Virtual reality and the dawn of the Experience Age at the ABC

Interactive innovation was on show at Storyology as the ABC shared its first go at VR, a short documentary at a rodeo. Lucy Dean from Fairfax Media wrote up her takeaways for journalists from the genre experiment. This is one of a few pieces we’re republishing from Fairfax Media’s internal Learning Hub; yesterday was all about chatbots.

“Roads? Where we’re going, we don’t need roads.” 
— Doc Brown, Back to the Future

Audiences can’t travel through time — yet. But innovations in virtual reality do allow them to travel through space.

In December 2015 the ABC made its first foray into virtual reality storytelling with Warwick Gold — Australian Rodeo. Production of the five-minute experience was a joint effort between ABC’s Research and Development team, ABC Open staff and Australian virtual reality production company Pixelcase.

Amy Nelson is an experience designer with the ABC’s R+D team. She worked with Scott Gamble from ABC Open on Warwick Gold. At Storyology this year, they spoke about the challenges and future of virtual reality storytelling.

Here are some of their tips on VR storytelling:

Create scenes, not shots

“Virtual reality allows you to transport someone to somewhere completely different. It’s about being somewhere else and being present somewhere else,” Amy said. Working with 360 video gives audiences a “more embodied experience”.

“It’s not like creating a really fast-paced video which you might see in your Facebook feed. It’s more like you’re creating that space, that time to actually go exploring.”

To make 360 video, the crew had to set up the rig and then hide. That meant the director was not behind the camera — or in complete control.

Scott said scene length and camera location were important considerations. Scenes need to be at least 20–30 seconds long. “That’s so the viewers have time to orient themselves and to look around and to find things to engage with,” he said.

“It’s not like creating a really fast-paced video which you might see in your Facebook feed,” he said. “It’s more like you’re creating that space, that time to actually go exploring.”

Scenes need to have different visual points to explore within the 360-degree space and all talent and objects need to be at least 1.5-2 meters away from the camera. “We had six GoPro cameras recording this in 360 degrees. If the talent or objects are too close, it makes the stitching really difficult.”

And it was important to take motion sickness into account, Scott said. Virtual reality can cause or exacerbate motion sickness for some. Limiting camera movement reduces this problem and gives audiences room to breathe. Minimal camera movement also means less time stitching footage together in post-production.

Old storytelling rules still apply

The aim was, as always, to tell a good story, Scott said.

“You need a good character, sense of place — you want to be able to connect,” he said.

The ABC wanted to transport the viewer to a “very unique viewpoint, somewhere they’d never been before”.

Warwick Gold followed a single person and voice to keep the viewer grounded in the story. As in all storytelling, too much going on can be confusing for the viewer.

And hewing to traditional techniques, the audio narrative came first.

“There’s no voodoo magic to this,” says Scott. “The audio is the story.”

A powerful medium brings ethical questions

Last year, Clouds over Sidra, an 8-minute VR documentary that transported viewers to a Syrian refugee camp in the Jordanian desert screened at the Humanitarian Pledging Conference for Syria. The conference raised $3.8 billion, and one in six who watched the documentary donated, double the usual rate.

“What you have is a set of tools that we’ve never had in any other form of media,” Chris Milk, the director of Clouds over Sidra, told Fast Company. “Cinema allows us to feel compassion for people who are very different from us.”

That’s the power of this medium, Nelson said:

“You would use it when you want to transport someone to somewhere they couldn’t otherwise go or be, and help them have a deeper understanding of an event or a scenario or an issue — because they are literally there.”

But with a heightened experience come ethical questions — like how journalists should represent traumatic events in such an evocative medium.

Warwick Gold is lighter fare than war reporting. But the ABC is considering the ethical questions such reportage pose.

“We’ve thought about it a lot,” says Amy. “If you’re going to a disaster zone from an earthquake and you’re filming the aftermath, what if you don’t see everything? What if you’re not cognisant of what you’ve got in the shot, and then when someone puts the headset on they can see a dead body?”

“I absolutely think it’s a whole new round of editorial challenges for news people and journalists. With traditional TV you can just cut away or turn the camera away. With virtual reality, you can’t control where the audience is looking.”

Another question is the line between virtual reality journalism and advocacy. As David Cohn of Advance Publications, an innovation group, wrote for Medium: “It’s easy to imagine advocacy organizations could use virtual reality to increase empathy around a cause. And let’s be honest: every journalist wants to create empathy as well.”

“At the same time, I would posit journalists don’t want to implant false memories. Journalists don’t want to give their readers PTSD. Journalists don’t want to unfairly manipulate somebody’s low-level brain functions. If journalists do want to change real-world behaviour, we have to think carefully about why and how.”

Mixed reality is the next step

In the next three to five years, everything will be a screen, Nelson said. Anything will be an interface.

“You’ll be interacting with the world around you. It won’t just be limited to clicking and touching and tapping on screens.”

Augmented reality technology, like that used in Pokémon Go, will be combined with virtual reality, allowing audiences to move through and interact with the story. Amy also projects that as headsets become more refined and discreet, the level of immersion will become adjustable.

As virtual reality and mixed reality technologies develop, “It will become cheaper and easier to access and make,” Nelson said. “The stories that you experience with these platforms will become more personal and more contextually aware.”

“Even though so much has happened with this platform in the past two years, we’re still only at the beginning of it all.”

Lucy Dean (@thelucydean) is an intern at Fairfax Media’s internal Learning Hub.