Posts about VR

Apology to Germany

For the record. I did not insult Germans about VR. I was honored that Die Welt asked me to write about VR for a special they were doing. The lede gained something in the translation. I wrote:

Virtual reality will not change the world. But it might help change how we see it.

This was replaced by this subhed:

Deutsche Verbraucher sind laut Umfragen besonders skeptisch, wenn es um virtuelle Eindrücke geht. Liegt das etwa an der Nazi-Zeit? Oder daran, dass schon der Begriff Virtual Reality in die Irre führt?

Which means:

German consumers are particularly skeptical when it comes to virtual reality. Does that have something to do with the Nazi era? Or that is it that the term virtual reality is misleading? 

I have been critical of Germany’s overreaction, in my view, about American technology companies and copyright and privacy. But I purposely did not want to make this another German #technophobia story. Lower down in the piece, I raised the question and cited a few oddities — like the philosopher who found Nazi ideology in Pokemon Go (!) — but said that VR is sweeping Germany as elsewhere. And note that I pinned those oddities on German media.

Not a big deal. But I wanted to be clear, for the record. Here, by the way, is the English text (with German quotes still in German so as not to double-translate):

 

Virtual reality will not change the world. But it might help change how we see it.

Thanks to the internet, we are coming to the end of the Gutenberg Age. His era — not quite six centuries long — was ruled by text: content that filled the containers we call books, magazines, and newspapers. Now the information and entertainment that media provided are available in so many more forms: as databases, applications, visualizations, bot chats, videos, podcasts, memes, online conversations, social connections, education, and so on. Text is not dead. It just has a lot of new company.

Are we also leaving the Kodak Age, thanks to the advent of virtual reality? The printed photograph — like the movie and TV screens that followed — was bound by its two dimensions. But now images are freed to expand past those borders.

“VR” is being used, incorrectly, to include everything that breaks out of film photography’s flat Weltanschauung: 360-degree (and panoramic) photography, 360-degree video, augmented reality, light-field photography, and virtual reality itself (that is, a computer-generated, interactive representation of an environment).

At the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism, where I teach, we believe we need to start our students not with VR but with 360-degree photography and video. We will push them to think and see outside the single path between the lens and the subject: straight-on, static, one-way. We want our students to ask when it could be useful for the public to see what is happening to either side or even behind them. How does that peripheral view impart added information or perspective?

As with every shiny new gadget that tempts us media folk, 360-degree media are being misused. There is no point in bringing a 360-degree camera to an interview, for when do you want to turn around and look the other way when talking with a person? Augmented reality is being used to make two-dimensional printed pages look three-dimensional; I frankly don’t see much point.

The first good and obvious use of 360-degree media is to put the viewer in the middle of a scene. Recently, news outlets used 360-degrees to put viewers in the middle of the balloon drop at the end of each American political convention or in an Olympic arena in Rio. They have used these cameras to give us a daredevil’s you-are-there perspective. All that is fine. But once you’ve seen one dangerous fall off a cliff, haven’t you seen them all?

I hear much talk that VR brings empathy to media, putting the viewer in the body of a story’s subject to enhance the viewer’s understanding. True. The Guardian took viewers into a six-by-nine-foot solitary confinement prison cell, a frightening experience. Bild took users to a battle in Iraq. I’ve stood in a virtual setting in which an angry man was pointing a gun at a woman just the other side of me; it is unnerving. I’ve even heard the empathy argument used to justify VR porn.

Making 360-degree video requires much expertise and expense: Multiple cameras sit in tricky rigs that can warp with heat and ruin the end result. Complex software is used to stitch all this video into one scene or to animate action. Virtual reality requires even more difficult software. And watching VR still requires a hassle: donning a cheap or expensive headset and looking like a fool while avoiding puking. Since the equipment is so expensive and difficult, I wonder whether we’ll soon see VR cafés just as, not long ago, we went to internet cafés to get online.

All that is why I am more enthused about using relatively inexpensive 360-degree cameras like the Samsung Gear 360 or Ricoh Theta S (or shooting panoramas on a phone). The best way to reach an audience of scale today is to post 360-degree photos on Facebook or video on YouTube.

The shiny new panoramic camera that has me most excited these days doesn’t even shoot 360 degrees around, only 150 degrees. The Mevo video camera captures a wider angle than regular video cameras, which simulates having multiple cameras as in a TV studio. It is controlled entirely on an iPhone or iPad: Click on someone’s face and that’s the closeup; move a box on the screen to shift the closeup. It’s the first camera written to Facebook Live standards. I’ve been using it to make my own podcasts. When I showed this small, $400 device to a newspaper owner, he ordered his staff to stop building their TV studio and control room.

Pokémon Go got me jazzed anew about the opportunities of augmented reality or AR. Years ago, a Dutch company called Layar showed the possibilities of adding information to what the camera on a phone saw (“This restaurant has great steaks” or “George Washington slept there”) but they were early. Now Pokémon shows how we could augment what a user sees in public with history or news about a location, restaurant reviews, ads and bargains, or annotations left by other users.

Ah, but leave it to German media to worry about the implications of a new technology and its application. In Bild, Franz Josef Wagner complained: “Aber die Nerds, die Millionen Pokémon-Süchtigen, sollten nicht nach Monstern suchen. Sie sollten die Wirklichkeit suchen.”

More amazingly (or amusingly), in Die Zeit, philosopher Slavoj Žižek discerned Nazi philosophy in Pokémon Go: “Und hat Hitler den Deutschen nicht das Fantasiebild seiner nationalsozialistischen Ideologie beschert, durch dessen Raster sie überall ein besonderes Pokémon – ‘den Juden’ – auftauchen sahen, das sie mit einer Antwort auf die Frage versorgte, wogegen man zu kämpfen habe?”

VR wariness is not just German media’s fault. An international survey by the firm GfK found German consumers the most skeptical about the value of a virtual experience. Nonetheless, especially in gaming, VR is also storming Germany.

Yes, there are issues to be grappled with in VR and its related technologies: When you shoot 360-degree photos and video, do the people behind the camera realize they are being captured? We have already seen that people watching virtual reality experiences have a heightened sense of reality. But I don’t buy the fear that people will withdraw into their VR headsets and experiences; it’s just another way to look at images.

VR et al might just give us another way to experience what other people experience — that is why both Facebook and Google are investing heavily in the medium, so we all can more fully share our lives. But fear not: just as text lives on after the Gutenberg age, reality will still exist after virtual reality.