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Field Testing a 360 Camera on Tolland’s Trails #EMPJ

I hit upon an idea for my Emerging Media Platforms field test when Prof. Dan Pacheco suggested that we use some of the new storytelling technology we’ve been learning about to help someone solve a problem.

A question popped into my mind though I’m not much of a hiker: are the public trails in my small town of Tolland, Connecticut underutilized? I thought if I produced a 360-degree video of one of the trails and publicized it, more residents of Tolland and eastern Connecticut might go hiking there.

The Technology and its Applicability for Journalists

On Prof. Pacheco’s advice, I bought the Insta360 Nano because it works seamlessly with my iPhone 6 and automatically stitches video. It comes in a box with a handy, built-in Virtual Reality viewer.

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For $145, the camera is a relatively affordable way to take 360 video and photos. You can use it alone with a micro SD card, but I found it easier to pop it onto my phone. It has dual fish-eye lenses, shoots video with 3K resolution and lets you livestream to Facebook, CNET.com reports.

It would be handy for journalists at breaking news scenes such as a fire, flood or blizzard who want to give viewers an immersive story. Since it works so smoothly with Facebook, it’s a great way for reporters to give their followers a unique view of the news.

Like Virtual Reality, 360 video provides that elusive idea of “presence” that journalists want readers to feel. David Smith, a multimedia specialist at West Virginia University, wrote for Mediashift.org that content stands out with the immersive technology.

“Immersive storytelling is by definition a great tool for grabbing an audience and “hacking into their brain” so they can experience another world,” he wrote.

Hypothesis and Target Audience

By producing a 360 video of an under-used trail in Tolland and sharing it with residents on Facebook, I will raise awareness about the town’s 13 conservation areas. My target audience is active residents who live in, or within an hour’s drive, of Tolland. Watching the 360 video will make them feel immersed in nature and more likely to hike the trails in Tolland. The 360 video will be more effective than 2D video in raising awareness and a viewer’s likelihood to visit the trails.

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Metrics

To measure awareness, I will count how many people watched the 360 video and said it made them more likely to visit the trails. To determine the effectiveness of the 360 video, I will ask them whether it made them feel immersed in nature.

I will also produce a 2D video of the same trail and count whether respondents who watched it said they are more likely to visit the trails. I will then compare that rate to the rate of the 360 group.

To help the groups that oversee the trails, I’ll collect the names and email addresses of respondents who are willing to share them with the town so that they can get more information about the trails. I’ll compare whether a higher percentage of the 360 respondents wanted to share their contact information than the 2D group.

Background

Bob Rubino, head steward of the Tolland Conservation Corps, told me the trails are underutilized. He said most of the residents he talked to at a town festival in September were unaware of the 1,000 acres and 23 miles of trails that the town has preserved.

“This is an issue,” he said. “The Conservation Commission wants to become more proactive to have greater public awareness about the trails we have in town.”

The town has posted detailed maps on its website, including GPS coordinates, and the commission maintains Facebook pages for the various areas.

“A lot of people don’t even know there is a trail, in many cases, within walking distance of their front door,” Assistant Town Planner Kevin Berger said.

The town does not keep solid numbers on trail usage. But based on wear and tear on the land, Rubino estimates that “a couple hundred folks” hike there every few weeks and two to three times that number visit a couple of times a year.

Peter Marteka, the longtime nature columnist for the Hartford Courant, told me that Tolland is one of the pre-eminent towns in eastern Connecticut when it comes to preserving open space.

“The town is definitely a leader,” he said. “Tolland has a strong grassroots and volunteer effort and that is key in protecting and preserving land.”

I decided to highlight an old cranberry bog in the Knofla Conservation Area because Rubino said it was a distinctive spot where 360 video might be effective. That’s my photo of the bog at the top of the page.

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Methodology

My plan was to produce the 2D video and the 360 video, publicize them on Facebook and have people answer a survey on Google Forms.

On my first try, I didn’t like that I was visible in the 360 video because it diminished the immersive feeling of the shot. (It didn’t help that I carried my equipment in an orange Syracuse bag that was also visible.)

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So I borrowed a selfie stick and traipsed back to the bog. I hid behind a tree and shot a 24-second, 360 video that I was happy with. It can be seen on my Facebook page or on YouTube.

 

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Below, you can see a bit of me and the stick, but that was less distracting than when you could see all of me.

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For the 2D video, I included details about the conservation areas and the town URL for people who wanted more information. I didn’t add any facts on the 360 video because I wanted to see if it was powerful on its own.

Now it was time to produce my surveys. I hadn’t used Google Forms before, but they were easy to set up once Jodie Mozdzer Gil, an assistant professor of journalism at Southern Connecticut State University, showed me how to embed the 2D video in the first survey. Here it is: Survey About Tolland’s Trails – Google Forms

It asked people their name, email address, town they live in, how often they visit the trails, whether they learned anything watching the video and whether I could share their contact information with the town. The key question was whether they were more likely to visit the trails after seeing the video.

In the 360 survey, I included basic facts about the trails. I asked people the same questions that I had asked on the 2D survey, but added two key questions to test my hypothesis. They are “after watching the 360 video, did you feel immersed in nature?” and “after watching the 360 video, are you more likely to visit one of Tolland’s 13 public conservation areas?” Here’s the survey:  Tolland Trails 360 Video Survey – Google Forms

Findings

I counted the results of 79 respondents, taking out four of my own tests and two from people who lived too far away. Forty-nine of 59 people I asked to watch the 2D video did so, for a return rate of 83 percent. The response for the 360 video was lower, with 30 of 45 people, or 67 percent, taking the survey.

Both videos raised awareness of the trails and interest from people who wanted me to share their contact information with the town. A higher percentage of the 360 video group agreed, at 26 of 30 or 87 percent, compared to 33 of 49 or 67 percent of the 2D video group. That shows that the 360 video had a greater effect when it came to raising awareness and interest in the trails. I view it as a success that 59 people were willing to let town officials contact them about the trails.

My hypothesis that the 360 video would make people feel immersed in nature was proven true by an overwhelming margin, with 22 of 30 people, or 73 percent, saying it did.

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The response was also overwhelmingly positive when I asked if the 360 video made them more likely to visit Tolland’s trails, with 26 of 30 people, or 87 percent, saying yes.

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Respondents in the 2D video group also were more likely to visit the trails, but at a lower percentage than the 360 video group. Thirty-six of the 49 people said they were more likely to visit, which is 73 percent – compared to the 87 percent response to the 360 video.

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Both parts of my hypothesis, therefore, were proven true. My 360-degree video of an under-used trail in Tolland raised awareness of the public lands and made people feel immersed in nature. A higher percentage of the people who watched the 360 video said they were more likely to visit the trails than those who watched a 2D video.

Responses and Interviews

 Some of the 360 video respondents said that the video made them feel present in the woods.

“I felt I was actually there, and could see everything I wanted to. It was a very cool experience!”

“I felt like I was standing in the wooded area and was able to observe the environment more completely than if I had just looked at a 2D photograph.”

“By being able to turn in a complete circle, you feel like you are there.”

“[I] liked the feeling of being wrapped in nature. The video allows you to feel engulfed by the trees and pond in [the] distance.”

Three people complained about the 360 video:

“I liked being able to see the place in a 360-degree view…However, every time I tried to ‘full screen’ the video, it separated into a grid of pictures, with the sky at the bottom.”

“I am very sensitive to motion sickness, and was a bit nauseous after continuously watching the video and “looking” around so much, lol!”

“It’s really cool…but the video was too short. I was only able to spin part way before the video ended. I had to watch it 3 times.”

Those responses made me realize that I need more practice with producing 360 videos that are stable and effective.

I learned more lessons following up with three people who said the video had not given them an immersive feeling: Heidi Ellis from Tolland, chair of the computer sciences and information technology department at Western New England University; Perne Maynard, a photographer from Tolland, and Sara Kaiser, a nurse from Manchester, Connecticut.

Ellis said she found the 360 technology awkward.

“It felt jerky,” she said. “I found that I used it more as a series of still pictures…And I felt like when I moved, I came out of the experience to think about what I was doing and how I was using the mouse.”

Kaiser said she found the 360 video to be blurry in spots, but it was the winter that kept her from feeling immersed in nature.

“Honestly I think it was the starkness of the view,” she said. “I think if it were in spring or fall, I would have felt differently.”

Maynard said that having to operate the 360 video manually lessened its impact.

“I can see the 360 video lens is a creative tool, but it didn’t give me an emotion of feeling immersed in nature,” he said.

To sum up my lessons learned: some people still find 360 video awkward (and even nausea-inducing), I have to improve my 360 skills and having to move the video with a mouse removes the immersive feeling for some people.

Conclusions

Based on my findings, the Insta360 Nano exceeded my expectations. It was easy to use, compact and lightweight. A major advantage is the automatic stitching. That’s a game-changer from earlier 360 cameras that required time-intensive stitching.

The 360 video was more effective than the 2D video in making people feel immersed in nature, more likely to visit the trails and more likely to share their contact information with the town.

Don DiGenova, chairman of Tolland’s Conservation Commission, said he appreciated my project.

“I’m very pleased that so many people responded,” he said. “Anytime we can have more people learning about the trails and be more user-friendly, that’s a good thing.”

In the future, the 360 camera would be improved if it allowed me to edit myself out of the scene. That would have created an even more immersive view for my target audience. Photojournalists who want to use the camera could make themselves unobtrusive if they had a monopod, a remote control and a place to hide, but they might not bother when news is breaking.

When posting from the Insta360 to YouTube, the videos came out flat, without a 360 capability unless you insert metadata with an app. When I tried to download the metadata injection app at first, my Mac would not run it because it wasn’t approved by Apple. I couldn’t find a comparable app in the Apple Store.

After numerous tries and switching from Safari to Google Chrome, I succeeded in inserting the metadata and getting the video posted to YouTube. It would be a major improvement if the Insta360 could post as easily to YouTube as it does to Facebook, so the manufacturer should find a way to solve that metadata problem. I used the Insta360’s VR viewer to look at my video, but it was pretty clunky, without much of a feeling of being immersed in the scene.

Also, when I used the Insta360 with my iPhone and saved to the phone’s photo library, the 360 videos took up a lot of storage space. I mention this as a warning to anyone who wants to buy the Insta360.

I did not buy the more expensive Insta360 Nano S, which shoots in 4K resolution. Jakub Han recently reported for Cinema5d.com that the Nano S’s 4K capability is much improved over the Nano’s 3K resolution and is critical for VR to be effective. Being able to view the cranberry bog through a more effective VR experience would have been appreciated by some members of my audience.

I do think the younger members of my audience, including parents who like to get outdoors with their kids, will embrace the 360 technology as a fun way to photograph their families. I can also see a huge global market with tourists who would want to use a 360 camera to capture the Grand Canyon or the Colosseum in Rome in a unique way.

I predict that within two years, this technology will be in the hands of many journalists who want to give their audience an immersive view of a story. Readers will gain a sense of presence through this technology if reporters use it to show hurricane damage, Olympic events, a protest on the National Mall or even a view of life in a war zone.

I think citizen journalists will embrace it to livestream 360 views from protests or rallies for causes such as women’s rights, #Black Lives Matter or gun control.

The Insta360 Nano proved effective in my modest field test, and I predict it will soon become an every-day tool for reporters, photographers and TV stations. As the technology improves and becomes compatible with VR headsets, I foresee even more storytellers turning to it to reach global audiences who want a “you are there” experience of a big news story. I don’t see it entirely replacing 2D news videos, but the potential is limitless.

Sources:
Personal interviews with Bob Rubino, Kevin Berger, Don DiGenova, Peter Marteka, Heidi Ellis, Perne Maynard and Sara Kaiser, March 2018
Assistance from Amanda Farrish; Jodie Mozdzer Gil, an assistant professor of journalism at Southern Connecticut State University; Steven G. Smith, associated professor of journalism at the University of Connecticut, March 2018
Low, Aloysius. (May 26, 2017). “Insta360 Nano is a cute and affordable 360-degree camera.” CNET.com. Retrieved from https://www.cnet.com/products/insta360-nano/preview/
Smith, David. (Undated) “Yes, Virtual Reality and 360 Video Are Relevant. Here’s Why.” Mediashift.org. Retrieved from http://mediashift.org/2017/01/yes-virtual-reality-360-video-relevant-heres/
Open Space Hiking Trails, retrieved from https://www.tolland.org/open-space-hiking-trails
Knofla Conservation Area/Town of Tolland, retrieved from https://www.tolland.org/open-space-hiking-trails/pages/knofla-conservation-area
Han, Jakub. (Jan. 8, 2018). “Insta360 Nano S – Shoot 4K VR Content with Your iPhone.” Cinema5d.com. Retrieved from https://www.cinema5d.com/insta360-nano-s-shoot-4k-vr-content-with-your-iphone/

 

Contemplating the future of journalism (maybe from a driverless car) #empj

This semester at Syracuse, my classmates and I have learned all about emerging media platforms from Prof. Dan Pacheco. He’s covered so much, including drones, virtual reality, sensor journalism, augmented reality, 360 video, reality capture and 3D scanning.

For this last blog post, he’s asked us to imagine what the future holds for our career. Ten years from now, I hope to still be telling stories and teaching journalism at the University of Connecticut. Maybe I’ll be getting to interviews in a driverless car. I hope my favorite newspapers will still exist, but no doubt, we’ll be reading news on platforms no one has dreamed up yet.

As a health writer, I can see using sensors to tell stories as long as privacy is respected and the data is made available to journalists. I could see placing sensors in rivers across Connecticut that turn on when factories are emitting pollutants into the water. The sensors could detect the levels of the pollutants and transmit them to my computer, where I would check the data against state records to spot the violators.

We could do the same thing with air quality sensors or sensors to detect if temperatures are rising due to climate change. Or imagine if parents could have a handheld sensor to test the amount of lead in their water or in their child’s blood with a simple pinprick. What if they voluntarily sent the results to a news outlet, so journalists could report on whether lead poisoning is on the rise?

This semester, I was most struck by the immersive technology we learned about that gives viewers a “you are there” sense of a story. I think journalists will increasingly combine 360 video shot from a drone with live streaming. That would help readers understand a complex story or feel greater empathy for the story subjects. I’d love to see my students covering rallies or other events at UConn this way.

A great example of this came in North Dakota in 2016, when drone pilots captured law enforcement’s use of water cannons on activists protesting the Dakota Access Pipeline near the Standing Rock Sioux reservation. Some citizen journalists streamed the drone footage live on Facebook. See the screenshot below. To hear that water cannons were used on people is one thing, but to actually see them deployed from above, and live, was all the more compelling.

 

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Wouldn’t it be cool to add 360 technology to footage like that? I think it would make the story more immersive and powerful. As it was, the footage went viral, and the Federal Aviation Administration quickly imposed a temporary flight restriction, banning drones and all civilian aircraft over Standing Rock.

I do worry about the FAA limiting journalists’ access to scenes like Standing Rock. We have to respect the law and not get in the way of law enforcement, but I believe drones should be allowed above scenes when news is happening.

Back to the future. To be honest, I’ve struggled a bit with the technology this semester, including when we were building chatbots and 3D scenes in the Unity gaming software. But I remain excited about the new ways I could be telling stories ten years from now. I might even get to a news story while flying one of those jetpacks we were all promised.

 

 

 

Using a drone to capture March Madness in Storrs? #empj

It’s March, and that usually means basketball mania at the University of Connecticut in Storrs, where the men’s team has won four national championships and the women’s team has won an unprecedented 11.

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In this ESPN photo, women’s coach Geno Auriemma, left, and the men’s coach, Kevin Ollie, are shown with their teams’ NCAA trophies.

But this was a disappointing year for the men’s team as it finished 14-18 and won’t make the tournament. (Moments after I posted this, UConn announced it was taking steps to fire men’s coach Kevin Ollie). Fans are excited that the women are undefeated and making yet another run at the national championship.

I’m a UConn alumna and a longtime fan of both teams who teaches journalism at UConn. Learning about drones in my Syracuse Emerging Media Platforms class this week got me thinking about the possibility of capturing March Madness with a camera mounted on a drone.

If the Huskies bring home another championship trophy, there will be a happy celebration of fans greeting them. My hypothesis is that coverage of that celebration would be enhanced by aerial still and video photography captured from a drone. My theory is that fans would enjoy seeing the celebration from a unique angle and that would improve the social analytics, such as likes, shares, comments and retweets on Facebook and Twitter, for visuals captured from a drone.

Here’s my hypothetical field test: a news outlet such as the Hartford Courant, where photographer John Woike employs a drone, could take video from the ground and post that on its website and social media and then shoot video from the air, post it and see which type of video gets more hits. Success would be measured in the analytics I listed above.

I turned to UConn’s drone regulations, adopted in 2017, to see if one can film a celebration from above. The rules mirror those of the Federal Aviation Administration and state “never fly over or near people.” That would seem to crash my field test since it would be a violation of FAA and UConn regulations to fly a drone over a crowd of Husky fans.

I then interviewed my UConn Journalism colleague, Steven G. Smith, a Pulitzer Prize-winning photojournalist and an associate professor of visual journalism. Like Woike, Smith has obtained a drone pilot license from the FAA.

Using a camera mounted on a 6-foot monopod while standing in a large crowd in April 2014, Smith made this startling photo of students raucously celebrating the men’s championship outside Gampel Pavilion:

The Long Blue LinePhoto courtesy of Steven G. Smith

The Courant reported that three dozen UConn students were arrested in the melee, including one student who was charged with inciting a riot. Police told the Courant that partyers lit fires, flipped a car, ripped a stop sign out of the ground and broke a light pole and sent it flying through a window of a nearby building.

“I was right amidst the craziness, and it was crazy,” Smith told me.

One night later, the women won the national championship and a more peaceful celebration ensued. Fans climbed trees and danced in the streets, and police said two people who were not UConn students were arrested and charged with breach of peace and reckless endangerment, the Courant reported.

For the first celebration, Smith had planned ahead by bringing the monopod and had scouted out a vantage point from a nearby building to photograph the crowd from above, but the area was too dark for that to work.

I asked him if drone footage would have enhanced the viewers’ understanding of the riot.

“If it were during the day and not over a crowd, it would give people a better perspective on the event,” he said, adding that drone footage “is great for setting the scene.”

But he said he would have complied with the FAA and campus rules and would not have used a drone over a crowd. He could have flown a drone nearby and shot from an angle, but Smith said he probably would not have done that either. He said he would be concerned about hurting someone if the drone crashed.

“It’s a safety matter. There are times it’s not the right tool for breaking news,” he said. “But there might be other times when it would a great tool for telling the story. You have to be safe and complaint” with the rules.

So if the women bring home another trophy – as I hope they will – it sounds like the lighting and safety issues would argue against my idea of using a drone to capture the scene.

Oh well, so much for that idea.

 

 

 

 

 

Sensing color in New England’s foliage #empj

This week in our Emerging Media Platforms class at Syracuse, I loved learning about sensor journalism and was enthralled with WNYC’s cicada tracking project.

In 2013, 1,500 people paid $80 each for a homemade sensor that used an arduino, an open source microcontroller, to measure the ground temperatures from Georgia to Connecticut to predict when the cicadas would emerge. This is a big, bug deal because they only come out every 17 years in the eastern portion of the United States.

That was such a great idea by the public radio station in western New York to engage with their listeners and a cool way to get kids interested in science.

Their cicada tracker inspired me to dream up using color sensors and arduinos to track the fall foliage season in New England.

In New England in the fall, we’re all about following the foliage, and I love photographing the changing leaves.

 

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In 2014, the Associated Press estimated that the millions of “leaf peepers” who come to New England to see the changing fall colors bring in at least $3 billion in tourism revenue.

What if a news outlet like The Boston Globe encouraged readers to make a homemade sensor that could track the changes in color on the leaves in their yards and nearby woods in real time. Then leaf peepers would know when to go where to see the most vibrant colors.

The various state tourism departments and many news outlets already publish maps that show you which areas will be at peak color during which weeks in the fall. This might make the maps more accurate.

I’m no expert at how to build a sensor or program an arduino, but you can buy a small RGB Light Sensor like this one at SparkFun Electronics for just $7.95. SparkFun says the breakout board makes it easy to sense and record the light intensity of the general red, green and blue spectrums of visible light while rejecting infrared light.

It seems like it might work. Getting people to install the sensors and report in to the Globe would be a fun, engaging way to appreciate this annual display of beauty and might even build loyalty for the newspaper.

 

Experiencing the trails in Tolland, Connecticut in 360 degrees #EMPJ

Although I’m an accomplished indoorswoman, I have an idea for a field test for my Syracuse Emerging Media Platforms class that will definitely take me outdoors.

When Prof. Dan Pacheco said this week that we should use some of the new storytelling technology we’ve been learning about to help solve a problem, it struck me during class that the many public trails in my town of Tolland, Connecticut might be under-utilized. I thought if I could take a 360-video of some of the land with my new Insta360 Nano camera, more people might be interested in visiting the trails. (The lovely photo above from one of the trails is courtesy of Bob Rubino, head steward for the volunteer Tolland Conservation Corps.)

I called Rubino, who is a talented photographer, to test my first hypothesis that the trails are under-utilized. He quickly agreed.

His group had a booth at the Celebrate Tolland festival last September, and he said that  90 percent of the 50 to 70 people who stopped by that day were unaware of the 13 open space parcels owned by the town that feature 23 miles of trails.

“This is an issue,” Rubino said. “The Conservation Commission wants to become more proactive to have greater public awareness about the trails we have in town.”

The commission held a photo contest last fall featuring photos of scenery and the trails in Tolland to raise awareness of the 1,000 acres preserved as open space, he said. It also maintains a Facebook page where volunteers are sought for the corps, a group of 30 to 40 volunteers who Rubino says provides “the muscle behind maintaining the trails.”

Based on wear and tear on the trails, Rubino estimates that “a couple hundred folks” hike on the trails every few weeks in a typical year, and two to three times that number use the trails a couple of times a year. Some people do walk their dogs on the trails every day.

The town does a good job detailing the 13 conservation areas on its website, including posting maps and GPS coordinates for hikers.

Rubino says many residents of our town of 15,000 are missing out if they haven’t caught the morning light at the Palmer Kendall Mountain Conservation Area, the vista at the Stoppleworth Conservation Area or the former cranberry bog in the Knopfla Conservation Area.

We talked about my new camera and Rubino suggested that these were the three best places to capture 360 video that would be compelling. He thought a video of the old cranberry bog, which is surrounded by pine trees, might provide viewers with the most immersive experience that I’m looking for. I really appreciate Bob’s help.

So here’s my hypothesis for my field test: by using 360-degree video to depict some of the under-used trails in Tolland, I will raise awareness about the 13 conservation areas among residents in town and northeastern Connecticut who might then go out and walk on the trails (maybe when it’s warmer).

To test the hypothesis for my class project, I will create the video, share it on Facebook and YouTube and ask residents of Tolland and surrounding towns to view it and then answer a short survey. Using a Google Form, I will ask them if after viewing the video, they would be more likely to visit one of the Tolland trails. I would also ask them if they learned anything about Tolland’s trails from the video and whether they had a feeling that they were present or immersed in nature by watching the video.

While I’m at it, I’ll ask them if I can share their email addresses with the Conservation Commission in case they want to learn more about the Tolland trails.

Now, I’ve go to take a hike!