When you have the opportunity to take part in an exciting panel at SXSW, it’s a good day. When Obama references that panel, it’s even better. POTUS was at SXSW yesterday for a talk that happened to be at the same time as my session, something he took note of, according to the Austin American-Statesman’s live blog:

He noted that his SXSW panel was in [competition with] strange topics like “Dude, where’s my par? Making virtual reality golf.”

“It’s true,” Obama said. “So I can confirm, you’ve kept Austin weird.”

I’m happy my panel topic and copywriting skills could help keep Austin weird. And hopefully, the topic my fellow panelists and I discussed was an interesting one. Kudos to T.J. Won of Oculus and Alex Lindsay of Pixel Corps for joining me in the session.

My portion of the panel centered on the efforts I’ve been leading with the PGA TOUR around virtual reality, efforts that really started during last year’s SXSW conference when I connected with Won. They continued last summer as I spent time in the Oculus lab in Palo Alto and as we began testing VR content production at a Web.com Tour event.

For the test, we spent two days filming at the Stonebrae Classic, working closely with Web.com Tour players to shoot a variety of videos, including instruction, player-caddie interaction on course, and video from the practice putting green. As with any good test, we learned a lot. Instruction video, for example, came across extremely well in the VR environment. Gathering good audio from the windy course proved tricky, a common issue for a sport that deals with the elements on a daily basis.

The other big takeaway was in how unique golf comes across within VR, particularly as compared with other sports. For one thing, our venue changes every week. And those venues are beautiful. Being immersed on any one of the courses where we play is compelling. The other element comes back to the individual nature of the sport. When a viewer puts on a VR headset and gets immersed in the environment, there’s a sense of being there with the player or with the player and his caddy. It’s an intimate view of the player and creates an experience that can’t be captured in traditional video or broadcast TV.

That brings us to this year. In February, we became the first sports league to launch an app on the Oculus platform. The initial app is meant to give us a foundation on the platform, one that we can build on over the course of this year and beyond. We launched the app with four pieces of original on-demand VR video. All were shot and edited during the Waste Management Phoenix Open. One provides a unique view of the experience on the 16th hole. We also captured two instruction pieces, one with Peter Malnati on chipping out of bunker and the second with Patrick Rodgers on putting. And finally, we went behind the scenes at our PGA TOUR LIVE production, showcasing the TV truck environment, something few fans ever see.

Throughout the year, I’m excited to continue experimenting in VR storytelling, identifying players or storylines that may play well on the platform. We’ll continue to publish those videos to the Oculus platform. And to reach a broader audience, we’ll be publishing 360-degree versions to Facebook and YouTube.

Thanks to SXSW for making video from the panel available. Enjoy!

 

The New York Times began its virtual reality journey after a staffer experienced VR for the first time. “You remember your first VR video,” said Sam Dolnick, Associate Editor for the New York Times, in an off-site SXSW session today on VR.

After Dolnick watched that video, he went to Jake Silverstein, Editor-in-Chief of the New York Times Magazine. The rest is history. Since then, they’ve gone all-in on VR, producing content, developing an app, and even distributing Google Cardboard devices to subscribers.

Sending out those Cardboard viewers was important. In the early days, “it felt like we were making TV when no one had a TV. The magazine mailed you the TV,” said Graham Roberts, Senior Graphics Editor at the New York Times.

Their content can also be accessed via mobile device but more than half of their views are coming from Cardboard, leading this panel to believe that most people who received them in mail kept them. They’ve also kept accessing the content, with the highest viewership days (so far) being on Thanksgiving and Christmas, a time when people were likely sharing content with family members.

The Cardboard devices themselves are also branded with the GE logo, an early sponsor of their VR work. Interestingly, the New York Times VR app features brand content alongside its own in the experience. That sort of distribution model is how the publisher sees things moving not just within the VR space but also beyond.

Another notable development from the New York Times is that they’ve created a position specifically devoted to VR. Their VR Editor, Jenna Pirog, was also a participant on the panel. She’s overseeing their work in the space and fielding VR story pitches from every desk at the Times. With VR being so early in its development, a big part of her job is also in testing different approaches. The Times recently incorporated positional audio in their app, meaning a viewer may hear something in one ear that will prompt a look in that direction. It’s a way to help direct the viewer to a particular part of the storytelling experience. While it’s a new technique in VR storytelling now, within the next year or so, it will likely become incredibly common, Pirog said.

That sort of experimentation is part of the fun and part of the challenge of being active in the space now, something I can relate to at the PGA TOUR in the initial VR work we’re doing.

Of course, the work I’m doing centers more on entertainment. The work the New York Times is doing is serious journalism that can have a big impact on the world. After the Paris attacks last year, they produced a VR piece showcasing what it was like the day after. VR allows producers to create a sense of being there, which, in some circumstances can come through stronger than words, stronger than pictures or traditional video. “It’s more akin to being like a journalist in the field,” Silverstein said. “A reporter always has to leave something out. The promise of VR is nothing gets left out.”

With all of this potential in VR, it’s also “important to remember that VR can’t do everything,” Dolnick said. You still need the background and the context on stories that the written word or traditional video can deliver upon. “VR is one more tool in the arsenal. It won’t replace journalism or filmmaking.”

 

 

I spent a hot summer exploring off-the-beaten path spots in Texas. As the producer of this bizarre travel series, it was up to me to research, scout and organize these shoots on behalf of a brand looking to do something new online.

My role: Series Producer, Director, Talent Scout, Stylist, Makeup Artist

Camera work and editing by Francisco Aliwalas, Doug Bachman

On-camera host: Jeff Hilliard

Bayou Bob’s Rattlesnake Ranch

Houston’s Beer Can House

Meet Austin’s Mr. Lifto

Tour The Cathedral of Junk