Saints and Pelicans Moving Forward With Virtual Reality/360

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The hallway is surreal. Life sized photos of NBA players would be enough to make you feel like you were traipsing through a human forest. These pictures are bigger than life. Anthony Davis stares down at me as I pass, like Godzilla pondering a snack. Others offer the same intense stare they bring to the court. It's a stare made even more startling through eyes the diameter of tennis balls. On the left, beneath the gaze of center Alexis Ajinca, sits a medium sized room outfitted for a team of four charged with a big task. This small group is responsible for producing the video content for not one, but two professional sports franchises. They work for the NBA's New Orleans Pelicans and the NFL's New Orleans Saints. The two clubs fall under the same ownership, creating some merged departments that are unprecedented in pro sports. They're the only ones doing both pro basketball and pro football under one roof. 

They work within two leagues that are aggressive and innovative when it comes to telling their stories and communicating with their fans. In an effort to stay on that cutting edge, the Saints/Pelicans group entered the world of virtual reality/360 video a couple of years ago. Bringing me in is an effort to take the step from sharing moments (something they do fantastically), to telling more complete stories. 

Why now? For starters, the "VR boom" anticipated since 2016, may finally be in the offing. Oculus has released the "Go," a head mounted display that is affordable (about $200) and doesn't require a phone or a super computer to operate. This potential gateway for new users, lowering price points on higher end units like the Rift and the Vive, and the full backing of Oculus parent and business behemoth Facebook all seem to be good news for the industry. Facebook's involvement, and its ability to influence a massive, global audience is particularly promising to VR believers. 

Beyond the VR tea leaf reading, there is the more basic concept of creating great content to stand out in the midst of all the noise on the internet and in social media. For the Saints and the Pelicans, compelling storytelling is a key component to continuing to move their brands forward. That applies to their traditional video work as well as 360 material. In the end, working in the most cutting edge of spaces, and producing the most compelling material possible will lead to a successful communication strategy. 

The two New Orleans sports franchises face different challenges and goals in their communications strategies, and even in how they utilize VR/360. 

Collectively, the NFL has been "all in" on VR. The league is working closely with Intel, and dedicating highly coveted NFL Films resources to the genre. While the league is closely guarding "whistle to whistle" game action, the individual teams have the opportunity to create content with all that surrounds the games. For a club like the Saints, which dominates the sports landscape in New Orleans above all others, maximizing the fan experience is a key. For Saints coverage, telling fan-centered stories focused away from the field is key.

The NBA is also exploring VR from the league level, but with seats to fill for 82 games, the landscape is different, and the teams are given more autonomy in what they can produce. In New Orleans, there's the added challenge of the franchise being comparatively new. They've only been in the market since 2002, and re-branded from Hornets to Pelicans in 2013. They lack the decades-long relationship with the fanbase that many of their counterparts in the NBA take for granted. 

Our work to influence their VR/360 games focused on a couple of different areas. First, there are the mechanics of shooting 360 video. I had the opportunity in 2016-2017 to work full time in the VR/360 space. While so many others are trying to take on the technology as an added bit of load to an already busy schedule, I was able to make learning it, executing it, and teaching it my primary focus for nearly a year. Also, because I was working on a formula to use VR in news, I developed strategies that are both faster and cheaper than typical VR production methods. All this is attractive to a unit trying to operate in an economic fashion, and faced with the need to turn material around quickly. 

After a morning's worth of the nuts and bolts, we transitioned to something useful both in 360, and their more traditional video work. Storytelling. For my money, this is the lost (or not yet found) art in a social media world where video is quickly becoming king. People know they need moving pictures to draw eyeballs, but it's the ones who know how to tell engaging stories in that video realm that are standing out. Look at the videos you see on Facebook and Youtube. For every piece of compelling content you find, there are easily ten videos that aren't worth 30 seconds of your time, let a lone a few minutes. The folks in the Saints/Pelicans organization understand this, and see the value in making their people better. This is something we worked hard at during our time together. 

The New Orleans approach to VR/360 is just one of many. They're being aggressive, and charting their own destiny by working to not just create the content, but to do it better than their competitors. Other franchises are choosing to contract out the work for the time being. Still more just aren't sure what to make of it, and are leaving the content creation to their respective leagues right now. (That would be the most passive, and, for my money, worst way to approach things.)

The fact is, we live in a time where one of the world's most influential media companies (Facebook) has a product (VR) in which they've invested upwards of $3 billion. They want a return on that investment, and it requires getting as many people as possible to adopt the technology. Notably, millennials and those younger than that will be in their crosshairs. It's a long game, but one they have the motivation and resources to win. The question any organization that produces content has to answer is whether they're going to be out front on the technology or scrambling when they realize it has arrived. The internet and social media both left a long trail of businesses who suffered painful, and even fatal consequences for being too late to the party. 

Back in New Orleans, it will take time to measure results, and some of those measurements will be subjective. But what is clear is that in this building where you can't help but look up in hallways filled with giants, the people running the show are spending just as much time looking forward.

Are you a lifelong learner? It's not just a question for your kids anymore.

“Will you be predisposed to lifelong learning?”  That’s the question New York Times columnist and author Thomas Friedman posed on one of the network morning shows recently.  While pitching his book, “Thanks for Being Late,” Friedman said that’s what we should all be asking our kids as they move toward and through college.  But I wonder, are we asking it of ourselves?  My professional story, and my new business, are products of my answer to this question.

 

The last twenty years have been, to some degree, a forced education for all of us, no matter the age.  In 1997 we listened to music on CD’s, watched videos on DVD and VHS players, and were just embracing a new thing called the internet.  Cell phones made phone calls, text was on the page of a book, streaming involved a canoe, and social media would likely be perceived as a cocktail party for journalists.  Newspapers were, in fact, made of paper, and their advertising departments controlled better than half of the revenue in most markets. 

 

That’s all just scratching the surface in how we have re-invented and re-learned how to communicate.  We all rode this wave of high speed change in varying degrees.  As an inhabitant of newsrooms during most of the period, this was career changing.  Job descriptions for reporters changed markedly at least three times.  Those who adapted, the lifelong learners, continued on.  Others refused, and their unwillingness to learn more sent them to the exits.  (Along many economic casualties of that industry in flux, but that’s another topic for another time.)

 

I’ve taken this rocket ride of self-education a step further in that past couple of years, broadening my media skills in directions I would have never imagined, and taking on professional responsibilities that didn’t exist at the turn of this century.

 

Just two years ago, I was reporting for one of the top Fox affiliates in the nation.  That job had come to include shooting and editing my own stories on occasion as a “backpack journalist” or “one man band.”  (Multimedia journalist has become the phrase of choice in industry HR departments.)  In that position, I had also learned to run the website, using a variety of content management systems.  Brushing up on AP style became vital, as writing for the website took us all back to our print writing, journalism school roots.  In social media I was expected to keep a healthy presence on Facebook and Twitter, using those platforms both to provide a “peek behind the curtain” at what I did, and to report news “as it happened” in a way never before seen in journalism. 

 

When I decided to look for a change in careers, I took the logical step many reporters have followed:  Media relations.  I went to work for St. Louis’ Circuit Attorney.  That’s the top prosecutor.  Pitching stories was something I knew well.  Now I began learning how to manage them.  In some cases, the word “spin” is accurate here.  More often, however, the job was managing the reputation of the office and its relationship with the community. People underestimate the importance of the bond between prosecutors and the people they serve, particularly those living in high crime areas.  Putting the bad guys in jail requires witnesses in court, and if your community doesn’t trust you, those witnesses won’t be coming forward.

 

With that reputation management also comes “crisis communication.”  That’s the hip, public relations term for the scramble that ensues when something happens that you really wish wouldn’t have.  In an office that deals with both crime and incidents of violent action taken by police, you can imagine how often those scrambles occurred. 

 

What does this have to do with learning?  It’s about a willingness to throw yourself into unfamiliar situations and soak in the knowledge you need to do the job well.  It’s about seeking out those who can help you succeed.  It’s also about accepting and learning from the criticism you receive when you hit bumps in the road.  A lifelong learner is willing to walk in to a new situation and utter one of the most frightening phrases in any business setting: “I don’t know.”  Saying, “I don’t know,” will often provide the most efficient road to finding out.  That said, it feels like you’re letting down your guard.  That’s never an easy thing to do, but it’s vital if you want to learn. 

 

I would discover this again when the opportunity came to enter the emerging field of virtual reality and 360 video.  You want to talk about jobs that didn’t exist twenty years ago?  My position in charge of the news division at Los Angeles start up, MANDT VR, didn’t exist two years ago.  Technology had put its foot on the gas again. 

 

In some ways, working in the VR industry was the most freeing experience I’ve ever had.  It comes from working in a field where there is no conventional wisdom.  There are no rules.  It becomes easier to “not know,” because no one knows.  It’s equal parts exciting and terrifying to build something from scratch.  It’s right up the alley of a lifelong learner. 

 

How should a news story be shot in 360 video?  How should it be written?  How do you account for the fact the viewer, not the producer, has control over what is being focused on?  Why should a person want to watch in VR?  How does one pitch the medium to an established business?  What are the best ways to disseminate the material?  How best to monetize it?  Are we too early?  Are we too late?  These aren’t the questions we asked ourselves over a lengthy period of time.  This was a standard Tuesday. 

 

We learned the answers to all of the above and more, and sometimes they weren’t what we had hoped they would be.  This gets to another, more painful part of learning.  Failure. 

 

I remain utterly convinced that the storytelling tool that is VR/360 will become essential in news.  The ability to put someone at the center of an event, to make them feel like they are there, is too good to pass up.  But what we learned about our company at that place and moment in time was that news wasn’t going to work for us. 

 

We lacked the resources, both human and financial, to sustain and grow an expensive operation.  We didn’t have access to the platform necessary to get enough eyeballs on our work to generate quick revenue.  Those two flaws took away our ability to maintain the institutional patience needed to grow news into something self-sustainable.  It all added up to the news operation being folded by the company in order to focus resources on other verticals.  In English:  News became a money pit and the company was cutting its losses before the everyone else on the ship went down with it.

 

So now my path of learning would veer, somewhat unexpectedly, into a self-taught degree in business administration.  I had just gotten a crash course in what it takes to scale a digital media operation and what happens if the business plan has holes.  At the same time, I worked in pretty much every vertical of a VR company from top to bottom.  I won an Emmy award in the process.  I had deep experience in a field where few have any at all.  It’s just the question of how long it will take for VR to truly become “a thing.” 

 

If you had told me twenty years ago I would be a small business owner, I would have looked at you like you had three heads.  But here I am, founder, owner, executive producer and janitor at George Sells Media.  A twenty-four-year journey through television news, combined with all you just read have lead me to a challenge of combining all this into something focused and scalable. 

 

I’m quickly discovering that being a lifelong learner can put you in a place where focus it tough to come by.  Am I a media renaissance man or a sufferer of career ADD?  I choose the embrace the former.  After all, do you remember Leonardo da Vinci or the guy who told him he’d be better off focusing on one project? 

 

I have already earned clients doing traditional news, production, writing, reporting, shooting, editing, media relations, social media and virtual reality/360.  In some cases I’ve benefitted from overlapping these skills, and in others I’ve used them one at a time.  They are among an entire spectrum of tools in a media toolbox unlike any other.  My unique life experience, and longing to learn new things along the way have culminated in this.

 

By choosing to embrace this path of lifelong learning, I’ve also chosen a more difficult road.  The “warm embrace” of financial stability provided by corporate America doesn’t live at my current address. That could always change, but, for now, we don’t mesh.  My career experience doesn’t fit into neat boxes easily identified by a search firm’s algorithm. What my background does give me is the ability to find the perspective someone else might not see.  It allows me the opportunity to help a wide range of businesses, large and small, with projects that might normally require the expertise of two or three people. 

 

In the end, Friedman’s question about lifelong learning goes to professional flexibility.  What can you bring to the table the next time technology turns the world on its ear?  Can you handle taking on the job that doesn’t yet exist?  Do you respond to adversity by learning more?  A few years ago, I might have thought these were all questions for my kids.  Then I went out and answered them for myself. 

 

George Sells is the founder and owner of George Sells Media, a firm specializing in communications, TV production, VR/360, and media relations. 

 

VR News’ Great Camera Question

If there’s one major question for journalists working in the virtual reality space, it involves the search for the perfect camera.  If there’s one major takeaway from the recently-concluded NAB conference in Las Vegas, it’s that there’s no clear answer. 

 

If you’re new to the space, the basic choice comes down to image quality versus speed.  (And price, of course.)  You can get best-in-class pictures for your story, but to do it you’ll need about thirty-two man hours of post-production time (stitching) just to get it ready for editing.  This is based on about forty minutes of video shot. 

 

What takes so long?  A top-end VR rig has ten or more cameras attached to it.  (The latest Google Jump camera has seventeen!) That means every “shot” is actually comprised of multiple files off of multiple storage cards within the respective cameras, which are then loaded into a computer.  Each of those shots must then be woven together with software, carefully minimizing or eliminating the “stitch lines” that show up where the shots meet in the final product.  It’s part art, part science, and even with some of the best, it’s a time-consuming process. 

 

This approach is obviously not conducive to shooting breaking news, or even a predictable event happening at a scheduled time.  You won’t have the story published until a couple of days later at best—and that’s with a team of expert stitchers on hand. 

 

At the opposite end of the spectrum are consumer cameras you can pick up at your local Best Buy or Sam’s Club.  Samsung’s Gear 360 is a good example.  It houses two cameras with fisheye lenses.  Stitching is required, but it’s done with a drag-and-drop software that you can walk away from.  More notably, it only takes a couple of hours to turn around that same chunk of video.  The limitations are found in the image quality.  The camera claims to shoot 4K, but you’ll be hard-pressed to find a viewer who agrees. 

 

The good news with consumer cameras is that you can operate like a daily journalist.  Further, if you’re distributing on an established platform like Facebook or YouTube (currently the biggest hosts of VR content), many of your viewers are going to watch the material via mobile phone, and the lack of quality won’t be nearly as noticeable. 

 

The question most of our clients ask about this situation is the obvious one:  when will quality and speed arrive in the same device? 

 

If you believe the flyers and demos on the convention hall floor, the answer is either soon or now.  Kodak, Orah, Insta360 Pro, Vuze, and GoPro are among a list of manufacturers all laying claim to new cameras that will increase image quality, greatly reduce or even eliminate the stitching process—even livestream 360 video.  Prices for these cameras range from about $600 to $4000 or so for the sort of device a journalist would throw in a backpack and use in the field. 

 

The trouble is, convention exhibitors are notorious for showing you something in person that they can’t actually sell you.  I’m not taking a shot at the companies. This is just the challenge they’re facing in a business where technology is evolving at lightning speed.

 

In my time at MANDT VR we had seen every one of the aforementioned cameras with the exception of GoPro’s latest, called the Fusion.  Only one had actually made it into the building—the Vuze—and, while an improvement, it’s probably, of that group, the farthest away from achieving everything we’re looking for in a solution.  As for the Fusion, a significant number of people at the GoPro booth in Vegas (I kid you not) hadn’t even heard of it yet!  They can’t tell you the specs or the price but claim it’ll be on shelves by year’s end.  Similarly, Orah took pre-orders last August, 2016 for the 4i camera and just started talking about actually shipping them in March of this year. (MANDT VR pulled its pre-order after close to six months of waiting.  Now they’re backed up in production.) 

 

If NAB offered reasons for optimism, it came from good old-fashioned competition and the prime real estate commanded by VR/360 equipment on the convention floor.  A massive section of the North Hall was filled with big-time displays built with big-time budgets, everyone vying to become the industry standard in an exploding industry. 

 

The unusual thing about the current camera challenge is that there’s no buying your way out of it.  You could walk into B&H with a million bucks, and they still couldn’t sell you a camera to cover all of your needs right now.  Every company in the space is keenly aware of this, and all are racing to solve the problem and achieve market dominance.  With this as motivation, a lasting solution will likely emerge before you start raking leaves this fall. 

Opportunities and Challenges: Why VR is made for news and not enough people know it yet

“Hi. I’m George Sells with MANDT VR News, and we’d like to cover your story.”

“MANDT what?”

“VR news.”

“Never heard of it.”

“We are producing news coverage in the virtual reality/360 format. We are among the top volume content producers of VR/360 content in the country.”

“Virtual what?”

For a journalist working in the VR space (and not working for a “big name” like the New York Times) this is a common conversation right now. For someone who previously worked at a more “established” media outlet where calls were placed at the front of the line, it’s frustrating and even maddening.  It’s also an example of a “chicken and egg” challenge for a hot new technology.  Lack of quality content is a problem for VR across the board, but the roadblocks are everywhere for content creators. 

VR is not just about gaming.  Content creators on the 360 video side of this new world are producing some fantastic material.  Journalists are creating immersive content that is incredibly moving to those who see it.  That audience, however, is often minuscule.

These early growing pains are no one’s fault. Those of us working in the field have chosen to cast our lot with a storytelling tool that, at the moment, comes with cranky equipment, a comparatively small audience, and a distribution system that is confusing to those just learning how to navigate it. “Where can I watch this?” is not always a simple question to answer.

But there is plenty of reason to believe viewers will soon seek out VR in far greater numbers. The fact of the matter is, journalists working in VR are in a position to put viewers closer to the story than ever before. Virtual reality stands to be the biggest change in how we watch content since televisions went from black and white to color. In VR, viewers aren’t just watching the news. They can be immersed in it in a way that is not only unprecedented, but didn’t exist much more than a year ago. VR, to some degree, takes you to the story. It allows you to be there.

To this point, access is proving to be the key, which is a vicious circle for many in the space. The closer you can get to the action, the more “there” your audience will feel. But sometimes you can’t get close enough to make it work.

The unregulated, heavily attended events have provided memorable moments. While at MANDT VR, some of the most compelling video we’ve gathered in news coverage came when people flooded the streets to celebrate the Cubs World Series win in Chicago. Another large gathering, in a much different mood, provides another example. Protestors upset with the election of Donald Trump, both in the days immediately following the election, and around his inauguration have also led to immersive, memorable moments. Helicopter shots provide scale, but a view from the middle of the crowd where the viewer can look in any direction he or she pleases lets those who want to truly experience the story do just that. Having covered the story, I can only imagine what VR might have produced a couple of years ago during the unrest in Ferguson, MO.

The oft-repeated description of VR as an “empathy machine” holds some of its greatest merit in news. The New York Times’ ability to take VR viewers inside the fight for Falluja or a pilgrimage to Mecca is noteworthy. They have the access and the resources that come with being a top player in global journalism, and they’re taking advantage of that.

The challenge comes when you can’t get close enough. VR cameras, for those who don’t know, do not zoom. This was made clear when VRScout led a groundbreaking effort to livestream President Obama’s farewell address from Chicago in VR. Those producing the event went back and forth to the very end with the Secret Service, and while they got their cameras closer than the “traditional media,” they still were not able to get close enough to make the President much more than a smallish blip on the screen. Don’t get me wrong. This was still something worth doing and worth experiencing. You got the same view as someone with one of the better seats in the house. But those producing the event were almost certainly frustrated, knowing what could have been had they had the placement they wanted.

We had experience with the same challenges at a November campaign rally. The average iPhone in the crowd got a better shot of the president than any VR/360 camera was going to manage thanks to a simple zoom function.

These access issues will be solved by growth. As more big players in media make VR/360 coverage a regular part of their repertoires, the more access will be granted at events where the environment is controlled. The announcement of CNN’s launching of CNNVR this Spring is an enormous step in that direction. The same can be said for joint advertising from Samsung and the New York Times that have permeated the traditional airwaves during the NCAA basketball tournament and other major TV events since.  

What’s surprising is that so few of those major players have jumped in yet, especially on the local level. Many media companies, owning dozens of television stations and newspapers, have yet to dip their toes in the water. That’s a bit of a shock on a couple of fronts.

First, their outlets are, in many cases, the most trusted journalistic voices in their respective markets. When you hold that kind of esteem, you can get the access needed to produce VR material at its very best. You can put your audience in the locker room before the big college basketball game. You can take them to roll call at the police precinct in that neighborhood that’s on the verge of becoming a war zone. You can bring them into the home of the grandmother trying to raise six kids in a housing project and keep them away from that war. The stories are limited only by the journalists’ imaginations, and can be taken to a level “two dimensional” media simply can’t attain.

Then there is the financial aspect of all this. Media companies are desperately searching for ways to grow their digital revenue and tap that ever-elusive millennial audience. The name of the game is growth, and newscasts inundated with ads for retirement homes, laxatives, and erectile dysfunction solutions are not gaining audience. Virtual reality is. The only question is how much and how fast.

You can choose to believe or not to believe the predictions of companies like Goldman-Sachs that say the value of the VR industry will grow by tens of billions of dollars in the next three years. Those are predictions. But you cannot ignore the investments that have already been made. $3 billion has been laid down by Facebook, just to buy Oculus. (Who knows what they’ve spent to date on R and D.) Google has invested untold millions (or billions?) in the development of the Pixel phone and the Daydream platform. And Samsung has gone all in, shipping more VR headsets than any other company in the world. These giants, as well as others, have gone far beyond the stage of trying something out and writing it off if it doesn’t work. An old news director of mine always said, “follow the money.” If you do that here, you’ll know that these companies will find a way to make VR work. They can no longer afford any other result.

In the nearer term, the audience has to be able to find the material. While the preferred method of VR consumption is the headset, the easier way to watch right now is on the mobile phone. This 360 approach is not a perfect solution. Your stories will not have the “wow” factor they might illicit in a headset. But they can be distributed easily. Pretty much everyone has a cell phone and easy access to the material. And the audience has already proven they’ll watch 360 videos when they’re of high quality and easily available.

MANDT VR did a promo piece for the Pittsburgh Steelers in January. You may not know MANDT VR, but I suspect you’ve heard of the Steelers. The team put the video up on its Facebook page. In a matter of a few hours, half a million people had watched it there alone. This doesn’t event count the team’s YouTube page, or the successful distribution arm it has in China. Lots of eyeballs were on the material very quickly.

This is another bit of good news for major media companies looking to enter the space. They have already done much the heavy lifting as far as building a digital audience. Their Facebook pages are some of the most viewed in their local markets. They have well established YouTube channels and the ability to embed YouTube material on their websites right now. (YouTube and Facebook, by the way, are the two largest VR/360 platforms right now.) They have sales departments with people dedicated to digital, who understand how to monetize new things. Most employ “back end” people who can point them to VR/360 ready video players for their existing websites or help develop new players, allowing for the elimination of any potential revenue restrictions the YouTube’s and Facebooks of the world might provide. 

The “traditional media” is actually in a position to lead the way in this groundbreaking field of newsgathering. Their use of VR with established platforms will quickly demonstrate how this material can be monetized. Once that happens, the flood gates will open, and the media outlets with a slower reaction time will, with some regret, snap to attention.

And that is when this will really start to benefit the audience. Those of us who are focused on content are already developing best practices for storytelling in this world where there is no such thing as “behind the camera.” We’re already finding the answers as to where high quality and speed of production can meet.

A study by the research group Superdata says just over 6 million such headsets shipped from companies like Samsung, Sony, Oculus, and HTC in 2016. That number was disappointing to analysts. One of the main reasons attributed to growth not happening more quickly was a lack of content. If you are a company with journalists, a ready-made platform, and a desire grow your digital revenue, that void is sitting there just waiting to be filled. The questions that remains: who will be smart enough and quick enough to fill it first?