lot of creativity and hard work, the final product is a lot better for it.

What elements was Psyop involved in creating? What were the challenges in having to create for this medium versus traditional film/animation?
Justin Booth-Clibborn: We designed environments, animations and elements for the cover, with Robert Downey Jr doing a monologue, riffing on AR, and playfully reacting to the story headlines, for the fashion spread, involving clothes for different types of weather, and for the "joke of the day by a beautiful woman" which varied according to the time of the day. The challenge versus our usual process, was having to design to the limitations of the technology and what could be rendered small enough for the downloads.

What did you learn from this particular project? If you were to go back and do it all again, is there anything you would do differently?
BP: Well, we built this with C++ / OpenGL and it's sort of a raw programming language; there's not really a "Photoshop" for this sort of technology yet. We've been writing our own creative development software for C++ for about a year now, called Cinder, which we used for this project and put a lot more work into developing the app during the project. So for next time we do something like this, it will definitely be faster and more awesome because we've improved the toolset.

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