Dec 27, 2015

VR Journalism: Canaries in the Mine

My bank teller thought I was a little nuts when I asked him to pose for a
StoryUP Team with our 1st Paycheck
picture holding up our first paycheck. The little piece of paper with three zeros behind it didn’t just represent money but validation that immersive video does indeed have value... but not just in dollars. To us, the “I” in ROI stands for impact. In our case, most people don’t yet know virtual reality’s social or economic impact.

What is VR? 
Virtual Reality or VR for short has a variety of forms. We specialize in storytelling for 360 degree video. Our company, StoryUP, is the first immersive video company in the state of Missouri. Based out of the MO Innovation Center, we are the “canaries in the mine”. In more than 4 months of operation, we haven’t died yet! In fact, we see a lot of light at the end of the tunnel.

truman taxi.jpg
360 Camera on Truman's Taxi
StoryUP creates immersive video stories. These 360-degree experiences with metadata envelop the viewer and trick our brains into thinking the experience is happening all around us. You used to have to travel to an amusement park or an Omni-max theater to view Virtual Reality in a dome or cave. Now with new goggles, a VR renaissance is underway. Even without goggles, our spherical stories can be viewed in the web browser on Youtube, Vrideo or Littlestar but the videos are best experienced inside viewers like Google Cardboard, Zeiss VR One or Samsung Gear VR. Even View-Master has a VR viewer that works with your phone. Most of them work with newer model smartphones. Download an app (find ours here), deploy the video, place it in a viewer and you’re instantly transported to another place. Without a viewer, you can turn your body or drag your finger across your mobile screen to view the video in 360 degrees. In the web browser like Google Chrome, you can use your mouse to turn the video. Because of immersive video’s unique ability to create empathy, the medium is tailor made for storytelling. At StoryUP, we believe story is a verb that can lift the world.
A Zambian woman crawls to an all-terrain wheelchair
Social Enterprise
StoryUP is a social enterprise that allows people to step inside the story to better understand. We not only create the experiences but with our partners, we share those experiences with people who are not able to physically travel. Immersive video is like a teleportation device and an empathy machine. Not everyone can travel to Africa to see the thousands of people who have to crawl on the ground because they lack access to all terrain wheelchairs. But with VR, we can take you to Zambia and let you experience what it might be like if you had to crawl on the ground. If donors better understand the problem (lack of mobility), they might be better able to contribute to the solution (PET Gift of Mobility). In addition to Journalism, we also create immersive video features for brands, hospitals, real estate companies, museums, spas, concert venues, schools, charities and aircraft companies. Immersive video stories are our niche. Our business model is set up much like a TV station where you have an advertising/sales department and a news department except on a much smaller scale. Our branded VR content finances our VR Journalism. What benefit is 360 degree video to brands? Immersive video increases time spent watching by 5 times, viewing frequency by 6 times and the likelihood of sharing seven and a half times. Those metrics are valuable to marketers. It's not uncommon during demos for people to ask us if they can watch the video again because they're worried they missed something.

Dale Garrett.JPG
Veteran using Google Cardboard to see
his WWII memorial
Teleporting Veterans
Our path to immersive video started in 2015 when I was working at Veterans United. We were searching for a solution that would allow some of our terminally ill Veterans to experience the magic of an Honor Flight even if they weren’t able to physically travel to Washington, DC. Our live video tours would sometimes succumb to poor bandwidth. We needed better technology. At the recommendation of a friend, I tried Google Cardboard with my mobile phone in my parked car. I literally had to hold onto the door handle because I felt like a train in the video was coming right at me! It was then I realized VR is a powerful tool that could transport people to places they couldn't visit in person. We got a quote from a production company on what it would cost to create an immersive tour of the WWII memorial. Half a million dollars! If I couldn't afford to finance a VR experience then by golly I was just going to have to create one myself. I went to gaming conventions in search of someone who could teach me how to create VR and introduce me to potential partners. At one session during the audience Q and A, I asked the panel if anyone in the room would help us use the gaming technology for Veterans who can't travel to the WWII memorial.
StoryUP's Camera in Flight
Gamers may be hard core in the pursuit of their professions but they are compassionate at their core. I met some very thoughtful gamers that day, had a stack of business cards and valuable contacts as I left the convention center.  

Our first experience, Honor Everywhere, was released in November of 2015 with Jaunt VR, Google, Ghost Machine VR and VU Foundation. Since that time, we’ve created experiences for Zenith Aircraft company, Kilgore’s Medical Pharmacy, Pate-Jones and Welcome Home, Inc.  In 2016, we will release stories for the American Heart Association as well as our documentary in Zambia, “Gift of Mobility”.

MO Innovation
Each year, the Missouri Innovation Center gives dozens of us 'canaries' wings. Whether it's providing office space or bandwidth...through MIC’s facilities, connections, influence, expertise, the new Venture Mentoring Service and Digital Venture Center, even olderpreneurs like myself are learning to fly.  

Keep up with StoryUP.

Oct 17, 2015

Zambia: the Empathy of VR Journalism

Women Crawl to PET carts which are all-terrain wheelchairs
According to the World Health Organization, up to 66 million people lack access to wheelchairs. Few people know these individuals exist. For the last 20 years, I've tried to use words and imagery to help you better understand someone's struggle. Now, technology is enabling a new kind of empathy that will allow you to step inside the story with us as if you were part of our video crew. It's called virtual reality or spherical video. Next week, Story Up Studios along with a six-person crew from the US and Canada will travel to Zambia to capture stories about individuals who have to crawl on the ground because they lack mobility devices. Our hope is this new perspective will help you will better understand their struggle, so you can help story up the solutions.

What is VR? 
Boys and Girls Club Experiences Virtual Reality for the first time
The definition varies depending on whom you ask but to me, virtual reality means 360-degree 3D or 2D video, computer generated graphics or a blend of the two mediums. VR is not new. The concept has been around since the 50's but new virtual reality headsets out on the market are fueling a VR Renaissance and a new kind of VR Journalism. These new screens look like ski goggles and essentially provide an Omnimax theater for your face. Instead of viewing flat video, you now have the ability to feel like you're inside the video. (In the future with WebVR, we'll also be able to use these devices to step inside websites). Many of these viewing devices like Google Cardboard, Zeiss VR One and Samsung Gear VR work with your mobile device. Deploy the app, turn the phone on its side, insert it into the headset, the video splits stereoscopically and all of a sudden, you're in another Zambia.

6 Camera Rig Suspended from DJI Inspire Drone
Story Up has spent the last few months shooting and telling stories with spherical video. The storytelling medium is at the beginning of the beginning. Shooting immersive content with the current camera technology required us to overcome a unique set of challenges including video stitching. To get ultra HD quality video, multiple camera rigs and special stitching software are required to stitch together at least 6 different video streams. Shooting aerial 360 video is even trickier. For our Zambia shoot, Story Up collaborated with Immersive Media, Google News LabStory Labs, Influence and Co. and Mizzou's Drone Journalism program. MU's College of Engineering designed a custom gimbal mount for the DJI Inspire that will travel with us to Africa to eliminate vibrations in our video which would make stitching difficult. The RJI aircraft, decked out in Tiger stripes, will provide aerial views of Zambia so the viewer will be better able to understand the rugged terrain on which these individuals who lack mobility have to travel. A drone can also provide steady, smooth movement which is essential in immersive video as improper movement can create parallax issues that could make the viewer nauseous when viewing the story in a headset. think we used to worry about jump cuts and crossing our axis!

To truly understand the mobility problem in some undeveloped countries, you need to see the rugged terrain in 360 degrees. Steep hills, tall grass and sharp rocks do not allow people with disabilities to navigate in a regular wheelchair. There are few sidewalks or curb cuts. People use homemade skateboards, rely on others to push them in wheelbarrows and sadly in many situations, they crawl.

A portion of the story will be told from the perspective of someone who is living on the ground. Spherical video creates a unique sense of empathy. The hope is that if more people understand the problem, more people will contribute to solutions. One of the potential solutions is a PET. PET stands for Personal Energy Transportation. The non-profit started in the early 90's after a missionary almost stepped on a woman who was crawling through the Congo. She was carrying a baby on her back and had no other way to get through the bush. Upon hearing that story, Mel West started making the hand cranked mobility devices called PETs in his one-car garage in Columbia, MO. The PET project is now worldwide. It's given away more than 50, 000 all-terrain wheelchairs in more than 100 countries to victims of landmines, war, crocodile bites, agent orange and more.

You have the power to raise awareness on your own social media platforms. Let's #storyupzambia. Take the time later this year to watch the stories online and imagine what it might be like if you had to live in the dirt. These people deserve to be heard. Together, we can give them a voice.

Aug 30, 2015

VRLA 2015 Recap: Put a Dent in the Universe

A woman experiencing Mind Ride at VRLA.
Video storytellers need to be playing more video games. At VRLA in Los Angeles this weekend, more than two thousand gamers, developers, entrepreneurs and storytellers packed in the LA Convention Center for some 360-degree brain food. The combination of gaming + storytelling+ architecture+ theatre + choreography was a key theme in many of the sessions as new head-mounted screens, inputs, haptics and hand controllers will place more and more viewers inside the story.
  • Room Scale VR. As I experienced the HTV Vive headset for the first time, it struck me how close we are to being able to walk around live or recorded video inside our stories.
    Otherworld Nimbus Knights on the Vive
     The Vive enables "room scale VR" where you can walk around the room and interact with a 3D environment.  I found the Vive display and interactivity even more compelling than my Oculus DK2. Other World VR created a game called "Nimbus Knights". With a wand that also turned into a log when you needed it, the game allowed you to move from plateau to plateau moving troops to different battles. 
  • The Odyssey. Got my first look at Google Jump's 3D. Impressive depth. The GoPro rig with 16 genlocked cameras shoots cylindrical video where the top and bottom of the video are blended in post production with the surrounding scenery. Some content creators were skeptical initially with how the nadir and zenith would mesh but once I saw the video, I understood. The 3D is very compelling even in Cardboard. Jump is said to capture the equivalent of five, 4K TVs playing all at once. 
  • Two Bit Circus tethered Samsung Gear VRs together for a simultaneous viewing experience. 
Patrick Meegan of Jaunt
You Don't Operate Your CameraJaunt VR's Patrick Meegan gave an incredible Master class on the architecture of time in VR. "VR is like architecture," he told a standing room only crowd. "You don't  'operate' the camera," referring to the fact that the viewer is the camera operator with the ability to pan and tilt the screen just by turning their head. He also took a deep dive into positional audio. 3D is not just for video as in VR, audio also has depth. When you turn your head, the audio should turn as well just like in real life. Jaunt is using Tetra mics. For video, Meegan says Jaunt is using a variety of proprietary software but also Adobe Premiere, After Effects, Unity and Nuke. He got a huge laugh when he crouched underneath the tripod demonstrating the best place for the director to view the scene so they would be hidden. We needed two more hours for him to answer all of our questions.
Tell a Veteran:
  • Honor Everywhere. We're collaborating with Jaunt VR on a project that allows terminally ill and aging Veterans to see their memorials in Washington, DC through a VR experience. Honor Everywhere debuts later this year and is looking for VR volunteers willing to take the experience to their local Veterans home.  Tell a Veteran. Some of the people we interviewed for the story have sadly already passed away
  • Crazy sick camera from Reliant Images. If you have a million dollars, it can be yours. 
    36 Camera rig from Reliant Images
  • XRez is doing some compelling CG VR experiences. I flew on the plane that the Wright Brothers built and traveled through other historical experiences. 
  • VRSE was showing "Catatonic", a horror movie where you are seated in a vibrating wheelchair and taken through an infirmary with zombies. It was well done from a production and storytelling standpoint, but I viewed it through a different filter. I've visited real infirmaries in undeveloped countries. Seeing people writhe in pain even though I knew it wasn't real was hard for me to stomach. Great production values, though. I just had a hang up about the content of the story. It made me sad more than scared. Perhaps that was the intent? 
    Catatonic Demo with Haptic Wheelchairs
  • Koncept VR is creating some great high res monoscopic (2D, 360) video and innovating in camera techniques. 
  • IM 360 live streamed the VMAs in VR. Bravo. 
  • Loved meeting other 360 video creators in our meetup Friday night. Best takeaway tip of the night was from Ryan Whitehead: use compressed air just below the GoPro lens to cool down hot Hero 4's. 

Cosmo Scharf, founder of VRLA said it best in his opening statements when he told the VR enthusiasts in the room. "Go put a dent in the Universe."
VR 360 Professionals Meetup at VRLA 2015

Jul 20, 2015

What is VR Journalism? Storytelling Inside Spherical Video

VR (Virtual Reality) Journalism is storytelling on a screen that never ends.  To me, it's marrying words with pictures in a unique way that places viewers inside a 360-degree video. In this interview, I explain some of the new screens like Google Cardboard, Samsung Gear VR and The Rift where people can view VR Storytelling. If you'd like more information on creating 360 content, please subscribe to my newsletter at this link. . For information on how we're using technology to "StoryUp" social causes, please visit my company StoryUp360 .  To understand how we're using Virtual Reality for terminally ill and aging Veterans, visit Honor Everywhere 360

Interview with +Kim Beasley for +Droidcon Greece  

The Inside of Google Cardboard Where Your Phone Rests

Jun 23, 2015

My New Gig in Virtual Reality

You're doing what? It may sound a little nuts to leave a job at a great company with great people to create content for a cardboard box. But in August 2015, I’ll follow my heart, hold my breath and jump into uncharted territory with Story-Up 360, my own digital storytelling startup that specializes in 360-degree, 3D content for social good causes. I’m leaving my full-time job at Veterans United to create Virtual Reality, a video/digital medium at the intersection of journalism and gaming.

Pitching 360 Storytelling to
KC's Digihacks
I was first introduced to Virtual Reality (360-degree, 3D video) by a device called Google Cardboard. I watched a short film called “Evolution of VRSE.” The three-minute immersive experience that came from this contraption that enveloped my smartphone  made me gasp, tear up and feel the hackles raise on the back of my neck. In that moment, I wasn’t just watching the video. I was feeling the video. I took my phone out of the box, shook my head and realized someone had just invented an empathy machine!

The story is no longer being told through a rectangle. It is a sphere where, like in a video game, the viewer has a first person shooter perspective.

VR (Virtual Reality) is kind of like a teleportation device. At Veterans United, we’d been using live video through Hangouts for years to take Veterans on virtual tours to see their memorials. So I
decided to test using VR to allow these terminally ill and aging Veterans to see their memorials with head mounted displays. VR’s level of immersion is far greater than any 2D video display. It is an entirely new kind of digital storytelling. Professional cameras that make VR are for the most part expensive, difficult to use and edit. In fact, you have to stitch the video into a sphere using special software. The payoff is you can transport a viewer inside a video or a website.

My first exploration into 360 storytelling will debut later this year in an endeavor with Google, Jaunt Studios, Ghost Machine VR, Veterans United Foundation and Central Missouri Honor Flight. Honor Everywhere 360 is a VR experience for terminally ill and aging Veterans not able to physically travel to Washington, DC to see their memorials. I want to do more.
Jaunt Camera that shoots in stereoscopic, 360 degrees.

For the last few months, I’ve become a student of VR attending conferences, listening to gaming podcasts and purchasing head mounted displays used to view the video. Consumer versions of the goggles that envelope your smartphone are already out. However, the father of VR, the Oculus Rift (now with hand controls) will be available for pre-order later this year. We are at the Lascaux Cave moment of a new kind of storytelling: the beginning of the beginning of the beginning.

Most are focused on how VR can be used for gaming. I want to use VR for journalism.

VR is not new. It’s been around for decades but what is new is the portable, affordable goggles to view the immersive video. To my mom, I describe them as “like a new personal 3D TV set for your face with a screen that never ends.”  It used to be you needed an Imax theater or a specially constructed cave to view virtual reality. It was the thing of theme parks. With the invention of a consumer headset by a young man named Palmer Luckey and 360 degree/3D camera arrays, VR video is becoming readily accessible to the average consumer. By 2018, it's projected to be a 4 Billion dollar business with consumers owning 24 million VR devices.

If you want to understand where this medium is headed, read this fiction book “Ready Player One”. The world is no longer flat and neither is the web. With WebVR, WebRTC, haptic gloves and goggles, people will be able to touch and move through websites and video to interact with businesses and people in a whole new way.

Since our technology is changing, our storytelling also has to adapt for this non-flat world. It’s almost as if journalists will have to shoot the world all over again in VR. For two decades, I’ve been trying to use words and fixed-frame video to take people to places where they could understand. Many times I wished viewers could truly see what we saw while covering stories. For instance, the person dragging their body through the mud because they had no mobility, the aftermath of the 2004 Tsunami on a Sri Lankan village, the 360-degree sound of applause as a room filled with people cheering the return of a Navy seaman from deployment. Now, technology is enabling a way for the public to step in the shoes of the storyteller and truly be their own eyes and ears. This is only possible if we accept the challenge to learn how to write, report, shoot and edit outside of the fixed rectangle. Christopher Columbus had it right when he theorized the world is not flat. It’s round!

I’m launching a storytelling startup called Story-Up 360 that will use storytelling and VR to help the world understand the challenges of real poverty, Veterans, lack of mobility, terminal conditions and anything else that hurts our hearts. I have no cash funding except for one angel investor. He’s instilled in me the utmost of confidence. In his best seller, he told me that I am fearlessly, and wonderfully made. He has great plans for Story-Up. In fact, he paid it all. (Philippians 4:3)

Once again, I’m taking my hands off the wheel and letting the wind take me. I may call on you, my friends, to use your influence to help it blow in our direction. We have a lot of work ahead of us. Few have experienced VR, even fewer have a headset and we have to shoot and edit the world all over again in stereoscopic 360. True faith and courage are like a kite – an opposing wind raises it higher.
Let’s story up!

The inside of a Samsung Gear VR