Chris Sacca is affable, fluent, original (he has a nice line in embroidered cowboy shirts), and a massively successful tech investor. As proprietor of Lowercase Capital, he is known for his early-stage investment in Twitter, Uber, Instagram and Kickstarter. He played a big role in Barack Obama’s two presidential election campaigns, is a guest panellist on Shark Tank, the flagship of start-up-investment TV, and was on the cover of Forbes magazine’s 2015 “Midas” edition.
But Sacca avoids running with the crowd. He lives between Montana and Manhattan Beach, Los Angeles, away from the investor echo-chamber of Silicon Valley, and is a straightforward thinker about where tech is going. In early 2016 Sacca had something particularly interesting to say about the virtual reality industry, and where the money is being invested.
What he said made us sit up and listen at immersiv.ly. It chimes closely with our mission to help people care about news, and to understand the emotional effect that news has on its audience – and how that effect changes when news is presented in virtual reality.
Sacca was guest presenting, answering listeners’ questions, on the Tim Ferriss Show – the whip-smart podcast run by Ferriss, author of the best-selling Four Hour Work Week, that gets under the bonnet with high-performing entrepreneurs. The comments that caught our attention come 23 minutes into the podcast, in answer to questions on how societies can adapt to the increasing speed of technological advances.
“I am concerned,” Sacca says. “We approach a lot of this stuff with this universal embrace of progress with a really engineering-centric focus on what the measures of progress are [my emphasis] … Each year at CES [the Consumer Electronics Show] they show a display with more and more resolution and they show a virtual reality headset with less and less latency.”
“ [VR head-mounted displays] are incredible technical achievements yet what I worry about is that those displays are outpacing the rate of our biological and physiological adaptation… That’s one of the things that is interesting, that, one after one, these advances are technical achievements… I’m really impressed by the [technical] teams’ abilities, but I don’t think we’re making the same investment in the biological and psychological ramifications of some of these things… [my emphasis].”
The important point Sacca makes is about industry priorities. Technical achievements are lauded, progress is measured with an “engineering-centric focus”, but he doesn’t see that the industry is making the “same investment” – hard cash, hard attention – in the effects of VR content on users. This at a time when all the big tech players – Facebook, Google, Apple (hand yet to be shown), Samsung – are investing heavily in VR and when Goldman Sachs has forecast that the virtual reality and augmented reality industries – hardware and software combined – could be worth $182bn by 2025.
Sacca is speaking our language.
Immersiv.ly was founded to solve a problem for mainstream media – that many listeners feel alienated from news. It was created for those who don’t read newspapers or watch mainstream bulletins because both leave them feeling frightened and depressed.
Why is this case? Why have so many people developed a resistance to mainstream news, or a distrust for what goes into producing it? Not just because the world is a violent and dangerous place, I would argue, but because newsmakers have, over generations, become concerned more with competing with colleagues and rivals, with professional kudos, more with doing a great job than with understanding the effect their content has on their audiences.
The alienation this has created seems to derive in part from a distortion of the “church and state” separation between the commercial and editorial sides of news publishers so that senior editors in news organisations have been left (with no good reason) in the dark on what audiences think and feel; in part from a well-intentioned default, the “professionalisation” of an industry, where the buzz of “being a good journalist” drowns out an awareness of the effect that news content has on its audience.
One negative impact of propaganda, a term which to my mind has to include “news propaganda”, has been identified by the neuroscientist David Eagleman, author of The Brain: The Story of You. Eagleman describes our brains as having empathy networks that get “dialled down by propaganda”. “If we can come to understand these patterns of dehumanisation,” Eagleman told independent.co.uk, “we’ll be more immune to them.”
For “propaganda” in the news sphere I would identify three levels of engagement:
- Conscious manipulation of the news agenda
- The 24-hour cycle of low-quality “churnalism”
- The more benign “professionalised” journalism, written more for journalists than for the rest of the world.
The “psychological ramifications” that Sacca identifies – that he wants the VR industry to understand, to invest in understanding – are the latest generation of the emotional effects on consumers that mainstream news sources have been largely blind to for more than a century.
Why immersiv.ly makes news in virtual reality
At immersiv.ly we started off with a beta website where users could record the emotional effect content produced in them, and we moved into making news content in virtual reality at the first opportunity (the vote of confidence in the format Facebook gave when they spent $2 billion in March 2014 on acquiring the VR headset maker Oculus Rift), and launched our first documentary in 360-degree video, Hong Kong Unrest, in January 2015.
We see news in VR as a way to provide our audience with an antidote to having their empathy networks “dialled down” by placing them at the heart of the action, and giving them a sense of agency in how they view it.
In 2015-16 we have been making and selling news content in VR – at present we are co-producing pieces filmed in Los Angeles, Singapore, the United Kingdom and Latin America – to demonstrate VR’s power as a story-telling medium, always with the longer-term aim of understanding the emotional effect of consuming news. It’s still early days for the medium, there are no hard and fast rules, but in 18 months of making content, we have gathered the following observations:
- Consuming news in virtualy reality (VR) has a wow factor. It puts people at the heart of the action.
- By showing news in virtual reality you are giving the user a sense of agency, the “final cut”, that changes their attitude to the content. We call that “media less mediated”.
- The sense of agency given to the consumer of news in virtual reality encourages them to take a second look. News in virtual reality is “sticky”.
- What matters in making 360-degree video is less whether a story is “suitable” or not for telling in the medium, but how well you use the spherical view to give a compelling context to a story. Nick Bicanic, founder of RVLVR studios, makes this point very well in his talk on editing 360-degree video at NAB 2016 and his catchily titled post Cinematic VR is not an Easter Egg Hunt. That people should not be made to hunt for a story in the entire sphere – film-makers should focus on understanding how to make people feel what they’re trying to get across. The full 360-degree sphere is the context within which the story takes place. Just as in real life. “I don’t necessarily look around to see that the back of the restaurant is there when I’m talking to you,” Bicanic says, “but I feel it’s there and that makes all the difference.”
- News in VR demonstrates the intimate narrative power of the medium. We find the auto-portrait, the subject talking to camera, is a powerful format in virtual reality (with the format allowing the delivery of rich context). A powerful tool for creating patchwork narratives in the manner of the wonderful Humans of New York.
- Most 360-degree video content is going to be consumed on smartphones, without using a head-mounted display (HMD). It’s where the mass adoption is happening now in emerging markets. HMDs are great for high-fidelity experiences, and eye-popping frames per second quality, great for promotional pictures. But for telling stories in 360-degree video, it’s the editing and content, and accessibility (for that massive universe with a smartphone already to hand) that matters. Google Cardboard and its derivatives provide a powerful, and decidedly “smart”, enhancement of the smartphone experience (and a great promotional tool), but they are not vital to it. You can get customers through the 360-degree video door with a smartphone alone.
- Consuming news in virtual reality changes the consumer’s view of what news content is, and what it can be. And that, more than anything else, is the challenge facing news-makers. That is the great, and fascinating, ethical challenge. To understand people’s changing attitude to what content is.
- The relationship between maker and consumer of news in virtual reality is proving to be subtly, but definitely, different to that in legacy formats. And we want to be part of defining what that new relationship can, and should, be.
- There are no hard and fast rules. So keep on experimenting.
News in virtual reality has been lucky in its pioneers
The point that Chris Sacca makes is not that makers of VR content are unaware of the power of VR for empathy, or that they deliberately create a sense of dislocation. The point he makes is about the emphasis in investment. Where the really big money has been going. The bulk of investment is all about high-fidelity experience. But where’s the high-fidelity understanding of all that high-fidelity consumption? That’s his concern.
After all, news in VR has been very lucky in its headline-making pioneers – Chris Milk, founder of VRSE Works, in 360-degree video, Nonny de la Peña, founder of Emblematic, for computer-generated narratives, and more besides. Both are serious journalists, and self-aware content-makers. Both are true visionaries with a sense of responsibility. And the question of ethics in VR journalism has in the past six months become increasingly the focus of serious study, and intense discussion, backed by the Knight Foundation, Google News Labs and conferences such as StoryNext and the Online News Association.
And big news companies have started to invest in VR content and VR as a platform, especially in the United States. The Gannett group, owners of USA Today and numerous other titles, backed one of the first ventures in the field – Harvest of Change, made by the Des Moines Register – back in the autumn of 2014. In November 2015, the New York Times launched NYTVR, a platform for news in virtual reality, and its most successful app launch to date. In April 2016, AOL Huffington Post bought RYOT and its 22-strong team, a rising star in the news in VR universe, for a sum reportedly between $10 million and $15 million.
Sacca warns of the myopia of Silicon Valley
Sacca’s concern is that the weight of investment in VR companies is so heavily biased (in hard cash) towards technical excellence, to high-fidelity experience, rather than to understanding the profound, invisible, effects of living and consuming content in virtual reality. (Looking at it from the content-maker’s point of view, what Sacca highlights is the product of $6 billion of investment in hardware in the last two years, and not very much investment in content and the consumer.)
And he links his concern about the balance of investment in VR to a wider point – to what he sees a burgeoning myopia of the “haves” of Silicon Valley towards the “have nots” that make up the bulk of society.
“I see a digital divide, there are haves and have-nots, a health care divide, an education divide, a criminal justice divide, a nutritional divide. And yet much of the tech available today doesn’t seem to be improving those situations very much …
“That’s the myopia that concerns me the most [Silicon Valley’s leaders realisation that they, as individuals, will always hack the system, come out on top, with no empathy for people who don’t share their capacity to do so]. And yet all of that has come at the exclusion of a lot of the voices that I consider to be vital in a worthy society, in a round, and robust and exciting society… They are just not voices you interact with much in Silicon Valley today, in the tech world day. And… that myopia concerns me because I think that it is going to end up costing us, as an industry, a lot of success. But I think a lack of empathy there is going to lead to more political and social unrest.”
Since Sacca’s podcast one particular investment – $100m in MindMaze to create a “neural virtual reality platform” – shows a large financial interest (giving MindMaze a valuation of $1 billion) in a capability that could answer his concerns about the effect of VR content on users, from a company that creates VR products for the health sector. MindMaze will use the investment, according to the analysis of Ben Lang of RoadtoVR, to create tech that “has a clearer overall picture of the user at the center of the experience, using a number of a different input systems from motion tracking and brain activity to accomplish that goal”.
MindMaze is plainly looking to monetise beyond medicine, saying in its press release that it is looking at “licensing … to power virtual reality-optimized products for mainstream experiences beyond gaming”.
And with that kind of capability – an “overall pictures of the user” – being pursued by MindMaze and other heavily funded players, the industry will have the means to understand the effect of every type of content, including VR content, on users.
It’s all about how we use that capability for the better. And for that, the whole VR industry needs to be held to account by the likes of Chris Sacca.
And that’s also the reason that we will be focusing in 2016 on reaching a better understanding of the effect that news content in virtual reality has on news consumers.
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