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




Jun 21, 2015

Virtual Reality Enables Aging Veterans to See their Memorials in 3D

I need your help with a new program that allows terminally ill and aging WWII veterans to experience their memorials as if they were actually there. If you have experience with Virtual Reality (VR) or know of a Veteran who can't physically travel, you could give an aging veteran a valuable gift. Please read on.
A World War II Veteran uses
Google Cardboard 

We are losing our World War II Veterans at a rate of 500 a day nationwide. Sadly, most of these 80 and 90-year-old men and women will never get the chance to see their memorial. But what if there were a way to magically transport them to the places they're not able to visit?  New Virtual Reality head mounted displays are enabling a 360 degree, 3D magic carpet to places not previously imagined.
Jaunt Studios Crew with its
 Stereoscopic, 360 degree
Camera in Washington, DC.

My Grandpa was a Staff Sgt during World War II. He died before he got the chance to see 
My Grandpa Russ who died
before he could see hid
World War II Memorial
his memorial in Washington, DC. While it's too late for him to see the World War II memorial, it's not too late for the thousands of Veterans in assisted living centers and Veterans homes who don't have the physical strength for air travel on an Honor Flight to the nation's capital. 

HonorEverywhere360.com is a portable, Virtual Reality experience that can be viewed from a Veteran's bedside or assisted-living center. Using camera and video production technology from Jaunt Studios and a viewing device called Google Cardboard, Veterans are able to experience their memorial as if they were actually there. Stereoscopic, 360 degree, 3D video allows the Veterans to look left, right, up and down.

Columbia, MO Veteran during 360 Interview
about his Honor Flight Experience.
Sadly, he passed just weeks after this photo.
We are looking for people willing to host viewings in their cities and tech Guardians willing to assist the Veterans with their VR "goggles". The VR experiences of Central Missouri Honor Flight are free thanks to production services from Jaunt Studios, equipment from Google and Veterans United Foundation and supportive services from Ghost MachineVR. If you know a Veteran not able to physically travel, please email honoreverywhere360@gmail.com or visit HonorEverywhere360.com

May 21, 2015

What the Heck is VR? : My Recap of SVVR 2015

Silicon Valley Virtual Reality 2015
If the number of business cards is a barometer as to the amount of brain food I consumed at SVVR this week in San Jose, I’m going to need to loosen the strap on my headset. Mind blowing! For those of you not familiar with Virtual Reality (VR), it is 360-degree, 3D video or CG environment. The medium is not new but VR has gained new momentum due to the advent of head-mounted displays that allow you to view VR on your mobile device.  No Imax theater, flight simulator or powerful gaming PC needed. VR is now portable. The story is no longer in a frame, it's all around us.

My takeaways from SVVR 2015:

  • Mobile VR devices are forecast to ship at a rate of 28 Million by 2020
  • Because of this adoption rate, Storytellers are going to have to learn to write for 360-degree, spherical video. See video to right for an admittedly crude demo from my hotel room. 
  • The advertising paradigm will also have to change for immersive environments.
  • Ears don’t blink. Audio is just as important as video for presence in VR. 
  • Presence and story are intertwined. Losing presence is like a cell phone going off during a movie. You want to use story and good production values to keep the viewer in the moment. 
  • Challenges for Storytellers include how do you infer where the audience should look?
    Cliff Plumer of Jaunt Studios
    & Aaron Koblin of VRSE
     How do you not get the crew in the shot?  
  • What is the grammar of VR editing? Should you use hard edits? Cross fades? What about camera movement? Opinions were mixed except everyone agreed on limited, slow movement to reduce simulator sickness. Cliff Plumer of Jaunt Studios also said camera height should be consistent to maintain presence.   


Startups and Projects I found interesting at the SVVR Expo.
 
A Veteran on Hospice uses
Google Cardboard
  •  HonorEverywhere360.com is a project I'm leading which will come out later in 2015. It’s a VR experience to the World War II memorial for terminally ill and aging Veterans not able to physically travel. The collaboration is with JauntVR, Google, Veterans United Foundation, Honor Flight and Ghost Machine VR. I'm looking for VR volunteers willing to host viewings at their local nursing homes.
  •  Nod is a new “joystick” of sorts that looks like a ring and acts like a trigger finger.
  •  Emergent VR's "Mobius" project makes recording Spherical video on your smartphone and sharing it easy. Instagram of VR
    The Nod
  • Cameras that shoot stereoscopic 360, 3D video are expensive but you can find a consumer-grade camera that shoots monoscopic, spherical 360 video (without the 3D) for a few hundred dollars. I’ve tried both the VSN mobile camera and Ricoh Theta consumer versions. Prefer Theta as it doesn’t require an additional adapter to get the videos into your computer. But getting it to Youtube still takes an extra step of connecting it to your computer. 
  • WeVR had some incredible VR content that I saw on Google Cardboard. Some of the most psychedelic I’ve seen thus far. Lots of movement in those experiences and surprisingly, I never felt sick. 
  • AltVR is like social media in an interactive environment. You can talk to people behind a life-life avatar.  Think 3D Hangouts but in a full body virtual environment where
    goggletech.net
     you’re dressed like a storm trooper. The future implications of this, fascinating!
  • Cerevum is a new VR training platform. 
  • Lines were hours long to try the Crescent Bay consumer version of Oculus Rift that comes out later this year. I have an Oculus Dev2 kit and didn’t want to wait that long. Someone please tell me what did you think? 
  • Several companies had solutions for LiveVR where the 360 video is stitched automatically as it’s outputted. For my newsies, 360, 3D VR video isn’t quite there yet for a day turn story due to the time it takes for stitching. But if you weren’t under a tight deadline, stations could create companion pieces in VR.     
  • Lots of VR goggles at the expo. Google tech is a pair of reading glass that slides on your mobile device and fits in a small glasses case.
  • The Zeiss VR One head-mounted display has impressive optics. It’s mobile device agnostic and runs like Google cardboard.  Pop in your phone, load the app and play. 
  • Palmer Luckey, creator of the Oculus Rift, stood outside the conference hall and talked to VR enthusiasts for several hours after his session. Even demoed some apps. 
  • Watched a great session with Nonny De La Peña who is the “Godmother of VR”. She creates virtual, CG environments to tell stories. She gave hope to the creatives in the room who are hearing “this will never scale.” 
  • Face Shift matches the movement of your face to your avatar’s face.   
  • Burning Man VR camp… Make it happen! 

How are you using VR? I would love to hear about your projects.
See you at SVVR in 2016!

Burning Man VR Camp. Make it Happen



Apr 14, 2015

Cardboard Journalism: Creating Video Content for a Cardboard Box

I'm a relentless practical joker. When I ask my fellow content creators to watch a movie on my new "cardboard box", they think I'm up to something. In reality, this piece of cardboard is a compelling new "screen", one that can turn your mobile phone into a virtual reality portal where the audio and video surround the viewer. No kidding!
World War II Veteran Using Google Cardboard

With U_News, our interactive newscast that used live group video, I couldn't help but think the media business was reaching the limits of telepresence or what I call "Human Media", media of the senses that simulates living, breathing interactions. How could it get any more life-like than being able to read the news and see your audience's facial expressions in real time? Then along comes devices that easily play Stereoscopic 3D video in a compelling way. #humanmedia is now even more human. Head Mounted Displays (HMDs) and even boxes like Google Cardboard transport you to a place where in the words of Mogul Peter Gruber at #NAB2015, you are "a participant and not a passenger." Recently, I gave a World War II veteran his first VR experience and watched his reaction. It was as if he didn't just view the video, he felt it.

In the words of many in VR, we are at the Lascaux Cave stage of an entirely new form of Storytelling. Arthur Van Hoff, CEO of Jaunt VR, says our "brains are now virtual reality machines." According to Hoff, video rendering in VR is 20-1 like back in the film days. No longer do we have to rely on a frame to direct a viewer's attention, the story is all around us. To get an idea of the kind of 360 Storytelling VR requires, check out the editing software Cosmo Scharf and his crew at Visionary VR have cooked up. Makes my Avid Media Composer look like a Tinker Toy. What challenges are you facing telling VR stories?






Apr 3, 2015

Miss SXSW Interactive? My Recap Beyond the Keynotes

Flying cars, Un-Advertising, Selfie Drones and one very large Dog. Be sure to watch the canine tackle at the end of this Day 1 recap of SXSW Interactive.


Day 2 Recap of #SXSW2015: Meerkat and more. . .


Day 3 Recap of #SXSW2015: Emotion Arcades and more. . . 



The best part of #SXSW is the people who share your love of social, video and new. If I didn't get to #HIRL (Hangout In Real Life) with you, let's #HIP (Hangout in Person) next year!

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