360 going places

A few months after I began shooting 360 panoramas I’m more and more watching a sideroad of the web I didn’t pay attention to before: Google Places. It actually started with a little surprise. View numbers for my 360 panoramas uploaded through the Streetview app had reached > 1.5 million and continued to rise quickly – certainly not what I expected. After taking a closer look at the numbers for various panoramas it became clear that Places, not the Streetview-like presentation on Google Maps was probably driving traffic. How so?

View numbers for different panoramas show imbalances that aren’t exactly matching the real life prominence of the location. A small town panorama like this one from Landshut/Bavaria has had more than 70-thousand views over the last months while this inside panorama of Milan’s world famous dome gets only a handful views a day. Makes no sense? It does when you include that panoramas are also shown in the photo section of a Google Place.

If you’re lucky there are almost no other panoramas – the 360 picture then ends up at a prominent position and is most likely seen by people who look up the location on Google or by searching in the Google Maps app. I guess this is what happened with my Bavarian panorama on Places. Milan is a different story – dozens and dozens of 360 panoramas had already been uploaded from within the building, conquering the best positions in the dome’s photo cluster. Only a few users (hi!) scroll or swipe down to my panorama.

Apart from these specifics it’s safe to say that Google Places is a great place to present 360 content. Loads of users swing by everyday so 360 is creating real impact. Plus, it’s easy and intuitive to use.

The problem with Google and 360 – and here begins my subjective view mixed with speculation – is that there’s a lack of synchronization between products. Take Google+. Uploading a spherical 360 picture isn’t – as one could expect – creating a panoramic presentation. The picture is rendered like a normal photo. Take Google Maps. Sharing the URL of a 360 picture works only in desktop environments without headaches. The same URL shared to an iPhone launches the Google Maps app, presenting 360 panoramas as flat, static pictures. At this time, while Google does fascinating things with 360, there’s still no consistent, foolproof user experience.

Compare that to Facebook and the contrast is obvious. Sharing 360 content on Facebook is so easy it’s hard to find flaws. Uploading 360 pictures and videos simply generates a panoramic presentation with no further knowledge needed. Looking back in a few years many will equal their first VR-ish experience with Facebook as a brand. That’s how the West is won.

Playing with 360 Photospheres

Playing with Google’s beautiful Photospheres (interactive, Streetview-like panorama photos hosted within Google Maps) you’ll quickly notice that Photospheres aren’t thoroughly supported on mobile devices (yet). It’s currently a little risky to share links pointing to Photospheres on Google Maps – iPhone users for example will see just a bare Google Maps page without references to the panorama content. As a side note, sharing 360 content from Facebook to the outside world tends to end with ugly error messages, too.

The internet being the internet, there are workarounds, of course. Jim Popenoe explains how a beta Photosphere renderer can be used to easily integrate panoramas in HTML pages and Tony Redhead proceeds from there, showing a simple way to embed Photospheres in articles that are reasonably mobile-safe. Please be aware that these are temporary solutions that might make way for better mobile implementations at some point. But for now they do the trick.

The panoramas you see here were shot with a super-easy-to-use Ricoh Theta S (the spherical photos coming out of the camera look like this) and transferred via WiFi to an iPhone 6 running the Theta S app. From there the panoramas were uploaded to Google Maps via the Google Streetview App on iOS without any further editing.

Optimizing the Google Maps URLs carrying Photospheres for mobile usage (not requiring apps) would be a big step forward, making reporter workflows possible where everything from one-click-shooting 360 panoramas to sharing the results can happen without ever touching a desktop computer or having to struggle with code and workarounds.

All panoramas have been shot in Landshut, Bavaria. Try the deeplinks if you’d prefer to watch in full size: Isar | Martinskirche | Altstadt | Residenz

The Displaced: VR storytelling by the New York Times

The New York Times launched its NYT VR app for Android and iOS last week – if you haven’t tried it yet I’d recommend to do so. It’s definitely worth the time despite some hurdles and limitations. A few thoughts and observations after watching “The Displaced”, the first immersive story published on NYT VR:

“The Displaced” is a linear experience and I’d argue this was a good decision. There’s much to discover and digest along the story path – even in linear form it is challenging to always follow visuals, sound and text in a 360 degree environment. (I noticed I wanted to see the VR movie again to check if there were aspects I missed because I looked in different directions before.) I’m hearing the argument for non-linear storytelling again and again but in most cases I’m not sure it actually helps to increase impact – the most important currency. (I’m not saying non-linear is a bad thing. I just assume that in many cases people speak for it because it’s a lovely challenge and they can’t wait to play with the possibilities.)

There are a few moments when I felt as close to the action as I’ve rarely felt before in a story. Standing on a field watching food being dropped above me by an airplane; joining a refugee child on a boat in the swamps of South Sudan; looking down from the roof of a heavily damaged school building in eastern Ukraine. It’s a glimpse of what will be possible in storytelling – making people truly™ feel what it’s like to be on the ground.

This strength of VR is also a challenge for the makers. Looking at the action from a distance doesn’t work in VR. Only being there and positioning oneself in the very middle of the action generates great VR footage. It’s so easy to write this down in a blog post but quite tricky and cumbersome to achieve in real life reporting.

VR is unforgiving when it comes to visuals. Average, repetitive footage has a stronger effect than in other media and there’s no way to compensate for it. (Check the Times Magazine VR story “Walking in New York” that comes as an add-on in NYT VR – it’s a mildly sedative experience until the moped scene starts at 4:08, followed by spectacular helicopter footage looking down an Manhattan.)

Sound design, often neglected, is an important part of a VR story. The subtle background music of “The Displaced” supports the overall mood driven by the visuals – both work together pretty well.

The one thing that didn’t work for me at all were the text inserts. I constantly lost track of them while looking around watching the action. In a story like “The Displaced” that’s a bit of a problem because the subtitles are the only way to understand what the protagonists say.

Watching a VR story in Cardboard is exhausting – I felt my neck hurt after a few minutes from turning around constantly. Would I want to watch a VR story that is much longer than the eleven minutes of “The Displaced”? Probably not.

The hurdles to experience a VR story like the “The Displaced” are immense. First, a decent smartphone is needed (Android or iOS). Then the app has to be installed and a voluminous 329 MB download must be finished before the presentation can be started looking through a Cardboard VR viewer. Don’t expect noteworthy reach for your VR stories for the time being. This will probably change one day, but for the foreseeable future it’s a fascinating niche venture.

––

Update:”The Displaced” has triggered a debate about VR production ethics. Worth reading: “The tricky terrain of virtual reality” by Margaret Sullivan, Public Editor of the New York Times, and “What we talk about when we talk about virtual reality” by NPR’s Senior VP of News, Mike Oreskes.

On Auschwitz

Auschwitz Birkenau concentration camp - be quiet!

A few weeks after returning from Poland (dzień dobry!) I’m still thinking about Auschwitz from time to time. Normally I’d have written a blog post, but this time I was hesitating. Everything has been said about Auschwitz and most of what I’m reflecting about probably has been written before many times. So be it. My apologies if these personal notes aren’t adding anything new for you.

––

Contrary to my – possibly naive – expectations, I wasn’t fully prepared for what I saw in Auschwitz. A historian with a focus on National Socialism, I had visited various concentration camps and other Nazi related locations in Germany and Austria before. But Auschwitz is different, indeed.

In his Hitler biography, Ian Kershaw describes how invading Poland marked a change in momentum for National Socialism. Already a horrendous dictatorship, Germany started establishing an eliminatory infrastructure in Poland that was unimaginable at the time.

Today, most of the former concentration camps in Auschwitz is well-preserved; walking through Auschwitz I and Birkenau is an intense, unambiguous experience that has no equivalent in Germany.

One thought that struck me underway and I’m worried it might sound banal: Reading books is no substitute for going to these places. Being there widens the sensorial input – smells, wind, heat, silence, the perception of scale, what visitors whisper to each other. It all helps to form a more comprehensible picture.

––

The human imaginative power is not good when it comes to scale – we understand scale best when looking at it in real. I was reminded of this when I walked into Auschwitz-Birkenau and started overlooking the “ramp” area along the incoming railway track. Labeling Auschwitz a “camp” sounds somewhat misleading. It resembles a vast, primitive industrial zone. Experiencing this kind of purpose-built scale is particularly depressing.

Scale comes in again when standing in front of the former gas chambers. The SS tried to blow up the underground buildings shortly before the Red Army arrived at Auschwitz, but the collapsed concrete ceilings are still clearly recognizable. It makes a difference to know the size of the gas chambers or to see them with one’s own eyes. They’re so big, calling them “chambers” seems inappropriate. They’re halls.

––

It is fascinating and sad at the same time to watch young people explore the museum in Auschwitz I. Many rush through the rooms, only barely looking at the exhibits, as if they’d fear the horror could reach out and grab their jackets.

––

Mentioning the visit to Auschwitz put a few conversations with fellow Germans on hold. There’s a brief moment of silence, followed by something like “Ach” or “OK.” Then silence again. I find this remarkable because of all Germans who live today, only very few are left who are guilty in the strict sense of the word. Most who were are dead by now. We could just talk.

At the same time Auschwitz remains a powerful, charged symbol; if you followed the heated debates about Greece’s financial crisis you surely stumbled upon references to Germany’s Nazi past. Instead of being easily offended or anxious we’d rather take a deep breath and join the conversation. It will last for decades to come and putting it aside won’t help.

––

From a historical perspective, Europe’s nation states have an abysmal track record as peacekeepers. Nation states simply never worked well in Europe when being left to themselves.

The visionary politicians who pushed for Europe’s unification beginning in the early 50’s all had WW2 and the Holocaust in mind. From their perspective even a loose federation with imperfections and trade-offs was a splendid deal compared to an outdated model of nation states unwilling to see a bigger picture.

Today taking cheap shots at the EU is almost a ritual for politicians. Shame on them. A peace machine that worked so well has deserved a little bit more love.

––

Experiencing a place like Auschwitz has, of course, side effects on how we look at people in general. Auschwitz, beside other places, has a nagging, not very comfortable message for us: We’re not good by default. Civilization is fragile. Skepticism is healthy.

––

On my way back to the entry gate of Auschwitz-Birkenau, I turned right to the former women’s camp where a few barracks are open for visiting. A blurred, historical sign on a wall caught my eye:

“Sei ruhig!” (“Be quiet!”)

The most absurd two words I’ve read in a long time.