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National Geographic is Using Immersive Tech to Expand Its Audience’s Horizons

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Augmented reality is letting people explore Stonehenge from wherever they are in the world - and the revered title sees XR and the metaverse as exciting tools to bring people face-to-face with endangered wildlife and fragile ecosystems. Kaitlyn Mullin, deputy director of immersives at National Geographic, shares more with LBB’s Laura Swinton

National Geographic is Using Immersive Tech to Expand Its Audience’s Horizons

Main image credit: One of the world's iconic monuments, Stonehenge has been studied for centuries. Yet new technologies, says archaeologist Vince Gaffney, are "transforming our understanding of ancient landscapes—even Stonehenge, a place we thought we knew well." (Reuben Wu/National Geographic; image made with 11 layered exposures)

The very first issue of National Geographic was a rather serious and dry affair. Created as an academic journal for 165 members of the National Geographic Society in 1888, it included such topics as a discussion on geographic research methods and an article on mapping Massachusetts.  Everything changed in 1905, when the magazine embraced the burgeoning field of photojournalism and started to include stunning imagery to transport its readership to far flung places. It turned out to be a canny pivot; since then, it has become known for its iconic photography and reaches millions more than 165 people every month. 

Just as its pioneering editors at the beginning of the 20th century saw how new technologies and new forms of storytelling could enhance its journalism, over a hundred years later the title is making another transformative leap. Immersive technologies like augmented, virtual and mixed reality (AR/VR/XR) and the metaverse are bringing the wonders of the world to life for readers with ever more vivid experiences.

Most recently the publication headed to Stonehenge, the mysterious prehistoric monument in Salisbury, England. They’ve created an AR experience that people can access through Instagram, that allows them to explore the ancient site while also discovering what happens at different solstice times. Users can even take Stonehenge selfies from the comfort of their front room. (Try it out for yourself here). The experience ties into the August issue’s ‘Stonehenge Revealed’ feature, enhancing the editorial and photojournalism. 

Credit: National Geographic

According to Kaitlyn Mullin, deputy director of immersives at National Geographic, the genesis of this experience came about because the team started working on the issue just as covid-19 had shut down travel. The potential of augmented reality became more apparent than ever.

“Virtual travel is something that has always resonated with a National Geographic audience and something that has been a cornerstone of our immersive strategy for as long as I have been here,” says Kaitlyn. “We see immense potential in immersive formats to deliver the wonder of the real world to our audience and democratize access to remote and fragile landscapes. This approach became even more important during the pandemic when people were looking for opportunities to travel and explore the world without leaving home. When we started working on the Stonehenge cover story at the height of the pandemic, we knew from the beginning that this was a great opportunity to leverage immersive technology to add a new dimension to our storytelling and give our audience the chance to explore this incredibly iconic cultural heritage site for themselves,” says Kaitlyn.
As the team started the process of development, the idea of exploring what happens to the monument as light shifts at different solstice times came to the forefront because of the brand’s journalistic lens. They didn’t just want to create something pretty, but something factual and educational, that could clarify the complex.

“We wanted to make sure that we created an experience that was visually compelling, clear and easily readable on a mobile device, but also wanted to stay true to reality and maintain that journalistic lens,” explains Kaitlyn. “We studied data, photos and videos and plugged the exact coordinates and time of day in the program we used to be as accurate as possible with the lighting design. We also fact-checked the final experience extensively with Stonehenge experts. It was important to me for example that the sunrise shadows extend out beyond the edge of the compass, both for the accuracy of their length and to make the experience feel more rooted in the user’s real environment.”

Stonehenge is the latest of a number of ambitious immersive experiments which Kaitlyn and the team have brought to life. Kaitlyn joined the team four years ago and in that time she’s helped use AR to bring people to hard-to-reach places (like the summit of Mount Everest), as well as the impossible-to-reach (fancy heading to Mars with the Perseverance Rover?). But while Kaitlyn really loves “pushing the needle with each new AR experience that we create”, she and the team have also taken the idea of immersive storytelling and immersive journalism to all sorts of experimental places. One project that Kaitlyn is particularly proud of is The Okavango Experience, a four part documentary that leveraged ambisonic audio to surround the viewer in the story.

For Kaitlyn, the combination of immersive tech and journalism is a theme that’s followed her since college. She studied print and digital journalism at university, but in her senior year, she audited an immersive journalism class. There she learned how to make 360 video - and it just so happened that when she graduated, the New York Times was starting a Daily 360 series.”I have been working at the intersection of immersive technology and journalism ever since,” says Kaitlyn.

The journalistic heritage of National Geographic - and Kaitlyn’s personal journalistic experience - translates into a unique perspective on and approach to building immersives. Every experience has to be backed up by editorial ethics.

“Editorial immersive projects present both really exciting opportunities and really interesting challenges. XR technology gives us the ability to let our audience step inside the story and have a first-person interactive experience, which adds a new level of immersion and engagement, but also creates a new set of variables to contend with in designing a journalistic development pipeline. Every project and technology is different, but one way I always incorporate my journalism training is in the research and fact-checking stages,” says Kaitlyn. “For example, when creating National Geographic Explore VR, which is a first-person virtual reality travel experience that lets users step into the shoes of a National Geographic explorer on assignment in the field in Antarctica and Machu Picchu, we had real-life National Geographic experts reviewing and fact-checking everything from the environment to the script to the gear you use during the experience.”

As well as staying true to the journalistic principles of the brand, these experiences are also, says Kaitlyn, a reflection of National Geographic’s history of visual innovation. “These technologies provide us with opportunities to experiment with new storytelling formats and create experiences that transport our audience like never before. We can use immersive storytelling to bring people to remote and fragile landscapes or face to face with wildlife in ways that are difficult or not possible in real life. And we are excited to continue to experiment and innovate as technologies and immersive platforms keep improving and changing.”
The Stonehenge experience is a manifestation of that journalism-driven approach. Instead of building a replica of Stonehenge from scratch that was more or less close, the team was committed to creating a model that had a high degree of accuracy. The team used photogrammetry, flying a drone over the site to capture 7,000 images which were then processed and used to construct the model. The team’s commitment to verisimilitude meant they had to contend with the challenges of shooting the ancient site. They worked with English Heritage to access the site before it opened, early in the morning. The fog and wind made things difficult for the drone - though it did help keep the lighting consistent.

“We decided really early on that capturing Stonehenge using photogrammetry was the best way to not only create a model with the resolution and accuracy we wanted, but also stay rooted in reality and create a strong journalistic tone for this project,” explains Kaitlyn. “National Geographic is known for photography, so in a way this approach was a tribute to that legacy and a way to create this experience through a National Geographic lens.”
One thing that Kaitlyn has noticed is that since social media platforms have made AR and XR more accessible, is that audience expectations have risen. “I think audiences now have a better understanding of the technology, so they have higher expectations around quality and are looking for more seamless experiences. In immersive storytelling, the audience is often a part of the story, whether passively or actively, so it is important to consider the audience’s expectations when creating an experience. If you are creating an AR experience for a social media platform on a mobile device, the interactions should be consistent with how the audience already interacts with that platform. For example, in the Stonehenge AR experience, we included tap interactions and a selfie-side experience to align with how users interact with Instagram.”

Inevitably, the metaverse is a space that Kaitlyn is eyeing up and experimenting with for its potential to tell immersive stories in new ways. She’s seen public curiosity in and understanding of the metaverse grow, and is excited by the idea - though she’s also aware that it’s still some way off reaching its potential.
“As a creator (and participant!) in the immersive space and long-time evangelist of AR/VR/XR, the idea of a persistent digital universe where people can create, socialize, and explore new and expansive worlds is incredibly exciting to me and seeing how the technology and discourse have developed and expanded in recent years is encouraging,” says Kaitlyn.
Looking to the future, whether it’s the metaverse or something else entirely, Kaitlyn is convinced that immersive technology is going to become an increasingly important tool for journalists and editors. But, just as National Geographic remains committed to the principles of editorial ethics and accuracy, whatever comes next in the broader media and publishing industry, the underlying truths of storytelling and journalism will remain.

“As technology continues to develop and adoption of more immersive formats becomes more common, it will be easier to create immersive content and audiences will expect it across many different content pillars, journalism included,” says Kaitlyn. “And I think there is real value in having the ability to immerse your audience in a story and allow them to experience it first-hand rather than just watching or reading about it. I think what will be important is to keep experimenting and remember that the narrative should be the driving force behind any story, regardless of the medium or technology.”
For more on this story, visit here.

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Categories: Magazines, Media and Entertainment

LBB Editorial, Wed, 10 Aug 2022 16:00:00 GMT