Storytelling in the round – experiments in 360 video

ARgassi beach in Greece at sunrise

This post was originally published on Inspiring Learning, where I do most of my worky blogging.

It’s not often we get to do overseas work in this job, but last weekend I was at the international digital storytelling conference in Greece, running a workshop on digital storytelling using 360 video.

I’m going to hold my hands up at the start of this and admit that I’ve not been a fan of VR and AR technologies. There are some really strong use cases in education and entertainment but “mixed realities” are one of those things that are often touted as a “transformative technology”, able somehow to radically change the way we “do digital” if we’d only give it a chance. My inner sceptic feels uncomfortable with this.

But sometimes you get called out on your assumptions, which is what my colleague John Sumpter did in Leicester a few months ago and I realised I was trying to argue a position without even having properly engaged with the technology.

Hence why I was in Greece presenting the workshop having been through the process from start to finish. The aim was not to convert myself to the technology, nor to try to debunk it, rather to keep an open mind.

Why 360 video and storytelling?

I’ve been a digital storytelling practitioner for over 10 years now so it seemed the easiest way to explore a new technology, by combining something I knew well with something I didn’t.

I wanted to see whether 360 video was a good fit for the sort of personalised storytelling we do at Jisc as part of our workshops and consultancy. Usually we’d just be using still images and voiceover to create a simple video. This different medium would involve a different production process and maybe create a different sort of audience experience.

I’ve spent the last month with the help of John, Zac, Suhad Aljundi and Matt Ramirez creating some proofs of concept.

There’s probably scope for some “How To” posts in all this but for now I’ll stick with the big picture stuff.

The first one, Tides, was made using 360 images captured using Google Streetview on an iPhone.

Notes on viewing: If you watch this on a desktop browser you can scan round the scene by clicking and dragging the video. If you’re watching using a mobile device I’d recommend viewing them in the YouTube app which will let you scan round by pointing your phone in different directions. If you have a VR headset like Google Cardboard, that’ll probably give you a more intense and isolated experience with fewer distractions. Use headphones if you can.

This was edited in Adobe Premiere, complicated and expensive software that handles “monoscopic” VR like this reasonably smoothly. It also allowed me to try out some nifty tricks with overlays, graphics and sound design.

The second one, Bridges, was filmed using a Samsung Gear 360 video camera and edited on the software that comes bundled with the camera. It’s a lot simpler but more limited in what you can do. For example, you can’t record a narration straight onto the movie. I had to use Audacity to create the finished MP3 then time the transitions of the different scenes accordingly. Storyboarding was doubly important for this one.

I’m less happy with the second one, I think. One of my errors was filming at too low a resolution. I put them out on Twitter to get some feedback before the conference which I’ll come back to but if you have any thoughts on how effective they are please leave your thoughts in the comments section.

These are the main things I learned from doing it…

The technical stuff

Expect hiccups.

The whole experience felt like trying to do video editing 10 years ago. The technology isn’t particulalrly refined or standardised and not all types of software can handle all types of 360 media the same so be prepared for some frustration while you get up to speed.

Learn some new terminology.

In order for editing software and websites like Facebook and YouTube to recognise 360 media it needs to be tagged with the correct metadata. The main thing to know is how to change the “projection” to “equirectangular” or to flag up that the video is “spherical”. Also, your screen size ratio is 2:1, rather than 16:9.

Altering metadata

There are some simple tools for changing the metadata. I recommend eXifer for editing still images and the Spatial Media Metadata Injector (choose a better name, folks!) for video. Neither need a lot of technical skill to use and they mostly worked fine. Software like Adobe Premiere lets you alter the images after the fact but it does involve going deep into the settings.

The Samsung Gear 360 camera
The Samsung Gear 360 camera

Bump up the resolution.

When you’re using a 360 camera, you’ll want it on the highest resolution possible. 4k video is 3840 x 2160 pixels which sounds a lot and it is when you’re looking at traditional screen. With 360 video, however, the “screen” is actually a massive sphere with you at the centre. Even the highest quality video will start to look a bit blocky. But raising the resolution will lead to another issue…

Get a powerful editing computer.

Your file sizes will be pretty huge given the resolution of the images involved. A finished 3 minute video could be anywhere south of 2GB in size so when you consider all that raw footage you’ve collected, a single project could be 5-10 times that! Also it’s heavy on the processor and RAM. My laptop sounded like a hairdryer for most of the project to stop it overheating even though its spec is quite high.

Software is a bit of a compromise at the moment. You can either go for something that’s powerful and flexible but expensive or free but rudimentary. There isn’t really a middle ground yet and there won’t be until we see the likes of iMovie and WeVideo inhabiting this space. That’s the reason I think this sort of media will remain stubbornly outside the mainstream for the time being.

I followed this Adobe tutorial to get the hang of things.

The artistic stuff

This bit was actually more interesting and challenging.

It’s all about taking your time.

Rapid cutting between 360 scenes is horribly disorientating. You don’t have time to explore your environment before the scene changes. Normally, I’d feel nervous about holding a still image on screen for longer than 5 or 6 seconds but with 360 video, it worked better when the scenes lasted 30 seconds or more. This inevitably affects the writing too, requiring a more reflective, meditative mood.

How do you “frame” a shot when there is no “frame”?

You want to create images and video that are engaging and interesting whichever direction someone is looking but it’s also important to direct the viewer’s attention to particular things at certain times to help tell your story. I didn’t wholly succeed here but there’s a whole separate blog post in it! The main thing is to think in terms of location, rather than image. Honestly, it’s a geographer’s dream and a cinematographer’s nightmare!

Sound is important.

The mic in the Samsung camera isn’t that great, especially in windy conditions (See the Bridges story) but I found completely removing the “live” or diegetic sound made the experience too disconcerting. If a car goes past, your brain expects to hear it. For the Tides story, obviously there was no “live” sound” so I just used my iPhone’s audio recorder to record some in situ. I did cheat a little here in the edit. See if you can spot any inconsistencies in the Tides story soundtrack…

Filming in 360 is a pain in the butt.

Firstly finding somewhere discrete and secure to place your camera in public places to get a decent shot takes creativity and certain amount of chutzpah and then you have to find somewhere to hide from its all-seeing eye. Fun game: watch the Bridges story again and see if you can work out where I’m hiding in each scene! It’s like a pixellated “Where’s Wally?”! I ended up having to explain myself to passers-by quite a bit. Using Streetview to capture still images was easier in this regard as you can always be behind the camea as it builds its shot but it’s difficult to keep your shadow or tripod out of shot (see below).

A flattened out 360 image of a beach in the evening sun
“Stitched” 360 image from the Tides story

Impressions

My overall impression doing this was it was worth exploring and a lot of fun once I’d worked out what I was doing with the technology. I would say that I’m about 65% happy with the results. I think my main problem was taking the form and pace of storytelling I’m used to and trying to shoe-horn the 360 media into the process. I’ll need to do a lot more work to get the storytelling style and medium better aligned.

The viewing experience is really important. Of the people I asked via Twitter it seemed that those who had viewed it using the click-&-drag verison in the desktop browser had the worst experience. It’s too active and repetitive taking attention away from the story. The mobile app was much better either for whole screen viewing (iPad worked best) or through a VR headset.

The whole point of digital storytelling is that it should be open to anyone to create their own without being as much of a video nerd as I am. My eye was always on whether this was a process that gave good results at the end but without requiring a lot of complex jiggery-pokery. The Bridges story is probably the closest I came to finding that simple workflow. It’s rough at the edges production wise but was possible to do with no more pain and stress than using iMovie which bodes well. Facilitating the whole process from story writing, selecting and filming locations and editing would still need some hand-holding, though.

Lastly, this isn’t a one-size fits all solution. There will be some storytelling projcets that this will work well with and others where it’s an unnecessary complication. I found that capturing the media and writing the stories helped me get a much better understanding of the places I was in and how I related to them which might give an indication of what storytelling purposes will work well with 360.

Going back to the beginning

Reflecting on my mission I set out to complete, I don’t think I’m finished with this yet. There’s still lots of things I want to try like mixing video with still images in 360, using surround sound and so on.

VR and 360 video still isn’t rocking my world entirely but it seems much more achievable and useful now in this context at least.

Feedback from others

Let there be tech: what “creation myths” tell us about control

Lawrie’s been at it again! Following a conversation with Amber Thomas, he posted last night about classic tales and our relationship with ed tech referring to classics like “Stone Soup”, “The Emperor’s New Clothes” and so on and he asked for people to contribute ideas for other narrative types that characterise the ed tech landscape.

So, like a bad student who doesn’t read the question properly, I started thinking about Creation Myths. You know, go big or go home! More specifically, how the stories that are told of the genesis (small G) of technical innovations tell us about the values of the different parties involved.

I started out reflecting on how the creation narrative around MOOCs panned out with some focussing on the efforts of Sebastian Thrun, Andrew Ng and so on with the likes of Coursera and on the other hand looking to the deeper roots of the approach pioneered by Dave Cormier, George Siemens, Stephen Downes et al. It’s hinted at in this article from University Affairs.

Then I got thinking about Facebook. There was an advert recently that FB put out to try to salvage some of its reputation in the fall out from the Cambridge Analytica scandal. Here it is:

It’s an attempt ot reclaim that origin narrative. It’s the line that goes “when this place does what it was built for then we all get a little closer.” Is that really what it was built for? I mean, really? If you watch another version of that narrative, David Fincher’s Social Network movie, that phrase takes on a different meaning.

Lastly, I thought about a talk I saw a few years ago at the Thinking Digital conference in Gateshead by the economist Mariana Mazzucato where she effectivley dismantled the received wisdom that products like the iPhone were all to do with the innovation and entrepreneurship of the private sector and pointed out that it was public sector-funded developments that had made it all possible in the first place. Watch it, it’s brilliant

In posts and workshops in the past I’ve mentioned the hackneyed and serially misattributed phrase “those who tell the stories, rule the world”. Stories are how we make sense of events but they’re never neutral .You can tell a lot by looking at contrasting narratives as a way of taking control.  And who is telling them can be instructive. Ask yourslef, in whose interests is this story being told. It pays to be critical.

And if you’re the storyteller, it pays to do this responsibly.

Telling the story of ME recovery

I’m trying something new here. I recently found out, having been feeling ill for the best part of a year, that I have ME. It’s not something I’ve come to terms with yet and I’m looking for ways to take back a bit of the control of my life and body that I feel I’ve lost.

This week I tried out doing a video diary. That’s nothing new. YouTube is full off people talking about their illnesses so I’m adding to already crowded field. The point is not that I think I’ve got anything useful or new to say or that I’m uniquely ill; I’m doing this mostly for me. In workshops I often refer to a quote about storytellers ruling the world which can be interpreted a gazillion different ways. In this case I’m trying to assert a sense of agency over my symptoms rather than feeling I’m at the mercy of them. The world I’m trying to rule over is me.

There’s an ulterior motive as I talk about in the first video, about making people I know and work with aware that I’m not at my best. That takes a bit of the pressure off me and lessens the feelings of guilt that I might be letting people down from time to time. It’s easier to do it like this than go round explaining to people individually – something which would feel like a demand for sympathy which is not what I’m trying to do. I’m happy to talk about it face to face with people if they want to but I won’t be shoving it down anyone’s throats.

Unlike some of the other storytelling stuff I do, I’m not bothered too much about technical or content quality. I’m trying stuff out. It’s unscripted, unpolished and for the moment, unedited. Much of what I plan to say gets forgotten. I’ve never been great at speaking off the cuff so maybe this is good practice for me.

I’m not fussed how many people follow this. I don’t know how long I’ll keep it up – there are a few things I think it’ll be interesting to talk about but whether the ongoing treatment stuff is just too tedious, I suppose I’ll find out.

But I think there will be benefits for me by being open, and who knows? Maybe it’ll be useful for people who are going through something similar.

Image

Taming the darker dragons of student experience

Today I’m travelling to Birmingham for Jisc’s annual Digifest event. I’ll be running a workshop with Liz Austen from Sheffield Hallam Uni on enhancing the student experience through digital storytelling.
On the BBC news site this morning is a story by Hannah Price, a graduate of Bristol University and now a journalist. Hannah was the victim of a horrific sexual assault whilst at university, a much too common aspect of the student experience.
Her story stands on it’s own but while I feel uneasy using Hannah’s story to make some abstract points about storytelling it has forced me to reflect in the run up to Liz and my workshop.

Digital storytelling is NOT therapy

Let’s acknowledge a limitation. Digital storytelling is not a form of therapy. Good therapists may use storytelling as part of their toolkit but always within the context of support that requires specialist training. What I’m talking about here is no substitute for serious pastoral care and safeguarding.

If you are undertaking storytelling activities with people who are vulnerable for any reason you need to establish, probably with expert help, how best to support them realising that problems may manifest themselves in ways that are not always easy to detect.

Rebalancing power relationships

One of the most powerful aspects of storytelling is that it gives a voice to people who are disenfranchised for one reason or another. In Hannah’s case she had her voice taken away by her rapist as well as the social structures around her. Here she is using the tools at her disposal (journalistic skill, digital platforms, our attention) to challenge that power imbalance.

Vulnerability in storytelling

Rape is weaponised shame among other things. Telling this story has taken courage to overcome that but that is not something that society should demand of victims of violence. That in itself perpetuates the power imbalance. Hannah has chosen to do this herself but she also used digital tools like Snapchat to help people to tell their own stories whilst protecting themselves. As Donna Lanclos says, you owe nobody your story. It’s yours to do with what you like.

Process and product

Related to that is the point about what the process of storytelling is for. Hannah has created a product that we can engage with but I suspect the act of telling this story has been an empowering one for her. Even if a story remains private or shared with a small, trusted group the process of turning experience into narrative is what storytelling is for. Seeing digital storytelling as simply a mode of production ignores this.

The worst thing I had to deal with during my time as a student was navigating my parents’ divorce and acknowledging my mental health was not as good as it should have been. For the most part, though, I enjoyed my time at university.

Sadly, we need to acknowledge that people’s student lives are not immune from challenge and trauma. Using storytelling carefully and sensitively can be a powerful way of helping students to overcome difficulties and institutions to learn how they need to change.

Voltage: thinking about the power and peril of stories

Last week’s Point of View on Radio 4 was from the academic Tom Shakespeare talking about “the power and peril of stories”.

In a nutshell he’s saying that the persuasive power of stories has real social consequences and this can be used for good or ill.

I’ve been trying to understand this more recently as it is something that come up from time to time when I’m talking to people about stories and leadership.

Stories and Voltage

What Tom Shakespeare’s podcast made me think about was voltage. Stories are a bit like electricity. Electricity’s a good thing, but it has to be handled with care, especially when the voltage is high.

Some stories are low voltage, like a triple A battery, an anecdote about my journey to work this morning, for instance. It might be entertaining or funny but in terms of personal or social consequences it’s probably neither here nor there.

But what about high voltage?

Some stories strongly influence how people behave, the choices they make, the way they vote. And it affects the storyteller too. Any form of storytelling includes a measure of vulnerability so it should be done with awareness and support and be an explicit choice on the part of the storyteller.

Without that level of care we’re inviting unintended consequences a bit like leaving live wires exposed.

Narrative awareness

Going back to some of the points Tom Shakespeare makes, narrative is an extremely powerful thing, especially in the face of facts. Quite often the compelling story will win out over a rational argument.

If we’re engaged in storytelling we need to be aware of our responsibilities and develop an understanding of how narrative and “truth” are related and what happens when the two diverge.

And for me, this is one of the core purposes of education. Do we equip learners to use stories effectively and do help them see where narrative begins and ends and to challenge it when needed?

 

Getting back into blog reading

One early upshot of my temporary Twitter hiatus was to realise how much I was missing picking up on other people’s blog posts. Twitter had become my single notification channel for new posts from people I know as well as discovering new ones.

Having said that I’ve been aware that I have been reading blogs less and relying on the Twitter stream more and I miss spending longer reading what other people are thinking.

So, yesterday I resolved to get back into reading blogs on a regular basis.

Up until about 3 years ago I had a routine based around Google Reader which helped me to subscribe and follow various RSS fields. Most mornings  I would spend 20-30 mins scanning my feeds and picking out the ones that looked more promising. Mostly it was just consuming but occasionally I’d build a blog post of my own around what I’d read.

Google Reader is no more but there is a handy equivalent aptly called Old Reader, basically a clone of the latter.

The changing blogging landscape

I’d imported my feeds into Old Reader ages ago before I got out of the blog reading habit so my first job was to go through and unsubscribe from blogs that were no longer relevant to me (lots of specialist ones about eportfolios for example) or were obviously inactive.

What surprised me was how many blogs that had once been very active hadn’t been posted to in years. Some had even let their domain subscriptions expire. This in itself shouldn’t be that surprising. I’m doing a very different job to what I was doing at Netskills (when I’d last been in the blog-reading habit) and that will be true of most people.

But you could also read it as a result of the way that our use of the social web has changed over the last few years, away from longer form writing to updates on more closed platforms.

People still blog but there seems to be less of culture around the practice, or rather that I’ve let myself lose track of it. Maybe there’s something about the rise of “thread” posting on Twitter indicates that there’s still an appetite for articulating more extended thinking. I have a problem with “threads” as an alternative to blogging but that’ll have to wait for another post.

Maybe it’s just because I’m getting older but I find that I want to take my time over things more these days and engage more deeply. Rekindling my interest in blogs might be a way of doing that. I’ll try it out for a bit and see if I get back into the habit.

So, help me out here. Which blogs do you read on a regular basis? Who’s writing good stuff about TEL?

Please RT. 😉

 

 

Digital stories about objects – “Spruce, ebony and horsehair”

I had the chance to make another digital story recently. It was for Curiosity Creative, an organisation I’m a trustee of. Alex, who runs the company, is collecting stories of people talking about objects that mean something to them for a project called The Story Box.

This is mine

The Story Box collection is steadily growing and if you’re in the Newcastle area you might see the “screening room”, a full size replica telephone box, doing the rounds at various locations and events.

Have a look at the other stories in the collection. One of my favourites is “Mourning Earrings” which is a very frank account of family disunity. A prize for the best (if slightly misleading) title goes to Michy’s Porn Bear.

Stories in your pocket

One of the activities I do regularly on storytelling workshops is to get people to look in their pockets, bags, wallets etc and find an object that they could tell a story about, something that reveals a bit of themselves. I’m always surprised at how much you can learn about someone from an old rail ticket or a set of keys!

I’m reminded a bit of JK Rowling’s Horcruxes, objects in the Harry Potter books where parts of someone’s soul can be placed inside everyday objects for protection.

These stories about objects are obviously a lot less malevolent, but we go through life, interacting with the objects and people around us, leaving little traces of our identity behind to be recalled later.

A little while back I reviewed a book called The Chimes which used a similar device as a way of a society fighting amnesia using small objects they carried around with them which, if lost, meant the person lost all sense of self and slipped into a sort of waking coma.

So, have a look around you. See if you can conjure a story from a seemingly innocuous object.

More about The Story Box

You can find out more about The Story Box here. Watch out for the public screenings of The Story Box around Newcastle in the coming months. Keep up to date with Curiosity Creative on Twitter and Facebook.

 

 

Quick reaction to Logan

Went to see Logan last night. I was dreading it slightly as I’ve got a bit battle-weary of superhero films but this is a different proposition from the usual CGI-laden stuff. It’s the answer to the question “what would Johnny Cash be like with adamantium claws, looking after a psycho-kinetic Willie Nelson on a road trip to North Dakota?”. If graphic violence isn’t your thing then approach with caution and I have to admit I get a bit queasy about kids being involved in portraying this level of violence (Looper was similar in this regard but also a great film). Having said that, the girl playing [SPOILER*******] is a really good find. And it’s fun seeing Patrick Stewart going all potty-mouth.

So, in summary, very good – probably up there with The Dark Knight.