It’s time to get serious about VR video

Written by: Steve Johnson, Founder, Boundless, and Journalism 360 Ambassador

Testing out one of the first 360 camera rigs in November 2015 at the University of Florida. (Photo by Steve Johnson)

It’s 2015 and I’ve just picked up my first GoPro-based 360 camera. It’s the Freedom360 F360 Explorer (a mouthful of a name) consisting of six GoPro Hero4 Black cameras in underwater cases mounted on a cube.

Naturally, you experiment and try your best to put the camera in a place that seems interesting. Being the marching band fan that I am, I decided to bring it to a college football game at the University of Florida.

It worked. The video was cool. It had a lot of mistakes that many of us experimenting in this new medium have made.

And it is time to move on…

Since the fall of 2015, I and my company, Boundless, have produced over 20 short 360 films, from air boating in the Everglades of Florida to an in-depth look into how we study climate change from inside glaciers in Iceland.

In December 2016, I wrote a short piece describing what I’d learned after a year producing 360 video. The article goes over mistakes that were made and recommends cameras for production. I encourage you to read it and let me know what you think.

But we have got to get past the camera technology and focus on how we are strategically using this medium to help our audiences understand a story better. Otherwise, journalism will miss the moving target of VR just as we have been off our game in recognizing and taking full advantage of the internet, mobile, apps and social.

Show your best stories

See a collection of Boundless’ 360 video work on Vimeo.

The time for experimentation is not over. We can still try new shooting techniques like drones and remote-controlled vehicles. But we should stop giving our audiences bad stories.

Just because we got the shot and it worked doesn’t mean we need to share an incomplete story with the world.

There is incredible pressure to publish 360 video. Advertising dollars are at stake, and being the first to do a story in a new medium is always a feather in your cap. I too have been chasing these small wins.

We must get out of the bubble of sharing our videos for the sake of the accomplishment of making 360 work. Our audiences don’t care that we produced something no one else has, or got the first 360 shot of a place or thing. Our audiences show us time and again that they want original, interesting stories that will let them experience a part of the world they were previously not familiar with.

Journalism is the profession that could lead the widespread adoption of VR with quality storytelling experiences.

Unfortunately, we’re just not there yet. We haven’t shown our best work. The stories we’ve been producing in 360 wouldn’t come close to passing the editorial standards we hold for articles, photos, radio packages and news video — partially because as an industry we haven’t set those standards.

This isn’t the case for every single 360 story published, but looking across the industry I think we have much room for improvement.

All of us can look back at what we produced in the last 12 months and make it better. We have better workflows and a much greater understanding of the medium. This post is not meant to criticize past work (trust me, I have enough examples of that myself!). Rather, it’s a call to action moving forward to make every story produced as realistic as possible.

VR video

The x24 and x6 cameras by Facebook can capture six degrees of freedom (6DoF). (Facebook)

360 video and upcoming technology like VR video (see Facebook’s Surround 360 x24 and x6 launch at F8) show that we have a lot to learn working in this medium. We’re beginning to get past the issues of stitching footage from multiple cameras to form the video sphere, but the challenges we face are only going to get more complex as we begin capturing six degrees of freedom (6DoF) and building longer stories with complex menu systems that allow our audiences to discover their own narratives.

We’ve mistakenly called 360 video “VR,” but it has been an important step in the adoption of a new storytelling platform. What we learn from planning, producing and distributing 360 video can translate to newer technologies like VR video.

These lessons help us know what types of scenes to capture to build a story based on a human experience. They help us know how high to mount the camera (about 6 feet above a surface) in a scene, where to place the camera (center to at least one focal point with contextual surroundings) and how to edit our immersive stories (as explainers, points of view or a little of both).

The context given in 360 video and how we have learned to use our surroundings to better share a story directly translate to VR video.

Where we place the camera to allow the audience to look around and then step forward and back is essential to building a realistic virtual experience.

“All reality is virtual”

So it’s time to stop messing around and to step up our game. 360 video is an essential tool for virtual environments, and VR video is the next step in this ever-changing evolution of content gathering. It’s time for us to take a serious look at the quality of the content we are sharing with our audiences and ask ourselves: Is this reality? Is what we’ve created and published a realistic story that will cause our audiences to let down their guard and experience journalism for the first time?

Fortunately, we have groups like Journalism 360 to share our not-so-perfect stories of experimentation. Let’s keep learning from each other. But when it comes to publishing our work, let’s save only our top work for the eyes of our audience.

Looking at a 10-year roadmap of Facebook’s plans for VR/AR and everything in between, it’s clear that only the best content will survive the litmus test of virtual reality. The best stories will thrive on these platforms and the mediocre ones will continue to artificially inflate their numbers with gimmicky techniques that will get a quick hit on impressions but not move the masses in understanding how VR storytelling can influence a generation of content consumers.

Steve Johnson is a photojournalist, professor and entrepreneur leading the charge in immersive storytelling across news organizations, nonprofits and universities.

His company, Boundless, works tirelessly innovating news gathering practices, rewriting university courses to include immersive storytelling and finding new ways for audiences to learn about the world around them.