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.

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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

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Exper­i­en­cing a place like Aus­chwitz has side effects on how we look at people in general. Aus­chwitz, beside other places, has a nagging, not exactly com­fort­able message for us: We’re prob­ably not good by default. Civil­iz­a­tion is fragile. Optim­ism is healthy, but so is a certain scep­ti­cism.