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Feb. 1, 2012, 9:30 a.m.

Hello Tokyo! The Guardian experiments in immersive video with Condition One

Using new technology viewers are able to get an 180 degree view of the streets of Tokyo through video.

The Guardian is launching a new experiment in video, partnering with video company Condition One to release full-immersion travel guides. Don’t just read about life in Shibuya — stand in the middle of it!

David Levene’s Tokyo, released as part of the Guardian’s Tokyo travel guide, offer what you might call a 180-degree look at the sights of Japan’s largest city. Of course, good video aims for an immersive experience, a combination of shots, pacing, and editing that gives viewers a sense of a place just short of smelling the air for themselves. But in this case, the guides go further: Through Condition One’s technology, iPad users can tilt, pan, and pivot in their surroundings. What the tech does, essentially, is let a viewer figure out what’s happening just off frame, either to the side or above the camera.

Which can be kind of handy for a travel video, offering up a kind of live-action Google Street View effect, where you can get a handle not just on what you’re looking at but its place in larger surroundings. Condition One was originally conceived by documentarian Danfung Dennis to create video from areas of conflict. But as the Guardian’s experiment shows, it’s a product with broader applications for other kinds of journalism.

Over gChat, Guardian travel writer Benji Lanyado told me city-guide videos felt like a perfect fit for a technology aimed at giving people a richer viewing experience: “Immersive, armchair travel.” Once you get past the basics of “how much will this hotel cost,” what most of us want in city guides is a general sense of what a place is like.

Levene’s four videos are relatively brief (the longest maxes out at 2:50) that give glimpses of daily life, like the bustle of the Shibuya street crossing or a ride on Tokyo’s Metro. As the video rolls, a viewer gets the sense they’re on foot and can look wherever their eye takes them — say, a billboard on a skyscraper overhead, or a man dressed in a panda costume just out of view. (An image that, by itself, justifies the technology.) Using a limited license on the Condition One software, the Guardian was able to have the video shot and edited (in Final Cut Pro, Lanyado says) before sending it off to Condition One for encoding. Lanyado wasn’t able to tell me much more about the process, but it’s been reported that most Condition One videos are shot using video-capable DSLR cameras. The videos live on their own branded channel within the Condition One iPad app, which has several other videos, including a look at an Occupy D.C. protest from The Washington Post.

The viewer doesn’t have total freedom — you can’t look behind you, for instance, and you’re can’t just glance some interesting cross street and decide to wander down it. But you do get to take in as much scenery as the normal field of vision allows. “We’re in a recession…I can’t afford to go to the Solomon Islands,” Lanyado said. “But seeing some immersive video of the Solomon Islands could certainly help scratch the itch.” Think of it as a digital world’s fair.

The videos are part of a broader experiment by the Guardian in what a truly interactive city guide could look like. One other cool bit they’ve added to the guide is a history of video games and gaming culture in Japan, supplemented with playable versions of classic games like Donkey Kong, Space Invaders, and Pac-Man. Yes, as of today, you can chomp ghosts at your desk at work through a British newspaper. It’s all part of the Guardian’s push toward increased experimentation; you may be familiar with some of their other efforts like nOtice and Guardian TagBot.

Like all of the paper’s beta projects, Lanyado said the Tokyo videos are there to elicit a response from viewers, to see if it’s something worth taking further. Using Condition One could make a lot of sense for news organizations who want to get more out of their video features, and giving viewers a way to engage with their media in new ways could be a good investment. Of course, investment is the right word when talking about video — multimedia projects can be costly for newsrooms, but they can also generate a return over a longer period of time than a straight news story. (Presumably, interest in Tokyo street pandas will only increase over time.)

The tech requirements for the full experience — an iPad plus the Condition One app — will probably limit the audience for this experiment initially. But in the meantime, Lanyado said, the paper is invested in trying new things. “I can’t see us reaching some kind of perfect way to deliver news any time soon,” Lanyado said. “So in the meantime we need to experiment as much as possible to find out what works, and what doesn’t.”

POSTED     Feb. 1, 2012, 9:30 a.m.
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