I spent a significant part of my time at this year’s Online News Association conference in Denver talking about 360 video and trying to learn ways to elevate our use of the medium.
What I see now is that we have a cool new gadget that will only become a legitimate storytelling tool if we up our game — and fast.
There are only a handful of outlets (local or national) doing any real journalism with this platform. Many are simply focused on providing experiences with the video, like 360 views from batting practice at your favorite baseball park or inside hard-to-reach parts of national parks.
That experiential group is fine for now, but I do not believe it is a sustainable business model. If we want to create something that users will pay for or advertisers will sponsor, we must create something with additive value that emphasizes three areas of quality:
1. Technical quality
I’ve come to see that my company’s 360 app integration is one area where we are far ahead of any similar competitors. Quality of the video player, however, is significantly lower than the ideal that the national competitors use. I do not know if this is due to our playback tools or because we are using the consumer-grade all-in-one cameras instead of the expensive 4-6 GoPro rigs that national groups like the New York Times use.
NYTVR is doing impressive work (eg. Fight for Fallujah) and making it available through an app, but they are separating it into a separate app. That may work for a major national outlet, but for the local outlet I believe it is vital to avoid those separations and combine the new technology into existing apps.
2. Editorial quality
Everyone that I spoke to was trying to think of very complicated ways to tell these 360 video stories, or considering ways to embark on big international projects the spirit of what NYTVR is doing. Local publishers, Googlers and professors I met with were impressed by our simplification of the process. Our series of walking tours of local businesses impressed them with its simplicity, but I couldn’t help but notice that they did not watch the short clips all the way through.
If we can’t get a virtual reality professor to tune out the ONA conference for 90 seconds, how can we get an uninterested party to give us 90 seconds of attention from their work day? We need to up our storytelling game.
3. Audio quality
I was particularly inspired by the work of The Guardian, who created a virtual reality app called 6X9, which they demonstrated on the ONA midway. It is the virtual experience of being in solitary confinement, but it plays over an audio track that is not much different than a good-quality podcast or radio feature.
We can do that.
We can do good audio and keep the video simple, I realized. Maybe we can even take the audio from prior stories, and apply it to 360 versions of the video. And, if we do audio right, we could have that audio version as a product too.
There’s a long way to go before this platform really gets rolling with widespread journalistic work, but I was very pleased that the people I spoke with were impressed by our efforts so far in Boston. We are pushing the limits on the forefront of this platform in local news, and that is a good place to be.
Unfortunately, it also means that we have few compatriots with whom we can swap ideas. We’ll need to get our inspiration from critically breaking down the elements of the big, international producers and determining our next steps on our own.
Also of note: The professors I spoke with, USC’s Robert Hernandez and Syracuse’s Dan Pacheco, both are pushing beyond 360 video and emphasizing augmented reality or full virtual reality as the next steps for journalism. 6X9 is one example of that but it worked only because the visuals were so simple. The forthcoming technologies they let me try were amazingly cool (like the HTC Vive and Microsoft Hololens), but it was still too much of a distraction to let me enjoy and learn from any stories it could show.
But that will change rapidly.