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

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

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.

 

 

Just how “digital” is digital storytelling?

This post was originally published on Netskills Voices

I was challenged at a recent conference to think about whether digital storytelling (DS) is making proper use of the power of the web.

After a few years exploring digital storytelling (DS) at Netskills we’ve settled on a particular format that we find works well for our workshops and also our own video production. It’s an approach that is based on a model used the world over and combines an audio voiceover with still images, produced as a video, like this example produced by Rupal Patel, a graduate student at Nottingham University.

It’s simplicity belies the fact that it’s a very powerful technique that is achievable for pretty much anyone even if they have never done any work with digital media before.

Thinking in different ways about digital storytelling

However, during a recent conference presentation on the subject, after describing this approach, I was put on the spot with a really challenging question about it; are these digital stories really digital?

I think the point that George Roberts, the questioner, was making was that although these stories exist as digital artifacts, the technique itself doesn’t make extensive use of the affordances of the modern digital universe. For example, the web is dynamic and ever-changing; these stories are fixed in time. There is little use of interactivity or social media in them. Also, the web is capable of sharing information in so many more ways than through video. Consequently, George compared the traditional form of DS as having much in common with desktop publishing. I can see what he’s getting at.

The way we approach DS is by no means the only way of doing it. That’s something we make clear on our workshops.

So, what does digital storytelling look like when it’s more “digital”? There are loads of examples out there. Here are some of my favourites.

Hollow

Hollow is one of my absolute favourites. It’s an interactive documentary that tells the story of how a rural county in West Virginia has been impacted by population decline and the changing economy. It relies on scrolling to activate the animation and some of the video content. It makes very good use of modern browser technology and even finds ways of getting the audience to contribute to the story through social media, although this is on a fairly superficial level.

Here’s the trailer:

Snow Fall

Snow Fall” caused quite a stir when it was published by the New York Times. It is similar in some ways to Hollow but relies more heavily on a written piece of journalism  combining the text with digital photography, GIFs, mapping and data visualisation.

It’s an approach that has been emulated many times since but there’s also some interesting debate about how much impact it might have on the world of journalism, mostly whether it’s a sustainable form given the effort that has to be put in to creating them.

There are more examples of this style of storytelling out there. Firestorm from the Guardian is particularly good.

Nagasaki archive

As a lapsed geographer I have a soft spot for maps. The Nagasaki Archive project is a great example of using mapping technology, in this case Google Earth, to to make the most of the fact that stories and place are intimately connected. From the video demo below you can see how they have used Google Earth to create layers of multiple stories, images and maps to tell the story of the devastating events when “Fat Man” dropped out of the sky on 9th August, 1945. The video also shows how they incorporated aspects of social media as part of global public engagement exercise.

Highrise – One Millionth Tower

One Millionth Tower came out a while ago. It’s a collaboration between web designers, artists, media producers and residents of a highrise block in Toronto. It makes great use of HTML5 and WebGL technologies to create an immersive 3D environment to explore. My favourite bit is that the “weather” and daylight on the site mirrors the actual conditions in Toronto at that moment.

It’s best viewed in Chrome, FireFox or Safari. If you don’t have those then here’s the trailer.

Story hacks

This is less of a style of digital storytelling and more of a method. There have been a few of these collaborative events that bring together creative and technical teams to produce transmedia stories around a particular topic. They use video, audio, web design and data visualisation to create some compelling stories.

Storyhacks have happened in the US in Vermont and New York and at the Barbican in London. 15-days.org is one of the outputs from the New York event focusing on issues around solitary confinement in the US penal system.

It strikes me as an approach that universities could make good use of especially for public engagement in research, but that is something to explore in a blog post of its own.

The future of digital storytelling

All these examples show that digital storytelling doesn’t have to be just about producing a 2-3 minute video and that it’s possible to use much more of the power of the web to tell a story.

At the moment, creating these interactive and transmedia stories takes a great deal of time and expertise, putting it out of the reach of many which also loses a lot of that personal control that’s so important with the traditional form of digital storytelling.

There is no “ideal” form of DS. It depends on what your purpose is and what resources are within your reach.

But technology is always moving on. It will be interesting to see how the emergence of tools like Mozilla’s Popcorn change the way that storytelling and the web work together. That’s something we’re going to investigate more and come back to in a future article.

Reviewing Adobe Voice – can it make your story stand out?

This post was originally published on Netskills Voices

Icon for the Adobe Voice app

There has been quite a bit of interest on Twitter towards Adobe’s latest free iPad app for digital storytelling – Voice. We thought we’d take a proper look at it.

It’s a very simple app that helps you create attractive videos. It will appeal to anyone who wants to quickly put together a story, a short promo video, a teaching resource or even just a slideshow. Like all digital storytelling, it would also work well as a learning activity around a topic, a way for students to capture reflective learning or activities on placement or fieldwork.

But I have some concerns that it’s fashionable style will lose impact quite quickly.

On our digital storytelling workshops we often get asked about using mobile devices for producing video and it’s something I’ve blogged about before. There’s a range of good apps out there, mostly for iOS, like Splice and iMovie. What makes Voice any different?

Here’s how Adobe pitch it…

To keep things simple, you don’t get anything like the flexibility of the iMovie app, but Voice is trying to do something quite particular. It’s about removing as many obstacles as possible so you can quickly create and share your ideas.

Steve and I had a go with it for about an hour and, after a little bit of planning on paper, I was able to produce this short story:

[HTML1]

Aside from the persistent hiss from the microphone (which I’m putting down to user error) it produces a very attractive video and the process of putting it together was very quick and pain-free.

Finding inspiration

adobe-voice-about
Voice helps with inspiration for stories

I went into this cold without thinking of what I wanted to say which we recommend you never do! To help, Voice has a nice “inspiration” feature which scrolls through some simple suggestions to get you started. One labelled “the time I made a bad decision” got me started on mine.

It’s easy to switch between themes, which change things like the background and borders of images. There are enough to be able to create a number of videos without them looking too similar. If in doubt, there’s always “Simple”.

Adobe Voice themes
Some of the themes in Voice

 

Putting it all together

Building the story couldn’t have been much simpler. You can either start by recording your audio for each image then finding something to suit or, like me, build a slideshow of images so I could see the whole story laid out, then add the voice later.

The app accesses a large library of Creative Commons (CC) images from across websites like Flickr, 500px and the Noun Project. It’s possible to drill down into each picture to find its source and the exact license terms so you don’t end up in a sticky IPR situation further down the road.

The Noun Project, if you haven’t come across it before, gives you a huge array of CC licensed icons and pictograms which are quite fashionable at the moment.

Adobe Voice icons
Choosing Noun Project icons for “weather”

You can, of course, use your own images or add text.

Recording your voiceover is as simple as pressing and holding an on-screen button and talking. It’s very easy to discard old takes until you get a good performance. The sound quality on my story is poorer than I would have expected, but it’s possible to get plug-in mics for iPads which will be more reliable than the built-in one.

Voice comes with a choice of music as well, although there’s a lot I’d file under “whimsical”. If your video’s topic was serious you might struggle to find something appropriate but you could always turn the music off. Importing tracks from elsewhere is a no-no.

Sharing your story

Adobe Voice published video
Published video on the website

Unlike other apps it’s not possible to save the video to your Camera Roll to upload to Youtube or Vimeo which I found frustrating Finished videos are hosted on Adobe’s Creative Cloud service so you’ll need to sign up for a free Adobe account to share it if you don’t already have one. The Voice desktop site will give you an embed code if you want to add it to a web page as I’ve done in this post.

I recognise that this is to keep everything simple but not being able to incorporate these videos onto existing platforms is a real shortcoming that makes it harder to share these videos effectively. It’s also a pain to keep track of videos you have made as you can’t view all your creations from a profile page.

Videos can be set to private if you are unhappy for the uninvited to see it. In this case, only those with the URL can view it. It’s unclear whether published videos are automatically CC licensed or whether Adobe is automatically granted permission to use them for commercial purposes. I’ve asked them and will update this post when I get a reply.

Final verdict

The appeal of Voice is obvious. You can create something very attractive in a short space of time in a way that suits a whole range of purposes.

It’s very easy to use. A tutorial guides you through the process the first time you run it but the app is intuitive enough for most people to find their way round it without help. I was impressed with the range of themes, images and icons that are available. There’s enough choice to avoid feeling like you’re remaking exactly the same video over and over again.

On the flip side, despite the variety of images and themes, there’s a very definite style to these videos that’s similar to quite a lot of advertising content that’s out there at the moment. So although it looks great, the more people use this, the harder it will be to differentiate your creations from other people’s work. The limited musical palette won’t help that. I can almost hear the groans of “not another Voice video”!

A similar thing happened with Animoto when it was at the peak of its popularity a few years ago so it’s nothing new and certainly not a reason to avoid Voice. It’s only relevant if you are actively trying to create something that stands out from the crowd, for public engagement or marketing for example.

Overall, I would be happy to use Voice as part of the mix of things we look at in our digital storytelling work. It’s fun, easy and can create some pretty good results.