Sunday, 12 November 2017

#BIT17: 360 media takes a completely different approach to production

This week I brought some 360° cameras to the 2017 ECOO Conference to show how (kind of) easy it is to make immersive media for virtual reality viewers like Google Cardboard.  I brought along my favourite 360 camera, the Ricoh Theta (physical controls, good shape, very intuitive to use, easy to manage and produce files), and some others:


  • a Samsung Gear360 4k camera (harder to access physical controls buried in menus, awkward shape, files that are such a pain to use in the Samsung software that it will take you days to turn out content)
  • a 360Fly 4k not-quiet 360° camera (awkward wireless controls over smartphone, doesn't stitch together 2 180° images into a full view, water/cold proof and tough, easy to manage files, useful time lapse functions built in)
  • at the last minute I brought along the Instapro 360 8k professional camera, but it demands a special type of SD memory card so I couldn't make use of it.  The software and hardware is also very difficult to manage - it's going to take a while to figure this camera out.


360° cameras offer a unique opportunity to capture a moment in a way that hasn't been possible before.  When combined with immersive VR viewers like Google Cardboard, full systems like HTC's Vive or upcoming Google Daydream platforms, 360 video and photography allow the viewer to inhabit the media, looking out into it as a part of it rather thank peering at it through a framed window as we've always done before.

This is our presentation from our Minds on Media VR & 360 Media Station from #BIT17

This lack of perspective, framing or directional intent makes 360 video and photography a very different medium to work in.  The tyranny of the director's eye is gone, leaving the viewer to interact with the media as they see fit.  This is both good and bad.  If you're watching a film through Steven Spielberg's director's eye you're seeing it better than you probably could yourself; you benefit from that framing of a narrative.  If you're looking at an Ansel Adam's photograph you're experiencing what he saw and benefiting from his genius in the process.  That eye and the ability to effectively use a medium to demonstrate it is what makes a good film director or photographer, but 360 media tosses all that out.

The irony in all of this is that being a good 360 director has more to do with setting a scene and getting out of the way than it does with framing everything just so.  It also means that if your viewer has a trained eye they can find moments in your media that you might not even have intended.  It also means that if the viewer of your 360 media is technically incompetent or has the visual standards of an amoeba they won't find anything of value in it at all.  Suddenly the audience has a lot of control over how effective your media is when you're shooting in 360.

The examples below show just how 360 images can be directed like former 'windowed' media or left open and viewer directed:


When the media maker directs your view (these are screen grabs of the 360 image below the windowed photos), you see what they want you to see:

#BIT17 keynote about to start - Spherical Image - RICOH THETA

Or you can produce 360 media that the viewer controls that maybe tells the whole story.


Teaching visual intelligence will become much more important in the future if 360 media and immersive virtual media viewing become the new norm.  If your audience is too visually ignorant to make effective use of your media they won't recognize the value in it.  I wonder if you won't see directed views of 360 media done by people who can still provide the majority of people who aren't interested in building up visual media fluency the chance to enjoy media at its maximum effectiveness.


Beyond the director/audience change in power there are also a number of challenges in producing effective 360 media.  The biggest problem is that the camera sees everything, so you can't have a crew out of sight behind the lens because there is no out of sight.  We've gone to ridiculous lengths in producing 360 video for our virtual school walk through in order to try and let the viewer feel like they are immersed in the media without drawing their attention to the apparatus that is being used to create the media.

Tools like GiimbalGuru's 360 friendly gimbal that minimizes wobbles that are much queasier in immersive VR viewers than on screen help the process.  This gimbal is 360 friendly because, unlike other camera gimbals that block views to the sides and back, the GimbalGuru 360 is vertically balanced and so stays out of the shot.  One of the issues with the Samsung Gear is that the short handle means you have a lot of hand in any photo.  The shape of the Ricoh Theta minimizes that problem.  A good 360 camera should be stick shaped to minimize hand in the shot.

The last piece on 360 media making concerns the audience.  At the ECOO Conference keynote the ever aware Colin Jagoe asked the obvious question, did you get everyone to sign waivers?  It's a question you see on lots of people's faces when they see you take a 360 photo or video.  The answer to this runs back to the idea of a director or photographer directing the viewer's vision.  

If I take a photo or video of a person I'm pointing the camera at them and they are the subject of it.  As the subject of a piece of media it's fair to ask if that subject should have a say over whether or not I can make them the focus of my media making.  However, since the 360 camera isn't taking a picture of them (it's taking a picture of everything), they aren't the focused subject of my media.

The assumption they are working under is one that has been drilled into us subconsciously by the directed, 'windowed' media we've had up until now.  If someone points a camera at you it is about you, at least mostly.  If someone takes a 360 image in the same moment you are just one of many possible focuses in that image.  If I had any advice for those pursed lips I see whenever I take a 360 media image it would be, 'chill out, it's not all about you.'


The law around this is fairly straightforward:  "when people are in a public space, they’ve already forfeited some of their right to privacy... Generally, as long as the images of people aren’t offensive, defamatory or unreasonably invade their privacy, you don’t have to get every person in the crowd to sign a release."

360 media, because of its lack of point of view, is even less likely to invade anyone's rights to privacy, especially if you're taking an image in a public space with many people in it.  It's going to take a while for people to realize that 360 media isn't all about them just because they happened to be in the vicinity when it occurred.  The short answer to Colin's question on Twitter is easy, "I don't have to get a waiver from you dude!"

There are a number of production and social issues around 360/immersive media and I'm sure we'll be working them out for years to come.  Spielberg is currently working on the VR futurist movie adaption of Ready Player One, coming out in the spring.  He is developing a lot of VR/immersive/360 content for that film - it may be the first big budget picture to really embrace immersive 360 media.  I imagine he's working through a lot of these problems in post production (green screening out the crew in 360 shots?).

I haven't even gotten into the technical requirements of 360 media production.  If you think hi-def 'windowed' video makes a lot of data, 4k 360 video will knock you flat on your back.  The 8k camera I've yet to get going requires such a strange, high performance SD card that I've had to special order it.  The camera is going to use tens of gigs of data to make even short videos and post-processing on even a decent desktop computer will take 15 minutes for every minute of footage.  Working in high def 360 footage is very storage and processor heavy work.


All of this will get sorted out in time and the benefits of immersive 360 media are obvious to anyone who has tried it.  We discovered that Google Street View is now available in Google Earth VR while we were demonstrating it at the conference.  It rocked people to suddenly find themselves standing on a street in Rome in 3D high definition detail. 

In the meantime I got to experiment with this emerging medium at #BIT17 and really enjoyed both my time catching moments with it and swearing at how awkward it was to get working.  My next goal is to exercise my new UAV pilot qualifications and explore 360 media from an aerial perspective.  Hey, if it was easy everyone would experiment with emerging digital mediums.

Here is some of our 360° media from the ECOO 2017 Conference in Niagara Falls:


Using the time lapse function (one image every 10 seconds) on the 360Fly camera, here's a morning of VR demonstrations at Minds on Media on the Wednesday of #BIT17


My 13 year old son Max takes you on a virtual tour of Minds on Media on Wednesday morning using the Samsung Gear360 camera and the GimbalGuru mount to steady it.


Pushing the limits of the GuruGimbal and Samsung 360Gear - a motorcycle ride around Elora.  If you've got the patience for how long it takes to process in the Samsung  Action Director software it produces some nice, high definition footage.

Saturday, 11 November 2017

Music, millenials and the lost art of curation

The other day I asked my senior class how millennials listen to music when they get their first car.  They seemed confused by the question.  I've noticed that young people don't like to manage files any more (many grade 9s don't know how to find files on a desktop), and since music turned into file management around the turn of the millennium, it's all about file management these days, isn't it?  It turns out it isn't.

When I started driving near the end of the 80s the couple of cassettes in my pocket turned into a briefcase of tapes.  That briefcase contained whole albums by artists, both what they released and B side stuff.  When you went to a concert you'd hear the released stuff, but you'd also hear the unreleased songs, and the majority of people in the audience were very familiar with it; they were fans of the artist who had spent a lot of time in a long form medium (the album).

That process continued into the 90s as my tape collection evolved into compact disks.  The smaller form factor resulted in flip books of disks.  The plastic box with the album art on it got left behind, but I was still listening to whole albums and collecting the works of specific artists in a detailed, long form, album based manner.  I was introduced to mixed tapes in the mid-90s by my hot, new girlfriend, so the idea of designing your own playlists have been around for a long time, but albums were the main point.  We spent a lot of time curating our collections.  You'd discover new artists in friends' collections, you'd hear unreleased music while in their car.  At a concert you knew the words to every song, even the unreleased stuff.  What happens at concerts nowadays?  They play their released songs only and then do popular covers so everyone can sing along?

I went digital early.  From Napster to modern mp3 distribution, I kept cultivating a locally based, artist focused collection of music, but that isn't the way that the industry has gone.  Nor is it the way that teens today relate to music.  The gigs of music I've curated aren't the future, it's me using modern tools to imitate my past relationship with less fluid, physical mediums, but is that a bad thing?  I'd argue that my relationship with an artist's music was deeper and more intimate because of the limitations of our mediums.  When you have the collected works of Dire Straits (six original albums plus four live ones) on hand, you are diving deep into what they did.  Surely deeper familiarity breeds a more loyal fan.

Kids are still into music, but the digitization of the medium has resulted in a much more fluid relationship with it.  I frequently watch students randomize YouTube videos as background music and then click through a song in the first ten seconds if it isn't grabbing them.  Their's is a high input low attention threshold relationship with the artist.  You can hardly blame modern artists for producing shallow, catching songs - the cloud based medium that has descended upon us pre-selects that kind of music for success in a fluid, digital landscape.

Laying on a bunk at air cadet camp in Trenton on a hot, un-air conditioned summer night in 1985 and getting lost in Brothers in Arms on a walkman isn't something millennials consider doing with music, is it?   We started doing the skip a song thing on CDs in the 1990s, but it was such a pain on tape that you'd just listen to the song.  In doing so you sometimes came around to liking something that didn't grab your attention in the first ten seconds.  At the very least you're experiencing an artist's thoughts and music in a more detailed fashion.

When I asked my students what they do when they get a car for the first time they were confused.  Spotify was the answer (it turns out Spotify is the millennial answer to any music related question).  I get it if you're swimming in wifi at home or at school all the time.  Sure, it's bandwidth and data ain't free, but it is if you're a kid in 2017 for the most part.  But what do you do when you're going for a ride in your first car and have no locally curated music to take with you?  I figured they'd all have MP3s on their phones, but they don't.  Spotify premium was the answer.  That's ten bucks a month to listen to whatever you want, and you can evidently save it locally if you're on the road, but do they?  If you've never had to manage a local music collection before I suspect it wouldn't even occur to you to do it this late in the game, it'd feel too much like work.

So the young driver's solution to the problem of never having cultivated a personal collection of music is to pay for a monthly cloud based service and then now begin cultivating a local music collection?  You could just hope your phone is willing and able to bring down all that data in a continuous way, but that's an expensive prospect in Canada.  With some of the highest mobility costs in the world and lots of long car trips in store, Canada isn't a comfortable place to be cloud dependant for your tunes.  If you end up not being able to pay the ten bucks a month for the pro version of Spotify, you lose all your local music.  Just when you thought the digital native's relationship with their tunes couldn't get any more ephemeral, it gets more so.  When you live in the cloud you don't really own your data, do you?

Another problem with cloud-based digital music natives is the interactivity.  When you're used to constantly inputting changes to infinite cloud based music it's second nature to go looking for whatever strikes your fancy, or skip through the play list looking for whatever drifted into your mind as a must-listen-to song in the moment.  How long are your eyes off the road while you're doing that?  If that's your relationship with music then you've trained yourself over many years to surf through your fluid, digital music with frequent inputs.  I wonder how this is reflected in statistics...
Digital distraction for the win.
  • MADD stats on young drivers.
  • Young Driver stats on distracted driving
  • Transport Canada on distracted driving: "the highest proportion of distracted drivers involved in fatal crashes was in the under-20 age group (16%) followed by those aged 20 to 29 (13%)"
  • NHTSA on distracted driving
  • It's a world wide issue, here is Australia
The texting culture is generally blamed for the problem of distracted driving, but I suspect this learned, constant input approach to music has a part to play in it as well, especially with younger drivers.

The long and the short of all this is that the music culture of young people is completely foreign to anyone over thirty.  For people who got into music before it got very cloudy in the twenty-teens, curating your own local music means you can jump into a car or go on a trip and never once wonder about access; you own your music.  Because of that effort you've probably also got a closer relationship with the artists you call your own.  For the cloud dependent millennial that move to vehicular mobility produces a number of expensive problems.  Of course, since you never really got into any one musician when you were younger because listening to more than one third of a song is boring, maybe you don't care.

Friday, 10 November 2017

ECOO 2017: building your Edtech house on shifting ground

These are the big 3 that are somehow branding
entire school boards, but the education
software sector is a 10+ billion dollar industry
beyond even them.  Happy to make money
from education, not so happy to pay taxes
to provide that education in the first place.
I attended a panel discussion yesterday a #BIT17 between educators and education IT support that jumped up and down on a number of hot button issues.  One thing that's always struck me about attending a conference like ECOO is the point of view of the support people in education; they don't seem to get the support piece.  Our function is to educate.  Not provide PD for teachers, or build an IT network.  Those things are there only to support the main function of what we do: educate children.

In the course of this discussion it was suggested by curriculum support people and board IT professionals that teachers should be spending an inordinate amount of their time closely reviewing the legal documentation around software applications and vetting software.  I thought we had people for that.  Having a teacher do that is akin to pulling all your commandos off the front line in a war and having them do paperwork.

Once I got past everyone who doesn't work in a classroom earnestly telling me I should be doing their job for them (odd that teachers never suggest that of other education employees), we continued to pursue the topic of heightened responsibility - the term that was used to shut down my suggestion of using your online PD community to source new technology ideas for your classroom.  From my point of view, if a number of educators I know personally suggest trying a new app or other piece of educational technology, that's a fantastic resource.  I was told by a panel member that this stifles innovation.  I always thought it was a source of innovation.  Perhaps this was a misunderstanding in terminology.  I used the term crowdsource to describe my process of vetting a new piece of software.  To the CIO and curriculum experts on the panel, this meant trusting strangers on the internet.  That isn't my experience with online learning communities at all, it's anything but dealing with unsubstantiated strangers.  Maybe that's how they tentatively work online though.  Let's call that one lost in translation.

Michelle Solomon from the Association of Media Literacy was on the panel and created an awkward moment when she suggested that using even board/ministry sanctioned software like Turnitin.com (a private, for profit company that uses student data to make its money) was morally ambivalent.  The CIOs and curriculum experts were quickly able to compartmentalize that truth and function again within their fiction, but it knocked the floor out of what we were talking about for me.

When describing themselves and their school boards, the IT people in the room said, "we're a Google board" and "we're a Microsoft board" as a means of stating their, what, affiliation?  Their purpose?  You're public school boards here to promote and deliver public education; what you aren't is a multi-national media company that undermines democracy and avoids paying taxes anything.

The 'stop loading malware onto our networks/teachers should be happy with less choice and spend more time pouring over software legalize' angle was designed to create a locked down, heavy drag system where innovation and moving with trends in data management would be years behind what everyone else is doing.  I have to wonder just how bad the teachers-installing-malware issue is, because I haven't heard anything about it.  This invented and absurdly low threshold for software access (watch out, everything might be infected!) then had the blanket of heightened responsibility thrown over it all.  Of course, you know what the answer to all these technically incompetent teachers installing malware is?  Get a corporate system!  Become a Gooplesoft board!

Except, of course, those earnest, well meaning multi-nationals, from their totalitarian labour to expert accountants, aren't in it for education, they're in it for money.  You want to talk about malware?  It's all malware!  Google promises not to advertise to your students while they are in Google Apps for Education, but they can't stop mining data on what students do in GAFE because Google is a data mining advertising company, it's how they make their money.  They always serve themselves first.

I left this talk with my head spinning.  I feel like we were talking in circles about a fiction that
doesn't exist.  We could have a self-built, non-corporate technology foundation for Ontario Education, but it would be hard work and would require technical talent to achieve.  Why do that when we can give in to the hype and Vegas-like allure of the educational technology juggernaut?  Pick your poison, but if you're going to use educational technology none of it is blameless, it's all built on shifting grounds undermined by hidden revenue streams.

At one point it was suggested that we need to build media literacy in order to battle this situation.  It needs to start with the educators and technologist working in the industry.  If we're too busy drinking the koolaid to recognize just how twisted this all is, then there is little hope of graduating students who anything more than consumers.

Sunday, 5 November 2017

Stop Trying To Help Me

The other day I was driving my better half's car.  I don't usually drive it and it's still relatively new so each time is an adventure.  It was a busy day on the main street of our village, so I was parallel parking into a spot with a row of traffic lined up behind me.  It's a smallish vehicle so this is pretty straightforward, or it would be.  Shifting into reverse I backed in to the spot only to have the emergency warning systems start bleeping at me frantically whenever a car passed by.  This system is supposed to be there to make the car safer, but in interrupting my parking process repeatedly it actually kept stopping me because I thought we were about to have an impending impact.  I'd have been better off without the frantic bleeping and would have parked the car more efficiently, quickly and safely without it.

It's a pretty thing and very efficient for what it is,
but this Buick likes to get in the way of my
driving process.
Pulling out after our stop I backed up to clear the car in front and the mirrors aimed down - I presume to make sure I'm not running over any small animals, but when I started driving forward all I could see out of the wing mirror was the ground, which isn't very helpful when I'm trying to pull out.  I'd have been better off without the squirrel saving rear view mirrors.  I can always actually move my head if I want to see down through the mirror, it doesn't need to move at all.  The worst part about all of these interrupting technologies is that in addition to actually making driving more difficult, they are also another thing to break over the life of a car.

I'm all about technology assisting a process, I'm happy to use the rear view camera to make centimeter perfect parking, but there is a big difference between interfering and assisting.  When you're backing a car up and it starts bleeping at you about impending impacts that aren't happening it isn't helping, it's introducing false and interrupting signal to your process.  When your car aims its mirrors at the ground and then leaves them there thus preventing you from using them to assess incoming threats, they are a hazard rather than a help.

This 'we'll do it for you' technology sets all sorts of dangerous precedents:



This ad doesn't make me think, gee, I need a Kia so when I'm operating a two ton vehicle like a clueless git it'll save me from myself!  It does suggest that there should be far fewer people with valid licenses on the road.  Driver intervention tools like this muddy the line between expectations of driver competence and technology's ability to take care of things.  How often do educational technologies do the same thing in the classroom?


But what about technology like anti-lock brakes that actually outperform most people in emergency situations?  I pride myself on my ability to modulate brakes very effectively, but modern anti-lock systems are so capable that I can't keep up, and I consider them a requirement on a modern car.  This isn't an anti-technology rant, technology should be able to help us do things better, but when it doesn't it drives me around the bend, and it doesn't whenever it tries to do too much for us, and especially when it starts to assume responsibility for the very human parts of driving (like paying attention), or the very human parts of learning, like demonstrating skills.

Self driving cars are on the horizon.  For many people this will be a great relief.  Those who hate driving and do it poorly will all be better off for it, and so will the rest of us when they are no longer operating a vehicle.  I have no doubt that for the vast majority self-driving cars will drastically reduce accidents, but they also mean those of us who are willing and capable lose the chance to learn how to do something well.  The fact that I can toss pretty much anything into a parallel parking spot (I did in in a van... in Japan... with the steering on the wrong side) is a point of pride and a skill I took years to develop.  If machines end up doing all the difficult things for us, what's left for us to do well?  If machines end up demonstrating our learning for us, what's left for us to learn?

Based on what I've seen recently, I'm more worried that machines will unbalance and panic us while they are taking care of us.  I don't look forward to that future at all.  Perhaps clueless, bad drivers won't notice any of this and will do what they're doing now, minus the actually controlling the car part.  Perhaps poor learners will happily let AI write their papers and answer their math quizzes, and never have an idea if what they're doing for them is right or not.

I often frustrate people by second guessing GPS.  Mainly it's because I know how hokey the software is that runs it, so I doubt what it's telling me.  When GPS steers me up a dead end road I'm not surprised.  Maybe I'll feel better about it when an advanced AI is writing the software and it isn't full of human programming errors.  When that happens maybe it won't matter how useless the people are.  There's a thought.

I'm a big fan of technology support in human action, but it should be used to improve performance, not reduce effort and expectation.  It should especially not damage my ability to operate a vehicle effectively.  The same might be said for educational technology.  If it's assisting me in becoming a better learner, then I'm all for it, but if it's replacing me as a learner, or worse, interfering with my ability to learn, then the future is bleak indeed.