Saturday, March 04, 2006

On the Other Side of the Talking Heads

User-Directed News is currently being tested in conjunction with USC's Institute for Creative Technologies as an immersive media alternative to low-interaction traditional television reporting. The UDN technology allows a user wearing a 3-D viewing device to see a panoramic 360 degree view of a remote news scene. In the demo I saw with a reporter standing in Skid Row, from the SIGGRAPH talk of ICT's Skip Rizzo, the viewer can explore the blighted urban geography and even see what the reporter is seeing. In another story on mass yoga practice, the reporter was actually added into the panorama during post-production.

For a scholarly view on the interactivity/vividness rationale for this kind of program, see Jonathan Steuer's still classic 1992 work on "Telepresence." The User-Directed News program is further explained in the Online Journalism Review from the Annenberg Center, which also covers news technologies that have already been successfully implemented by mainstream media, such as blogs and, to a lesser extent, wikis. The Integrated Media Systems Center, which has been developing User-Directed News, has many corporate sponsors, so I might be wary of possible applications of this virtual reality program in an increasingly pre-fabricated news environment in which advertising and journalism (and sometimes also politics) blend. In the past I've been critical of 360 degree forms of info-tainment on government websites in a posting called "The Back Side of Water." But perhaps the developers of User-Directed News can persuade me to change my mind.

Of course, I can't resist pointing out that the Pentagon Channel could use this new technology to supplement their current Internet offerings, which already include Department of Defense podcasting. Civil libertarians who were vindicated by the recent release of the names of Guantanamo detainees yesterday might be even more pleased to see the Guantanamo features page offering a 360 degree interactive view so visitors could search for possible human rights abuses.

Despite my skepticism about User Directed News, I don't mean to entirely disparage the idea of greater interactivity in news coverage to engage an increasingly non-newspaper reading public. I enjoy the "audio slideshows" on the New York Times website. Those accustomed to television may find them lacking in vividness, but I think they improve my experience of a traditional print story. I like that they allow me to study well-composed news photos and sometimes also hear the voices of the people in the stories testifying to their own experiences in their own voices. For example, yesterday's audio slideshow on Parisian libraries was right up my information access alley. Unfortunately, the audio slide show stories are often more New-York centered than where my news interests are, but they do run an excellent series called "Photographer's Journal" in which Times photographers explain individual images, the challenges behind particular assignments, and their aesthetic and ideological philosophies about composing news photos. They are truly "photo essays," unlike co-opted new Internet versions of the genre.

The New York Times also presents Interactive Features, which may integrate video or interactive graphics. These Interactive Features often cover complex issues like class in America or globalization or the causal factors involved in conflicts in war zones, although they also ran a regrettably trivial series on wine with various critics talking about their degustation experiences. The columnist Nicholas Kristof has used this interactive format for covering many issues that seem disconnected from the daily lives on non-passport bearing Americans, such as the sex trade in India and Cambodia, global warming in the Maldives, and the genocide in Darfur.

This week there has been some debate about the appropriate role of sound and Flash interactivity on websites at Design Your Life, because many designers still see predominantly see web pages as a single-sense visual media. I would argue that "interactive news" would be best used to pursue important stories in remote locations rather than highlight more facile opportunities to showcase bells-and-whistles technologies.

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