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Public Sector Co-Pilots

In navigating towards a ‘public service internet’ it can be tempting to have the vision of a better future, obscured by a dystopian miasma of gloom. The collision of data and AI certainly present us all with some hefty challenges, but we’re still in the game, and there is a great opportunity for public sector bodies to act as our co-pilots en route to the final destination of a functional public service internet for all.

Organisations like the BBC, have a key role in helping consumers to safely navigate the airspace of their own personal data. This activity should be centred clearly around the establishment of the individual as lead pilot of their own destiny; as creator, owner, and protector of their own data. We’ve been really pleased to have been doing some thinking and doing with the BBC and others to help make this future more certain, but there’s always more that can be done.

Everybody needs a little help
Publicly funded agencies, acting in support of the common good, would be trusted by many to perform the critical role of ‘data buddy’. Designed in the right way, and with the correct, compelling route to market, the personas of the ‘data buddy’ might even shape themselves to dynamically respond to audiences. One stop ‘drop in’ products can sit alongside imaginatively realised content formats, video and products designed for longitudinal use. The key message for us all as users and generators of data, is that the world has changed and is certain to continue to change. Users can look to public bodies for the reassurance and support they need for the long haul.

Empowerment and opportunity
The invitation from public organisations to better understand and engage with our personal data, is best framed in terms of empowerment and opportunity, than in catastrophe and doom. The issues for many of us around the ‘affordances of data’ are in fact the issues that affect us and the lives of the people that we care about personally. Understanding (more) and acting (effectively) to respond, relies on a baseline of personal data literacy, and to have a lasting impact and reach we need to frame the stories and activities in terms that engage most people. This engagement is best framed within the language and mechanisms that already speak to us as consumers, using all of the tools, platforms and techniques of traditional and new media.

Data and identity matter
If data is the blood in our new digital bodies, then identity is the brain of the organism. The verisimilitude of our ‘real’ identities, formed from our ‘unreal’ virtual, digital selves is now less certain. Whereas we might once have supposed that our digital identities, were less complete (and completely) a representation of our ‘self’, we now must face the fact that our digital selves, may be a more truthful representation of who we really are. Access to and ownership of these identities is critical, and public bodies can and should act as advocates and protectors of that ownership, being maintained in the hands of the individuals themselves. The impact of a programme of well realised data literacy initiatives, can be significant on the digital health and well-being of the UK population. Establishing the right approach now to capitalising upon our collective data, is as important to the the long term happiness and survival of the citizens as climate change. It’s also just as important to the long term survival of the BBC and other public sector organisations.


Towards a Public Service Internet

With the revelations of Cambridge Analytica and Facebook’s role as malign hackers of human emotion and democracy, it can come as no surprise that there’s a scramble to look beyond the worryingly dystopian looking internet present towards some preferable futures.

The BBC has historically fallen under the glamour of the larger, shinier and more commercial competition, who are in fact, given the unique way in which the BBC is funded, not really the competition at all. Rather than asking how the BBC can be more like Google and Facebook in theory and method, the BBC could and should be making a crystal clear statement of difference. The corporation should be asking how it can make it’s offer diametrically opposite, even if that means an initial drop off of audience numbers. It should feel a confidence that those audiences, when looking back to survey the smoking wreckage of the data wars, will know that the BBC and other public institutions were on their side.

In recent years there has been a troubling move within the corporation to dodge awkward questions about it’s own (and it’s shell corporation Media Applications Technologies) spending with Facebook,Twitter and Google. Freedom of information requests have been denied on the grounds that information is held for the purposes of ‘journalism, art or literature’, and therefore exempt from the act.

Try to sign up for BBC iPlayer and you’ll be asked for not only your date of birth and postcode but extraordinarily your gender. The BBC insists that this information is protected and designed to improve personalisation, but it indicates a hand over fist data grab and collection that mimics the worst practices of the surveillance capitalism behemoths. Similarly the BBC has toyed with ‘addictive by design’ principles in other digital products. The autoplay function hated by anyone with kids, is enabled as a default on their iPlayer Kids app and impossible to remove in settings when viewing in browser.

The intersection of data and AI represents a range of amazing opportunities and risks for us all. The impact of big data on all our lives, is arguably as fundamental an issue for us personally, societally and globally as climate change. Like climate change, the topic can be illusive and hard to visualise. There are few people who can claim to have a clear or accurate mental model of how data and AI are combining to create our futures. Consumers should be in a position to trust public bodies to assist them with making ways of accessing, understanding and making the most of your data, safe, accurate and clear. Consumers need help in understanding the complexities of their own personal data; many just don’t know it yet.

There isn’t one solution or provocation that can serve to both alert consumers to the existential threats to their own privacy and then engage them with action to mitigate against those risks. The issues that we’re all facing are larger than us, and need to be addressed on a level that is outside the experience and influence of many of us. There are however beginning to be significant signs that the challenges and opportunities for combined data and AI, are beginning to concern the population. This is in part because of a growing coverage in the media of the problems inherent with constant surveillance, the loss of privacy, and the mass abdication of responsibility and ownership of our own data. It is also in part due to a simple passing of time, and an accretion of the larger and small signs of how we really are, into more rationally explicable statements of being and truth. The BBC has a significant role to play, as interpreters of these ways of being and truths, on behalf of and alongside audiences and citizens.

The Inbetweeners – Liminal Spaces and Transitions in VR/360

The Echo Chamber – Notes 05

One of the most interesting of the formal challenges of creating media for VR/360 appears to be how to make the most of the transitions between shots or scenes.

As a filmmaker in the old media linear world, you have a toolkit of tricks at your disposal when cutting between shots. You can fade between shots (black or white) or simply cut between them. There are plenty of subtleties within the fade or cut including of course how long is the fade, and where in the action do you place the cut to create the desired effects of of pace, atmosphere and energy.

In a VR/360 experience the viewer rather that watching the transition is ‘within’ the transition. They have some presence ‘inside the cut’.

A viewer watching TV or video is essentially watching a moving two dimensional image, with any transition between shots an absence of image, that we all now read and understand as indicating the end of one thing and the start of another.

Hal C. Kern, Supervising Editor of Gone with the Wind 1939

The fade from shot to black to new shot is probably the device that we’re most familiar and arguably comfortable with as it probably most closely represents the transition that we all experience with our own eyes as we blink (blink and see what you think). Filmmakers have other tricks up their sleeves as well including the wipe, where one shot is wiped away by an incoming shot and the iris transition where the action narrows to black, via a shrinking (usually round) window onto the shot.

In a VR/360 experience the viewer rather that watching the transition is ‘within’ the transition. They have some presence ‘inside the cut’. This means that the rarely considered fade has to become something a bit more ‘immersive’ and can become a useful narrative and experiential device.

Expanding this thought a bit and indeed the transition itself, you can begin to imagine how the transition could become an important liminal space within the film. Liminality is the state of ‘in-betweenness’ where one is underway within a ritual or experience, but not yet complete – literally ‘on the threshold’.

We’re still thinking hard about how we make the most of these liminal spaces within our own film. What we’re certain of, is that the visual transition will need to work in concert with the sound design. We’re developing a series of explicit and hidden audio cues that will prepare (and confound) the viewer to expect certain things to happen.

We’ve been discussing what it would be like if the fade dropped down onto us from above like a black blanket, or if the fade mixed up from our feet to our heads. We spent a lovely afternoon this week with our friends at Ardman Animations considering some other approaches as well, including borrowing from the visual iconography of video games – more of that in another post.

What is certain is that the moments that transition between the shots, these liminal spaces, may end up being as important as the shots themselves – they may in effect become micro shots – which then brings us back to the question of what do we put between them?

Oiling the Empathy Machine

The Echo Chamber – Notes 04

We’re well underway with making our VR drama Echo Chamber for the BBC. One of the words that has been coming up a lot during our research and discovery phase and in meetings is EMPATHY. VR has famously been described by Chris Milk in his TED talk as an empathy machine. It’s a nice, pithy high concept phrase that has in turn been repeated all over the place by journalists and commentators. A more empathetic world is a better world right? I mean, we all want to understand more, to empathise more, because that will mean that we care more. If we care more, we can’t fail to do more – at least that’s how the received wisdom goes. That means that VR is going to make the world a better place. We’re going to be immersed in worlds and introduced to people whose stories we must empathise with.

Chris Milk’s film has reached around 1.25 million views via TED and ‘VR = Empathy’ is a compellingly neat narrative – but with all respect to Chris and all the other creators (myself included) who want you to watch and engage with our media – we would say that wouldn’t we..?

L'Arrivée d'un train en gare de La Ciotat
L’Arrivée d’un train en gare de La Ciotat

There’s a famous and almost certainly apocryphal story of how cinema audiences in 1895 fled in terror from the Lumière brothers 50″ film of a train (silently) thundering towards them. Whether or not the story is true, it demonstrates our belief and hope in the visceral power of media to create impact, make us feel and care and in turn act.

It will be entertainment, spectacle, sensation (depressing probably porn too) that power VR to a popular mass market. In our newly drawn media world the power of VR to act as an empathy machine has to be up-sold. Otherwise nobody will see your film. Nobody will empathise. Nobody will care.

Nick Fraser the commissioning editor of Storyville has spoken about ‘Why Documentaries Matter‘ and in a talk to the Frontline Club he outlined his thoughts and has written comprehensibly in a report for the Reuters Institute on the challenges of keeping documentary vital and relevant. Nick once told me that people want to believe that documentary can change the world, but that it doesn’t. People change the world. In the introduction to his paper for the Reuters Institute he quotes Simone Weil.

The most important modern philosophical problem is attention.

Simone Weil

Perhaps if the real problem we’re facing is with attention, then maybe VR has an opportunity, however fleeting to be the thundering train, the talkies, cinemascope, the perecpto of the moment? We’re beginning to think of VR as more of an attention machine that an empathy machine. If that leads audiences to empathy, laughs, tears, fear and all the rest then great.

So… Sure – VR is an empathy machine. Clap on those goggles, oil the empathy machine and get ready to pay attention, empathise, care – and act!









VR Play Day at the Pervasive Media Studio

The Echo Chamber – Notes 03

Sally recently spent an afternoon at the Pervasive Media Studio in Bristol attending their ‘Virtual Reality Graffiti Jam and Play Day’. The event provided a fantastic opportunity for us to try out a variety of VR platforms and tech and meet some interesting practitioners in the field.

Producing a VR film is a new adventure for Chromatrope and so the event was well timed to fit into the discovery stage of our production. There were some really helpful takeaways from the afternoon which will feed into the early stage of our project planning and have already helped direct us towards deciding on a suitable platform and story. More on that to follow in future posts…


One of the lessons from the day is that when a story is truly engaging, the immersive experience can be surprisingly convincing and emotionally powerful. Even with a fair level of background noise and the knowledge that other people are in close proximity, a good story melts away the self conscious feeling that you might look like a bit of an idiot to other people in the room.

An engaging story can also be more important than the type of headset you watch it on. An oculus headset looks set to be priced at over £400 when it’s released later this year. However, a Google Cardboard viewer can be bought for around £10. When a decent set of headphones is placed over the top of whatever headset you’re wearing, the success of the experience is all down to the story and the sound and not the platform. We want our film to be seen by as wide an audience as possible so for now a low entry point is of great importance for us.

Richards Crandon, director of On Par Productions was at the event with a couple of Samsung Gear set ups which were running some of his company’s recent productions. The Little Arrow and Conductor 360 films were both very engaging. What became clear from both films is that sound is very, very important for the 360 experience. Firstly it provides vital indicators for the viewer to turn, orientate and notice the thing that is happening (or about to happen) behind a current viewpoint. Secondly, it doesn’t pay to be too subtle with these indicators – if you miss the cue, the action moves on and you’ve missed the vital part of the story that just happened behind your back. Background noise can also be a distraction to the viewer and the subtleties of a ‘binaural’ experience can be easily lost below a general hubbub.

As well as helping to clarify some thinking about VR, the afternoon also raised some questions for discussion with the team as we move towards making our film. Where should the viewpoint go and how will it change? Can the viewpoint change within a scene (and if so how do you do it so the viewer won’t feel sick)? Will the user have control over motion and movement? Will there be interaction with the actors or is it purely about observation of events?

We hope to start answering some of these questions soon, but expect also to find lots more questions along the way. By blogging about the project we want to share our experiences with others and also keep a record of the process for ourselves so we’ll be ready for the next VR project when it comes along! Please join in the conversation via Twitter on #echochamberdrama.


Recent Intel on VR and the World of Publishing

The Echo Chamber – Notes 02

The Media Briefing has been addressing three key questions about the potential of VR in the world of publishing; What will it take for virtual reality to become economically viable for publishers, where is that tipping point of viability and where is the revenue?

Chris Sutcliffe has written three articles which attempt to address these questions separately. Together the articles investigate the current status of VR and look at what is required to provide the fertile conditions needed for VR to grow into both an affordable technology for publishers and an accessible experience for consumers.

In the first article Sutcliffe says that there have been a number of interesting experiments in VR documentary making, pointing to Hong Kong Unrest as an example. Productions like this have proved the potential for VR’s immersive qualities to provoke a new level of audience engagement with documentary storytelling. So what will it take for reporting like this be viewed alongside the news headlines of the future?

It’s one thing to do experiments, and quite another to make virtual reality one of your regular means of distribution. Issues of investment are certainly one consideration – though the cost of entry is lower than you might assume – but the real questions are these: When will there be enough of a userbase for it to be worth publishers’ time producing content for VR users? And how can they monetise them?

Sutcliffe points to the accelerating rate of technology adoption (as summarized by the Pew Research Centre) as evidence of the speed at which we can expect VR to become mainstream. The early adopters of VR have come to it through the games industry and it seems unlikely that journalism on a VR platform will become mainstream until it can be monetized. But Sutcliffe says that publishers existing partnership with advertisers could provide them with the experience and leverage needed;

While many publishers are still grappling with the issue of what a successful ad looks like on mobile, brands and advertisers are already experimenting with marketing services using VR platforms. In an article for AdWeek about the potential of advertising on VR platforms, Christopher Heine provides the following example: “The 360-degree videos will live on an Oculus content platform that’s set to go live early this year. Destination B.C. also plans to distribute the clips via a partnership with Thomas Cook, a U.K.-based travel agency that will outfit its U.K., German and Belgian locations with the Oculus Rift. ‘You don’t have to simply lean on telling consumers things like, ‘The trees are this big.’ That sense of being there is such a powerful tool,” notes Janice Greenwood-Fraser, a representative for the tourism authority. “It brings it to life in a way that no photo or regular video can.'”

Sutcliffe’s second article examines what conditions will be needed to tip VR towards mainstream distribution. The NYTimes’ recent experiment with VR saw them sending out 1.3 million free Google Cardboard headsets to readers of its print product. The project has been viewed as a success with average audience engagement times of 14.7 minutes, and the NYT is now planning future VR projects.

And of that 14.7 minutes figure, Andy Wright, senior vice president of advertising and publisher at The New York Times Magazine, said: “Given the average time spent within the NYT VR app is close to 15 minutes, an unheard of metric for digital media, it is clear that this experience resonated with viewers.”

YouTube’s Google Cardboard platform is now accessible to Android users as well as iOS, making a 360 viewing experience genuinely possible for any smartphone owner. The cost of camera rigs is coming down too so are the conditions for VR to take off here right now?

But there are other fundamental problems to be overcome. For instance, the body’s proprioception is keyed to adapted to your personal height and body type. For the same reason that mirror box syndrome can (reputedly) alleviate the pain of phantom limbs, the tricks virtual reality employs can stimulate a physiological response in the user. As a result, introducing too great a variance in the body type (height/weight/etc) means that an individual’s proprioception can be thrown off, breaking the ‘presence’ of the experience and arguably blunting the point of true VR. But, as a result of the efforts of the NYT and other publishers in pushing the new medium via the minimum viable product of Google Cardboard, in addition to the lower-than-expected price of the Samsung gear VR headset worldwide, it’s likely adoption of VR will be faster than we could have predicted even six months ago.

The third article looks at the way advertisers are investing in VR. As with native advertising, the success or otherwise of an advertisement is based on the trust a reader has with the host publication. Sutcliffe argues that publishers are in the best position to judge their own audiences, and they have the skills to produce the copy. An investment in in house VR could reap rewards for advertising revenue and documentary storytelling alike.

And with major audiences come major advertising opportunities. Whether that’s through content produced on behalf of brands in an incredibly immersive medium, or an event or brand producing it to bolster its ecommerce proposition, it’s evident that if 360 video offers savvy publishers a new way to engage audiences.

Watch this advert for mini (which the article points to). The short 360 film, which can be watched on a laptop or smartphone as well as with goggles, shows some interesting creative possibilities for both advertisers and dramatic storytelling..?