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Niko Chauls is the director of emerging technology at the USA Today Network where he manages a product division focused on leveraging new technologies to improve the storytelling experience.

Niko announced on stage at the Adobe Summit that he believes that the VR space is about leveraging presence and empathy.The team experiment, incubate, iterate and fail fast. They also operationalize and empower all of Gannett’s 100 local newsrooms and national USA Today flagship brand.

The team experiment, incubate, iterate and fail fast. They also operationalize and empower all of Gannett’s 100 local newsrooms and national USA Today flagship brand. After discovering how virtual reality and mixed reality are their current areas of focus at the Adobe Digital Summit, I invited Nico onto the show to find out how the USA Today is pioneering storytelling experiences through VR & AR.

With over 15 years online experience working at the nexus of media and technology. It’s a pleasure to welcome this collaborative leader with deep insights in virtual reality storytelling, video, working globally, content programming and distribution onto the show.

Niko Chauls

Niko Chauls

Now that Nck and his team at USA Today believe that VR is a truly new medium and the first since the dawn of the web, maybe it needs the same care & consideration.

Interview Transcription:

Nico Charles: My name is Nico Charles and I manage a division at the USA Today network that’s focused on looking at new technologies and seeing how they can be applied to storytelling to create more immersive or experiential experiences or sometimes just more efficient experiences. We look at any and all tech, but the technology desour VR and AR and MR and to a limited extent. So that’s where the team is focusing much of our time.

We look at new technologies and if we see that there’s an application for storytelling, then we build that experience, and we test it out on our audience, sometimes a portion of our audience, sometimes everyone and then based on, on predetermined goals and KPIs if that test is deemed successful, then we look at ways to implement that in our front and back end systems such that every journalist at the USA Today network can take advantage of that capability and we can create content experiences using these new technologies at scale. So we’re a little bit R&D, a little bit live testing and a little bit, I guess, operationalizing in our system.

Neil: Do you have any examples of how the USA Today is taking advantage of this technology AR and VR and the kind of experiences that you’re creating and how audiences react to that?

Nico: Well, the easiest example is our path to VR and where we are today. So we began creating VR experiences about two and a half years ago, which is about a year and a half before anybody else really started paying attention to it and initially we recognized some, although not all of the potential of what VR could bring, but we had to prove both to the organization and to our consumers that there was value in the VR experience and what it could bring to news and journalism.

We did that through a couple of showcase experiences. Notably the, we did one story that featured three generations of an Iowa farming family and coping with the changing times and economy and technology told through VR, built for the DK 2 and cardboard and that showcased what VR is a new medium could do, built on the success of that and that won a couple of awards, including the, Edward Armaro best use of technology and journalism award that opened up the eyes of our organization to what was possible.

We then used that to begin the process of empowering our network which consists of I believe close to 4000 Journalist across the country and 110 news brands where USA today is the flagship national brand but then we have a whole host of local regional brands that reached local and regional audiences, we began the process of empowering them with both of technology and the learning’s that we had started to gather on storytelling in VR and it’s been an ongoing process as both the technology and our knowledge of VR storytelling both passive and interactive has grown.

Neil: So what brings USA today to the Adobe digital summit here at the Venetian in Las Vegas today?

Nico: Well, part of it is to get our message out there that in many ways we are leading and pioneer in storytelling in a new medium through the lens of journalism, but also we are being a new medium their incredible challenges around both reaching that audience, marketing to that audience, cultivating and growing that audience.

After people get over the initial excitement or sort of discovery of what VR is, beginning to understand consumer behavior` and content consumption patterns and that’s a struggle for the industry at large how do we know what people want when not only are we introducing new content experiences, but we’re also introducing them to an immediate and that’s a hefty task for anybody.

Neil: Absolutely, so we can access information on demand for multiple screens, in fact, there’s even an argument that with the rise of digital assistants such as Siri or Amazon’s Alexa, we don’t even need a screen at all now and we simply use our voices and we get what we want and when we want it. But how much of a challenge is this to you at USA today and how do you adapt to these changing and demanding expectations from your readers, and you guys got this worldwide known newspaper. How do you get their attention?

Nico: Well, I guess what I say it is there has always been challenges to getting people’s attention, another way of looking at it is consumer’s choice, how I want to receive the information, the news, the entertainment experiences, that I’m interested in. Our challenge as any media company is to be in all the places where consumers make those choices, and to be available to them to choose to receive that information however they would like.

VR is a particularly unique environment right now because it is it is fully immersive and it sort of takes you out of your reality and its one that I think we are all still trying to discover what are the most effective ways of telling stories there and getting information across.

Neil: What’s your biggest challenges in reaching your audience and indeed growing it and how can technology make that easier?

Nico: Well again with respective VR, the mass audience of VR consumers does not exist yet, so as a media company, as a content creator, we share the responsibility of growing and cultivating this new audience and frankly the best way to do that is by creating great and compelling content experiences because nothing will slow the adoption of VR more than bad content. So creating content made for the medium that is compelling that when somebody is finished watching there either informed or entertained or have other reasons to come back, and we believe that news is one of the best categories for creating that return viewing habit.

Neil: How do you think this form of technology can actually improve the art of story telling?

Nico: I think that I can speak about that for hours or days maybe, but VR is massive and in many ways I actually think it has the power to re-establish some of the trust that has eroded between media companies and their consumers because it removes many of the filters or layers between the audience and the storyteller. For example and it is a very simple example, in the 2D world if you point your video camera somewhere, you’re putting a frame around what people see and you are making a decision, a choice as a reporter is a videographer to exclude everything outside of that frame.

In VR there is no frame and captures full 360 including the videographer, which I believe is perfectly fine in a new setting, but you essentially showing the environment as it is at that moment if it’s a photo or if it’s a live video or a live stream which what we’ve been doing in VR. Therefore while you’re still choosing where to put the camera and there are some filters, still remaining your choosing where to put it when to turn it on, when to turn it off, its closer to recreating the sense or creating a sense of the person being there of the audience member or the consumer being at that location, whether that location is in the halls  of congress or the steps of the supreme court or the front lines in the middle east and then we layer on sort of the news story or the narrative in audio form on top of that.

Neil: So are you guys completely focused on virtual reality and the immersive effective report in the news and telling their stories would you also see a future for AR as well in this field?

Nico: Absolutely for AR  and while they different technologies that need to be  thought of differently with different strategies of supporting them, there is also a sense that convergence is coming and that the devices that one would use to experience VR or AR will probably merge and become one, however it is important to stress and I feel that they are very different and you shouldn’t use VR and AR interchangeably because it’s not like apples and oranges it’s more like apples and elephants they are so different from each other.

In many ways I make the one analogy is phones and cameras and now we carry around these devices that the do two completely different things, but they’re on every device, on everyone that we carry now they make calls and they have fantastic phones or video cameras, but no one would confuse the ability to make a call with the ability to take a picture, they are not the same thing, we think of AR and VR in the same way.

Neil: Finally, the next 12 to 18 months were expecting to see USA today using this technology more and more. Is anything you can tell the listeners there about what we can expect?

Nico: Our AR efforts are still a little further away before were able to integrate them into our applications and our experiences although we are heads down deep into development of them, but what users can expect from us in the near future is both more 360 in VR content but where we are really pushing the envelope is in presenting interactive VR news experiences which we are going to launch very soon.

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