Imagine climbing 5600 metres to Everest base camp with relative ease. When you get there it’s so cold that when you exhale you see your breath. How about travelling a little higher and landing on the surface of Mars?
Despite the thin air in the Jezero Crater, you take command of the Perseverance Rover and start to dig for samples. What comes next? A quick selfie of course!
For most of us, these experiences are out of reach. But thanks to National Geographic millions of us do reach these heights -- virtually. The publication that has taken us all over the globe and beyond through its printed pages, websites and apps offers subscribers these Everest and Mars experiences via the power of its incredible imagery and the Augmented Reality (AR) capabilities of the Instagram Spark AR platform.
In many ways, these experiences are just the latest in 133 years of National Geographic’s mission of “illuminating and protecting the wonder of our world,” and whose incredible photography has inspired so many people to want to explore -- and save -- all facets of our natural world.
It’s easy to see why NatGeo is such a beloved brand. As the late astrophysicist Stephen Hawking once said, “We are, by nature, explorers, motivated by curiosity—a uniquely human quality that sent explorers to prove the Earth is not flat, and it is the same instinct that sends us to the stars.”
Today, however, many are thinking twice about travelling by plane to exotic places that NatGeo brings alive for us. Covid aside, there’s greater concern than ever for the environment in the wake of Cop26. Popular sites from Everest to Angkor Wat to Machu Picchu are suffering ecological damage with governments actively implementing ways to reduce tourist numbers. But as my virtual sojourns in Himalaya and on Mars’ Isidis Planitia show, immersive storytelling using the latest VR & AR technology can help humans scratch their itch for discovery in a safe, affordable, accessible, and satisfying way.
Making immersive imagery work for a new age
At our recent ImageCon event, I had the immense pleasure of talking with someone central to all this amazing work at National Geographic, Whitney Johnson, VP of Immersive and Visual Experiences. What follows are some highlights to offer advice and inspiration:
Working more with local creatives
Covid’s accelerated a change in the kind of storytelling that the organisation wants to do, with less emphasis on sending photographers from its Washington, DC headquarters and instead a push to work with more local creatives: “We're a global brand, but now more and more the work we're doing is done by contributors who really reflect the world that we live in.” But pandemic limitations also drove it to be more creative, with both VR and AR but also audio.
Taking photography and storytelling into the 21st century
Technology and digital are key here, but as Whitney explained, these things don’t work unless there’s emotional reasons for the viewer to engage: “For me, augmented reality is not a gimmick, but a way to reach audiences where they're really at,” she said. “Like a lot of people, we’ve found that you really need emotion and content to be able to draw our audiences in and get their interest and hook them into a story.”
Building shared experiences
It’s one thing to look at an amazing picture of a fjord in a magazine. But what about making that experience a shared one? “I think there's such an opportunity for shared experiences through the digital space,” she told me. “I can travel to somewhere amazing with my father who’s in Santa Fe, and we can do it all from the safety and security of our living room. I think that's an interesting way of thinking about the connections that we're able to make in the digital space and which doesn't have to be an isolating experience—it can actually also be a space that brings us together socially.”
The power of a content spectrum
NatGeo is getting more and more interested in all forms of visual content, from Instagram to its new TikTok presence, as well as television: “We’re always thinking about what video can uniquely offer and provide in the digital space reaching people on these platforms and their mobile devices. That could be short-form content that people may engage with in a vastly different way than when they sit down on our couch and want to engage with a Netflix special.
So, we're thinking about the format that story will take in the printed pages of our magazine, but also our responsibility to tell the story across all these digital platforms, and the need to create and acquire different kinds of content to really meet the appetite of the audience in each of those spaces.” But, she stresses, there’s still an important role for those iconic still images you see in the magazine, “I do need those still images that get sort of fixed in your mind and stick with you.”
And the ability to deploy it in the best form wherever needed
“The majority of our content is seen by our audience on mobile devices, and I get asked, doesn't it break your heart when you see one of these gorgeous images reduced to a two-inch size? Well, no. I think it's important that people are seeing the story and engaging with it. As a journalist, as a storyteller, as a content maker, I think it’s not only our job but should be our desire to have our stories and images seen by as big an audience as possible, but we need to be realistic about where we're putting those images, and how we're reaching these different audiences in these different places.
There are other tools that we can use to build out that story in a more immersive and visually rich way that also doesn't preclude it from being a big, beautiful print in a museum gallery either. Our most successful photographers are able to embrace this idea that their work can and should be seen across all of these platforms; an image is just a photograph until we think about how we're going to package it up in a way that we can deliver it to our audiences in a way that it really has meaning and creates a memorable, immersive, rich experience for them.”
Inspiring stuff, I hope you agree. I’d love to chat more, only I’m headed back to Everest...
Why don’t you meet me there?
Juli Greenwood is Cloudinary's Senior Director of Communications & Customer Marketing.
How National Geographic Uses Immersive Experiences To Take Us To Bucket List Places