Multimedia journalists sniff promise and perils of interactivity

by Timothy Large | @timothylarge | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Friday, 4 March 2016 08:00 GMT

A man tests the 'Zeiss VR One' virtual reality glasses during the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, Spain, February 25, 2016. REUTERS/Albert Gea

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

From immersive investigative journalism to virtual reality games, have “i-docs” come of age?

In ancient times, circa 2008, the term “multimedia” had a delicious whiff - text, photos and moving images all stirred together in a stew of interactivity. Thanks to the Internet, storytellers could cook up dishes to keep audiences coming back for more.

Instead, for the most part, publishers ended up recreating print pages online, with a pinch of video or a sprinkling of infographics to add digital flavour.

The trend continues today, though in snazzier forms. Witness countless (and sometimes excruciatingly long) “parallax” scrolling stories, a web device in which the background and foreground move at different rates to convey 3D coolness. (The technique has spawned a number of ugly neologisms, including “scrolly doc” and “scrollytelling”).

But it’s still just text, pictures and videos mashed up on a page.

Happily, a new term has come along to whet appetites - “interactive documentary”, or “i-doc” for short. And as shown at an international symposium in the western English city of Bristol this week, there is a lot to salivate over.

Bringing together journalists, documentary makers, students, design labs and academics, the event posed tough questions about a genre that blurs traditional “linear” storytelling (think beginning, middle, end) with something offering audiences more agency and immersion.

“How do we visualise complexity?” asked co-organiser Sandra Gaudenzi, who teaches new media theory at London College of Communications and is head of studies at the Belgium-based Interactive Factual Lab (!Flab), which supports would-be i-doc makers.

“How do we find balance between guidance and giving autonomy to users?”

From a virtual reality experience by The Guardian that lets you endure the torments of solitary confinement to a video game by the cinematic director of Grand Theft Auto that puts you in the shoes of a photojournalist during the 1979 Iranian Revolution, there was plenty to chew on.

Take two interactive stories that access users’ real personal data to shape the experience. One, Do Not Track, chillingly underscores just how little digital privacy we have. The other, Digital Me, holds a mirror up to our online selves and examines our complex relationships with the personas we create.

Meanwhile, productions like Offshore, The Biology of Story and The Risk Takers Survival Guide apply well-worn storytelling principles in ways that surprise, delight, intrigue or appall. They promote empathy. They keep you clicking around the story.

But the symposium also highlighted challenges facing interactive storytelling. Here are just a few.

Hardly anybody knows what an i-doc is.

Say “virtual reality” and people sort of nod in recognition. But “i-doc” often gets blank stares. The problem is confounded by countless other words beloved of professors and filmmakers: “crossmedia doc”, “locative doc”, “transmedia doc”, “new media doc”, “docugame”, “touch doc”… The French tend to say “web doc”, which makes me think of someone you consult for online verruca advice.

Nobody agrees on i-doc “grammar”.

When movie cameras were first invented, directors plonked them in front of theatre stages, cranked the handles and filmed the play. It took decades for “visual grammar” to evolve into what we now take for granted. Academics say we’re similarly stuttering today when it comes to web-based documentaries - and, especially, virtual reality, where technology is changing by the week.

“What language of storytelling works in a spatial environment?” asked Catherine Allen, a freelance producer at the BBC’s iWonder microsite, which is creating a virtual reality project to mark the 100th anniversary of the Easter Rebellion in Ireland.

She also cited the early 15th-century works of Italian artist Masaccio, whose use of perspective made people feel they were being drawn into a scene and marked the point paintings “stopped being symbolism”.

“It feels like that moment,” she said. “We may be having that renaissance today.”

The gadgets are clunky.

And yet… Everyone agrees it’s not easy to rig a bunch of GoPro cameras together to shoot 360-degree video for virtual reality. Resolution is low. Headsets vary from the cheap and crude to the wildly expensive. Journalists are still figuring out workflows to process virtual reality footage on the fly.

“But the BBC was making TV programmes for about 20 years before people had television sets,” said Zillah Watson, from the British broadcaster’s R&D department.

Form often trumps story.

The lure of the i-doc can be its downfall. As a member of the preparatory committee of the European Press Prize, I had the privilege of navigating dozens of “scrollytales” and web documentaries, especially in the Innovation and Investigation sections of the award. The best, such as the shortlisted Angst, E-waste Republic and The Downloaders, left no doubt why the journalists chose the formats they did. Too many others seemed to be “multimedia” for the sake of it.

!Flab's Gaudenzi is a firm believer that if you’re going to use a digital platform, you should have a damn good reason. “You shouldn’t be able to do a book or a movie about it.”

I-docs can be, um, boring.

On a related note, hard work sometimes goes into making complex and expensive i-docs that few people click on. Truth be told, they’re almost inaccessible. Such magnum opuses might be more databases than stories. And judging by thousands of years of narrative stretching from Australian Aboriginal Dreamtime myths to Hollywood blockbusters, we like stories.

The problem for i-docs is that the real interest often lies is in the unsexy nuance around the edges of a three-minute news bulletin or a seat-of-your-pants documentary.

“Stories have conflict, and conflict loves extremes,” said Florian Thalhofer, a Berlin-based artist, filmmaker and inventor of software called Korsakow, designed to let people tell non-linear stories. “That is why stories love extremes.”

For my money, I believe it’s possible for i-docs to be every bit as compelling as conventional stories. It’s just harder work.

Some i-doc makers live in ivory towers.

Not all, certainly. And probably no more so than traditional journalists and documentary-makers. But according to Ramona Pringle, a professor, columnist and head of the digital production company that created the highly acclaimed Avatar Secrets, not enough i-doc creators bother to understand what audiences really want.

“Let’s not be snobbish,” she said, using as an example the phenomenon of “selfies”, in which people take snapshots of themselves. Noting that commentators sometimes sneer at selfie-mania, she added: “We can’t look down on our audiences… In this selfie age, everyone is a storyteller. So the question is, how can you help them tell their stories?”

It’s hard to distribute and share i-docs.

There is no YouTube or Vimeo for interactive documentaries. Because i-docs are typically hard-coded, they need to be hosted on servers or embedded on websites by developers. This is a barrier to getting them picked up by mainstream media and makes it harder for the public to find them.

Even when i-docs are easily embeddable and media are hungry for them, they can fall foul of traditional business models, which rely on ad-based video players, said Matt Golding, co-creator of The Risk Taker’s Survival Guide. He added that new virtual reality platforms expected to be released this year could help solve the problem.

And finally, i-docs don’t always work in the developing world.

“There’s a great unspoken when we talk about new media,” said Patricia Zimmermann, professor of screen studies at New York’s Ithaca College. “All of this depends on electricity. I’d like to remind everybody that there are parts of the world where electricity isn’t a given.”

I-docs can also be heavy on internet bandwidth, making projects that seem impressive in San Francisco or London all but irrelevant in in Dakar or Bujumbura.

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