A video creator’s perspective
The world of video content and media is going through some rapid and massive changes more so than at any other point in time. Over the course of the last year, I have been working to explore some of these revolutionary changes through a project called New Reality Network. Throughout the course of the year our aim was to look at traditional story telling mediums and production techniques and merge them with newer technology specifically 360-degree video and VR. In addition to those our aims, the secondary elements were to provide an educational resource that would aid industry professional’s students and more and encourage them to engage with newer forms of media technology.
As a video creator I’ve always been trying to keep up with the way things have changed in crafting videos. Over the years I’ve seen massive changes especially in more recent time with the rise of social media and the influence it has over todays production and distribution methods. Even when dealing with innovative technologies such as 360-degree video and VR, it plays a massive part in driving engagement and adds to immersive storytelling. We see the impact for ourselves daily as both consumers and content creators and it even influenced some of our creative decisions on New Reality Network. An immersive project that wouldn’t have been possible without the huge strides taken in developing video technology.
Social media and the way it is pushing boundaries of storytelling has really pushed the immersive agenda with VR and 360-degree video. Part of the reason why social media platforms and modern technologies are intrinsically connected is due to the fact that social media plays a key part in our daily connected lives, whether we choose to accept it or not.
A BBC report back in 2016 that included data from the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism highlighted that social media ‘outstrips TV’ as a news source for young people.
Even a year later the trend doesn’t seem to be slowing downing as most news organisations now have a presence on platforms such as SnapChat, Instagram and more.
The smartphone has played within creating a perfect storm of video creation and consumption growth. Since the launch of the original iPhone back in 2007, smartphones have become engrained in everyday life and culture. Each year sees a rush by manufactures to develop better, faster, cheaper and more accessible phones. It is a huge part of the perfect storm that has led to where video creation is today.
When you consider that by next year it is estimated that 2.53 billion smartphone users in the world, it is no surprise that most organisations are “mobile first”.
For a video creator and a journalist like me, these developments have had a massive impact in the way I construct content and develop it further. However, it is not that easy for even professionals to adapt new techniques and everything that comes with them: workflows, routines, and production values. My original experimentation began with a simple question “Can you build Virtual Reality on a mobile phone?”. The short answer is yes. Google maps has a small tool that allows you to use a smartphone camera to build a 360-degree photo the realisation of just how easy it is to create 360-degree video and VR led me to question why the format isn’t more widely used. It also led me to question what are the barrier and challenges that were stopping the format being more widely adopted by the mainstream media. My own experiences developing New Reality Network allowed me to gain first-hand knowledge of the challenges faced by creators. By sharing my experiences and technical solutions with others, I hope we can make the production process more accessible and easier for others.
Production made easy
Thanks to the development of apps, it is now more than ever easy to capture great footage on your smartphone camera and set about editing the video into visually striking content to be distributed. There are a range of apps such as Apple’s Clips, Quik, iMovie, WZBL and more that I tend to use daily for regular stories.
I can record an audio interview, export it into a video format using images and visual graphics, implement text to speech and by the end of it have a professional looking video in a matter of minutes using three apps. Some smart phone apps will actually composite video for you with the user only needs to contribute simple changes to text overlays and titles.
Ease of use, ease of accessibility and social media coming together has created a whole new challenge for video-based media to face in the coming years. In a normal situation like filming, it is important to consider the audience you are directing your content at much like you would in standard online journalism craft.
However, there is an argument to suggest these rules don’t really apply any more longer. What I mean by that is these days it is more about creating content that goes viral it more important that directing video stories at audiences. The rise of user generated content makes it much harder to clearly direct your audience to your content. Quite often it is this form of content that tends to go viral and receive staggering viewing numbers, more than some of the most watched TV network programmes.
It also makes it hard to create new communities and audiences for your content, whether you are a freelance journalist trying to tell a more visualised story or a big mainstream corporation such as the BBC.
This isn’t a negative thing given the variety, diversity and range of video content that is now being produced and accessible to all. From a consumer point of view, the opening of a once specialised industry through online platforms and mobile technologies has allowed for a flourishing sea of new ideas and content. Through this, society is able to have more open discussions, increased creativity, and bigger drives for social change and more.
It has led to the rise and fall of a new generation of stars, a greater interest in global affairs and also had an impact on their daily lives in other ways such as politics.
However, as it stands at the moment, media producers, news organisations and journalists are currently in a Mexican standoff against each other about moving across existing production values and skill into new generations. Meanwhile they are having to compete with the random aspects of viral videos and a wave of YouTube stars, vloggers and streamers.
So far, there is no solution on resolving some of the issues raised and while we could discuss them around video it is important to consider that while we do so, the next generation and leap in technology is already here: 360-degree video and virtual reality (VR). 360-degree video and VR set to make a massive impact in the way we create content in the future.
New Reality Network
As part of my final year undergraduate degree, my aim was to create a tangible media project that would add something new to the field of media studies. At the time I was experimenting with 360-degree video and VR and found it extremely difficult to gather information on producing that format of content. It led to me thinking about legacy and what I wanted to achieve with the outcomes.
Ultimately, we wanted to provide a resource that was accessible and understandable to both professional practicing journalists and amateur/student journalists. The aim was to make the production techniques simple to understand and follow along with providing proof of concepts that would encourage experimentation. I also wanted to ensure that I utilised production techniques from existing practices and merge them with new techniques, so the transitions would feel familiar.
The best way to do this was to do this through the medium of 360-degre / VR video. The team I and I set about trying to understand the complexities of cameras, software, distribution and more. We figured that if we knew the complexities of working in the field, we could break it down and simplify it for others.
It involved in several things going wrong especially on the software side of things and when broadcasting live. By documenting this as we continued toward the aim of achieving our outcomes, observers could learn from us as we were learning for ourselves which added an extra element of engagement.
Documenting the process highlighted a lot of the challenges that people might face working with the format. More importantly it showed some of the creative solutions we used for overcoming those challenges. I’m not going to lie but we were lucky in our timing because of technological developments. More companies began releasing cameras, social media platforms began supporting the format. We also were fortunate that high end consumer VR headsets began releasing to consumers ensuring that we had and audience both professionally and from consumers.
New Reality Network really an experiment succeeded in merging old and innovative technologies to help ease the transition for many into the newer formats. It showed that both have a part to play within the industry. We could achieve our outcomes and that while it can be trying at times, the rewards speak for themselves. That proof of concept was extremely important for all involved. It does raise questions about where we take the project next.
360-degree video and VR
As it is now, we are still venturing into the unknown. I remember one of the earliest discussions I had with someone in the field when I first came up with the idea for New Reality Network they described the field as “Wild West” of creativity. Nearly two years later, the same still applies but progress into integration is getting better.
However, it comes with some issues still to be resolved. From a media perspective we refer to 360-degree video as VR although, the two things are completely different. Generally, in virtual reality you can interact with the world or alternatively customise it and generally interact with it. In 360-degree video you tend to be immersed in the world (real or fake) but are not interacting, simply observing.
Neither has been truly defined because it depends on how the user is accessing the experience. If a user is experiencing 360-degree video on their smartphone and touch screen does the act of moving the phone or touching the screen class as interactive?
These were issues we dealt with at the beginning of creating New Reality Network, a resource that would act as a training tool for others but also provide working proof of concepts. As a new video format, we are still struggling to define what 360-degree video and VR are and thus makes it an interesting field of discussion to participate within.
It is extremely difficult because the format is still relatively new and there are no universal production workflows or development tools. It was one of the first hurdles that I ran into at the beginning of the project. How do we actually make the content?
Sadly, there was no definitive answer and it was trial and error to find things that would work on a basic level as so to be watchable. Through trial and error I was able to develop a better understanding of why we should be working with the format and what possibilities were achievable.
I invested a lot of time in experimentation, but it wasn’t the experimentation that led to overcoming some of the challenges faced in developing production techniques and merging with existing production processes.
The key was developing our perspectives to create the content. Observing a flat 2D image on screen and reimaging it as a 3D sphere with space takes a while to understand as a creator.
We documented a lot of the processes using 360-degree video and while not perfect given the technology for the time, we were able to create some interesting proof of concepts. This included a short news broadcast styled programme:
A video-based podcast:
And finally, a livestream event directly from the show floor of an event:
For myself and the team, it was vitally important that we were able to showcase proofs of concepts running and working especially if part of our aim was to encourage other to experiment. Well-crafted tutorials are one thing, but we wanted to show that the various aspects of traditional media could be done in a new format, all be it will a few flaws.
Solving the technical issues associated with the 360-degree video and implementing is just the first part of a much bigger puzzle. As it stands the next challenge is to figure out how and when we use the format. There are ongoing arguments with industry around the immersive format. One in particular whether the content requires a narrative or if the stories created in 360-degree video should be solely directed by the viewer? CNN VR and the Guardian have been experimenting with the use of narrative in VR.
CNN VR have committed to publishing regular weekly content and the focus of their stories narratives are similar to those you would find in written in online features. A prime example would be that of a recent video that puts the viewer into the heart of the New York marathon a week after a recent terror attack took place. The aim being to really capture the raw atmosphere while narrating the story.
The Guardian’s experiment into the field share similar techniques but really tries to push the boundaries of immersive viewing. 6×9: a virtual experience of solitary confinement is designed to capture and convey the essence of claustrophobia and loneliness that one would expect being placed in those circumstances. The audio plays a much bigger part here in driving the narrative forward and making the viewer uncomfortable within a very real setting. The aim being that the narrative of the story is being delivered while still allowing the viewer to have full control as the story pushed forward. The viewer potentially has no idea that while they might feel in control, the narrative is designed to make them feel like they don’t have control. Thus, this feeds into the creation of the atmosphere and the feeling that the viewer develops.
As good both sets of content are, there is still no definitive right or wrong answer as to whether either of these methods used should be the standard practice in creation, whether there are better methods or if a standard practice is possible at all?
There is also a case for whether we as creators should be providing a narrative in an immersive format and does that take away the control from the viewer that makes the format so attractive to many?
There is also an element of ethical concerns that need to be address given the immersive nature and the potential to have impact on a viewer’s psychological wellbeing. All of this continues to be of interest to academics and creators and thus requires more research. For those in the field of video journalism this will present some interesting challenges both technically and ethically.
New ethical standards?
Given the change to a predominately video-based media industry and the impact of 360-degree video and VR, you would consider that the future is already here. We are still trying to navigate this as professionals, but that navigation is potentially going to become harder.
One development though that proves immediately worrying is the development of Adobe’s #ProjectCloak[ii]. Project cloak is an editing tool that allows the removal of objects, people and more in real time video. It is currently in testing as an experiment, but it raises some questions ethically that we need to consider. When editing video, it is one thing to craft a story narrative through cuts and edits but another to remove raw elements of filmed footage altogether.
An example would be imaging filming a movie with an actor. Upon reflection of the actor’s performance or another more suitable actor became available; the actor could be removed from the entire film without indication that the footage was edited. That actor could then film the scene on a green screen and placed into the movie and the whole thing would look completely natural. I’m aware that this is something not unfamiliar to Hollywood but consider that when reshoots are done, it requires re-rendering of CGI or reshoots on set. Project Cloak would potential remove those processes in the future.
For the perfectionist that wants to remove imperfections from a film shot it is a dream tool. We will need to consider as an industry going forward as to whether we should be doing so? In 360-degree video, modern cinema and social media, videos are raw, imperfect but also distinguishable.
This tool would allow creators to distort the real world as captured without ever being clear that something was removed and that presents all kinds of potential ethical issues and problems for good practice. It is worth pointing out that this is currently something that is in an experimental phase and there are no immediate plans to roll this out to the professional industries or public at the moment.
The future ahead
Video is truly going through some major revolutions now and there is plenty to get excited about as consumers, creators and organisations.
However, we must be careful about how we use the medium as we are venturing beyond simply telling stories. We are moving into territories that get us closer to viewers and could potential distort the very content they see before their eyes.
As we work towards making video the norm, we are already seeing Augmented Reality and Mixed Reality being slowly introduced to the mix. Augmented Reality allows us to put virtual 3D object within the world in real time rendering, think Pokémon Go as a prime mainstream example of this technology. If you are interested in experimenting with AR, I would recommend downloading Placer Cam AR app. It’s basic but that makes it more accessible and fun to play around without requiring vast amounts of knowledge to understand its inner workings.
Mixed reality however is still very much an emerging field and we are many years away from the mainstream begins to experiment further within this field. Mixed Reality is essentially a combination of both VR and AR working together simultaneously. Think of it as the real world being a green screen canvas where you can add virtual objects, interact with them but also manipulate what you perceive as the real world. It’s a very complicated system and as a result there are not too many examples of the technology working outside of prototype stages such as Microsoft Holo-Lens and Google Glass. As the technology develops so will the definition and perhaps it will become clear. For now, it’s not something we as creators must worry about too much yet due to the infancy of VR and AR.
Both future technologies are still a number of years away from being turned into mainstream production techniques and mainstream media. Although we will hopefully have the advantage of having frameworks laid down by the transition of moving mainly to video creation and VR becoming more engrained in mainstream media consumption.
The newest developments in video highlight how powerful a tool video really is, and we should be careful about how we use the new power afforded to us by recent technologies especially as we move to more automation including artificial intelligence, perceived realities and more.