How PBS Digital Studios Uses Digital Storytelling and Virtual Reality to Evoke a Sense of Place

By Priya Chhaya posted 03-10-2017 11:35


From cell phone tours to online exhibitions, historians and preservationists are using new technologies in historic interpretation and storytelling. For historic sites these technologies provide opportunities to engage with audiences online and in person. And new technologies can benefit preservationists by helping them convey the rehabilitation and reuse potential of the places they protect to developers, community members, and other stakeholders. 

Leading up to PastForward 2017 in Chicago, we’ll be taking a look at some emerging (and more established) technologies. We’re kicking things off with a post that examines a new way in which virtual reality is telling a story from the Civil War. 

A note on vocabulary: This interview uses the terms “virtual reality” and “augmented reality.” Virtual reality entails substituting the real world with a virtual one, often through headsets or enclosed spaces. Augmented reality, on the other hand, involves supplementing a view of the real world with digital content—sounds, graphics, video, icons, etc—as in last year’s Pokémon Go craze. Augmented reality can, but does not have to, involve a headset. 

Screenshot from "My Brother's Keeper." | Credit: PBS Digital Studios

In January 2017 PBS Digital Studios released “My Brother’s Keeper,” produced by StoryTech® Immersive and Perception Squared and in collaboration with the Technicolor Experience Center. The nine-minute film uses virtual reality (VR) and 360 technology to create a digital sense of place and tell the story of two brothers, Ethan (age 19) and Jackson (age 16), fighting on opposite sides of the Civil War. The brothers reunite at Antietam, the bloodiest battle in American military history.

The film provides a unique glimpse into what this experience may have felt like. Rather than simply taking place in the empty battlefield, viewers can see and hear the battle itself. Moreover, the technology allows them to pan beyond a single photographic angle and see the landscape in its entirety, much like a visitor could do, albeit without the tactile sensations of physically being there. Voiceovers from Ethan and Jackson provide context and, when heard through the VR headset, bring viewers even further into the drama on the screen. 

Of course, for those in the field, this raises important questions about the role of digital tools in visitor engagement, both online and in person—the ability of smaller institutions to afford these products chief among them. But what “My Brother’s Keeper” allows, beyond a moment of wonder, is a glimpse into the possibilities of using VR for historical interpretation. 

With these questions in mind, I interviewed Don Wilcox, the vice president for multiplatform marketing & content at PBS, about the value of VR as a digital storytelling tool. 

In the behind-the-scenes video for “My Brother’s Keeper,” you say that “PBS has a long history of creating content for the public to experience new cultures, new ideas, and new worlds. [VR] is the perfect opportunity to expand that mission in new ways.” What made you decide to use the Battle of Antietam as the pilot for this type of storytelling?

For this particular project, which is our first cinematic VR experience, we were very much inspired by the PBS Civil War drama “Mercy Street,” which is rooted in historical fact. Many of the characters and stories in the show are based on actual people and events, and the show tells their stories with a modern sensibility. We got to thinking that VR, with its ability to evoke both empathy and a sense of place, could provide an interesting additional way to bring the Civil War time period to life. One early idea—filming a civil war reenactment group—eventually evolved into the original standalone story. The “Mercy Street” season finale involves the Battle of Antietam, and we thought this would be a good connective element—not to mention the fact that it remains a significant historic event. 

This is the first time you’ve produced this type of VR project—can you tell us what the response has been? Are you seeing more views through services like YouTube 360 or through VR viewing devices like Oculus?

We’ve been thrilled with the warm reception among both industry and consumer audiences. The project involves a number of technical innovations, and the VR filmmaking community has been very enthusiastic. The viewer sentiments we’re seeing on social platforms have been overwhelmingly positive as well. We wanted to make sure the film was available to as many people as possible, so it is published to almost every conceivable VR platform and may be one of the most widely distributed VR pieces ever. We don’t have a lot of data yet, but the higher-end systems have less content, so we are probably getting a larger percentage of those viewers. On more common, lower-end outlets like YouTube 360 and Facebook 360 there is a lot more material competing for attention. 

Screenshot from My Brother's Keeper. | Credit: PBS Digital Studios

Right now producing successful VR films is significantly more expensive than producing regular videos. What could bring down those costs?

The biggest cost right now is in post-production. With VR, multiple camera angles are stitched together to create the 360-degree view, and this presents complex software challenges. It also means that color correction, visual effects, and other cleanup have to be done multiple times. For example, since we don’t have the traditional filmmaker’s “fourth wall,” all of the camera rigs and lighting have to be painted out. Over time I’m sure we’ll see more robust software tools with improved algorithms, which will make it easier to create high-quality output at a more reasonable cost. We were fortunate to have an amazing partner in the Technicolor Experience Center, which contributed world-class post-production and sound design services. 

Aside from VR, what digital storytelling technology do you see coming down the pike?

AR, or augmented reality, is another emerging storytelling medium. It will probably end up being a more mainstream, everyday technology than VR because it inserts content into the real environment versus requiring viewers to be enclosed within a virtual world. AR systems typically scan and map a room and then place all kinds of virtual objects and information within it, which users can then interact with since AR headsets allow them to see their world through clear lenses. There are exciting opportunities for education and training in particular. We are also seeing a move toward voice-activated computer interaction, and this will present some interesting possibilities—imagine having a conversation with an artificially intelligent character or subject-matter expert through a chat bot or smart home device like the Amazon Echo or Google Home.

Do you have any examples of VR technology being used in a similar way?

Narrative VR is the least-explored type of VR, so there isn’t a lot of content yet, especially when it comes to stories based on history. We are starting to see some interesting narrative pieces; some are companion pieces to Hollywood films and television shows, while others are coming from independent creators like the filmmakers behind “My Brother’s Keeper.” 

Priya Chhaya is a public historian and the manager for online content and products at the National Trust for Historic Preservation. Follow her on Twitter @priyastoric

#Technology #storytelling #Interpretation

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