When it comes to innovating on emerging technologies like VR and AR, we often think of nimble startups like Emblematic Group, Within or others. But among the top producer and distributors of these innovative stories is TIME Inc., a company that may be better known for their print products.
But TIME Inc. has always been an innovator, especially with visuals, through its brands that include LIFE and Sports Illustrated. They currently have the LIFE VR, which has been offering some of the industry’s greatest work.
I (virtually) sat down with Mia Tramz, Managing Editor of LIFE VR and head of their VR endeavors to hear more about their work and how they have been innovators within a legacy media company.
So, let’s start with your journey into VR… how did you get into this space? Did you have a “moment” that changed your life?
Well we can go way back. Before I started working on LIFE VR, I was at TIME magazine – more specifically TIME.com – for about three and a half years. I was hired initially as a freelance photo editor for breaking news on the website and worked my way up eventually to Senior Multimedia Editor, overseeing the photo and multimedia team. In 2014, I produced TIME’s first underwater 360 video called Deep Dive with Fabien Cousteau. We did a scuba dive around Aquarius, an underwater science lab that Fabien was living on for a record 31 days, and used motion graphics and VO to help guide people to see what all the features of the lab were as you ‘swim’ around it.
That kicked off an early love for immersive storytelling for me that lead eventually to VR and AR. I started looking into how we might produce VR for TIME shortly thereafter and have been chasing it to one degree or another since then.
Who pitched the 360 angle to you for that project?
And how did the tech get on your radar?
To be honest, I’m not sure I remember. 360 storytelling was not something uncommon at TIME at that moment – my boss at the time, Jonathan Woods, had just produced TIME’s Gigapan 360 image off the spire of the new World Trade Center – we were already thinking about 360, and video seemed to be the next logical step. I was lucky to be working in a forward thinking organization with a boss who was innovative on all fronts.
Oh yeah, I remember that tech. Tell me about the VR department/team at TIME Inc. You are the head, but you must have a team of people finding all the great projects you have been releasing. (I know the team is actually small.)
We truly are a skeleton crew. The only full time members of the LIFE VR team on the editorial side are myself and Michaela Holland (EDITOR’s NOTE: In the interest of full disclosure, I introduced Tramz and Holland to each other through the VR Google Group I curate.), a very brilliant freelance 360 producer who works with me on all aspects of what we do. We have the ability to expand and contract per project since I work hand in hand with the editorial teams at all of our brands. So for example, for Capturing Everest, the VR / AR docu-series we launched with Sports Illustrated in May, I worked closely with Chris Stone, their Editor in Chief, Josh Oshinsky their Executive Producer for video, and Ben Eagle and Ryan Hunt from SI.com. We also co-produced that series with Endemol Shine Beyond – so we find the best team per project and it can vary.
We also share resources with certain product, business development, and sales teams – we try to keep it as scrappy as possible, leveraging the support and power of Time Inc without investing undue resources.
I have to tell you, the LIFE VR is now among the first I recommend when it comes to immersive stories. You guys — you two! — have some incredible projects there, ranging from the Pearl Harbor experience to 8i’s Buzz Aldrin Mars piece. And, for Star Wars nerds like me, the Rogue One piece. How is the support from TIME Inc, when it comes to your projects? Can you talk about the first breakthrough project where you noticed support from management, if there was one.
Thank you very much for that – we will take all the recommendations we can get and your support means so much! I’m glad that we’re striking a cord. I will do my due diligence here and ask your readers to please download the LIFE VR app – if they are the proud owners of a smartphone, it’s available FOR FREE for iPhone and Android. You can see all the projects we’ll talk about there, plus many others. We also have a LIFE VR channel in Samsung VR if you happen to have a Gear headset.
Time Inc was fairly forward thinking as a media organization in launching LIFE VR as an initiative when they did last year – that alone was a huge show of support. And it’s been a process since then of taking support when it’s given, and then doing something with that support that the organization can really be proud of. I have tried to not take for granted the ways in which the company has let me be experimental and put a lot of faith in my vision and abilities. It’s a very special place to be in an industry that by all accounts is struggling.
Chris Stone giving Capturing Everest, a VR and AR project, a cover was a huge huge show of support that we can’t underestimate. People magazine putting 500K goggles into the Star Wars issue for Rogue One and touting the VR experience – and LIFE VR – on the cover of that issue was huge – JD Heyman, Mary Green and JJ Miller at that brand have put a ton of time into working with me and positioning People as a leader among the entertainment side of VR. TIME has been hugely supportive promoting any and all projects we publish across all of their platforms including print which as you know is extremely valuable. Our leadership, Rich Batista, Alan Murray, and Jen Wong have also internally given a lot of support and encouragement. Our sales teams getting behind VR and AR as products has been pretty amazing to see. And beyond that, the company making sure we had a presence at festivals like SXSW, Sundance, and most recently at Cannes Lions has been hugely important to getting the brand and the work out there.
With the small team you have, how do you find and fund these projects?
My vision for LIFE VR from the get go has been that we are not creating VR for it’s own sake; it has to be compelling and meaningful to a degree that if you came across a trailer for one of our projects in your Facebook feed or elsewhere, you would be excited enough to do the legwork of downloading the content, finding a headset and then committing what might otherwise be TV time to watching the experience. Those are no small asks on the consumer and we want the experiences we produce and distribute to meet – and exceed – your expectations. I also wanted each of our projects, even if it’s in a small way, to push the conversation of what’s possible in the medium forward.
In terms of finding projects – it’s a combination of developing concepts in house and collaborating with folks outside of Time Inc. We come up with many of the concepts ourselves. Some come just from me, some are dreamt up collaboratively. Remembering Pearl Harbor, one of the biggest projects we produced last year, was an idea that TIME’s History Editor Lily Rothman came up with many months ago when we first started talking about VR for TIME.
(Video courtesy of Mia Tramz and TIME Inc.)
For some of our other projects where we’ve co-produced the project, the ideas may come from the partner but we then develop and execute the idea together. For example, we worked closely with 8i, the volumetric motion capture company on a project called Buzz Aldrin: Cycling Pathways to Mars last year. It started as a very different idea and evolved as we worked on it together. 8i lead creatively; we helped to get Buzz and his team involved and then made sure that everything checked out journalistically. The concept was to create a VR hologram of Buzz, and then let you travel with him from his landing site on the moon to the surface of Mars. TIME Senior Editor Jeff Kluger worked closely with 8i to make sure that historically and scientifically, everything was accurate, in the same way we would for any TIME project.
Finding and shining a spotlight on important content is also very important. A big part of my job is research and meeting with anyone who is doing interesting work in the space, from independent creators to big production houses. I think you’ll see that reflected in the projects we’ve produced and distributed. From the start, I wanted LIFE VR to be as much an engine for creating original work as a platform for curation and distribution of the best work that is being created outside of Time Inc.
Regarding funding, it’s as much of a challenge for us as for any company producing VR or AR right now. On the front end, Time Inc provided me with a budget to get the brand off the ground and I tried to use that as wisely and judiciously as possible. Beyond that, we have worked with a few companies to co-fund projects that go beyond what a company like Time Inc could support right now but that we thought were important. For example, Remembering Pearl Harbor, our room-scale game engine run experience that we published for the 75th anniversary of the attack last year was co-funded by AMD and HTC, who also gave us a lot of really important technical support in the creation process.
I have spent a fair amount of time also making sure that our sales teams are as educated on AR and VR as possible. I work very closely with Joelle Zerillo who is my counterpart on the sales side of our company making sure our teams can talk about the technologies and our capabilities with clients comfortably. We have been building and refining a sales strategy for both for several months now and will continue to develop it as both technologies evolve and our offerings change.
And, because this is on everyone’s mind, how have you generated revenue? How are you measuring success with your work? Is it views, revenue, experimentation, more support, etc.?
This is probably the most complex question with an equally complex answer. There isn’t really one thing I can tell you that will cover it. Time Inc is a huge organization; our sales teams sell to equally huge organizations. VR and AR are very new products, even still, and finding the ways in which both products add value to our clients I think is to a large degree still being discovered. I will say that adding VR and AR to our offering of both editorial content and sales products has opened up conversations for us with clients that we wouldn’t be having otherwise and I think in many ways has changed some clients’ view of what Time Inc is. The revenue that’s generated isn’t always one-to-one – they may end up being interested in talking to us about a project or sponsorship that doesn’t include AR or VR, but they want to have that conversation with us because of the work we’re doing in AR and/or VR.
More directly, we have sold branded content – our first branded campaign launched last year with Emirates where our branded video team produced 360 tours of Dubai for the brand and we published the collection in the LIFE VR app. More recently, Coors sponsored the AR activation for the Capturing Everest cover of Sports Illustrated that was followed by a 360 trailer for the project that also launched from the cover using the new LIFE AR camera in the LIFE VR app. And we will have a few more branded VR and AR campaigns launching later this summer.
Measuring success in both mediums is very different than video and I expect will continue to change. My personal metric for success is cultural impact – if I get people talking, that’s success to me.
(Video courtesy of Mia Tramz and TIME Inc.)
I may be pushing my luck here, but do you have any user stats you can share? Any reader metrics on how viewers/users are engaging with both your VR content and AR pieces? Even in general terms.
LIFE VR’s audience reaches beyond the app itself – we also publish to the LIFE VR channel on Samsung VR, and as 360 video across our brands websites and social platforms including Facebook 360 and our brands’ YouTube channels. Organic viewership of our content across platforms to date is 15MM.
Sports Illustrated and LIFE VR’s Capturing Everest 4-part VR Experience and first AR experience garnered over 845 million media impressions.
You have published nearly 20 projects… with that amount of content, what insights have you gathered in terms of what makes an engaging immersive story? Not the business or tech side, but the perspective of the person experiencing the piece.
I think the biggest take away is that you have to think of projects holistically. Though we are all deep in the world of these new technologies as creators, this is all still very new territory for our readers. With each project we launch, we try to think beyond the VR or AR experience itself to ways to articulate to our readers what this is and why they should watch it through more traditional forms of media. Because LIFE VR is an umbrella brand for all Time Inc titles, with any piece of content we are able to leverage not only the LIFE VR app, but the magazine, website and social platforms of the brand it’s attached to; and the websites and social platforms of any other Time Inc title that the project is relevant to. Capturing Everest was a very good example of that – we had the print piece and AR activation in the magazine. The print article and Capturing Everest cover of Sports Illustrated introduced readers to the main character in the Capturing Everest VR series, Jeff Glasbrenner who, with our climb, became the first American amputee to summit Mount Everest. His story – told over several pages with beautiful photographs and text – is something the SI reader already relates to and helps us make the case to them that seeking out the related VR experience is worth their time. Dropping 360 clips into the issue using the LIFE AR camera gets them into the content AND into the app where the VR content lives – it’s just a single click for them from the AR activation to the VR series.
We try to make VR as friendly and exciting as possible, to use the platforms we publish across that are not AR or VR to demystify it a bit for our readers and make it feel accessible.
As my last question, what advice do you have to media companies — startups and legacy — that want to get into immersive storytelling?
My advice to media companies interested in getting into immersive storytelling would be the same advice I would give to them about any of their content – do your readers want this from you? Or, in what way do your readers want this from you? There are countless ways into AR, VR and 360 video – just as many approaches as with more traditional mediums. The relationship your brand has with your readers is an emotional one – they count on you to activate a very specific part of their mind. There are certainly ways to challenge user expectations that are fruitful and interesting for both sides, but you want them to trust you and you want to be worthy of that trust. We are a window out onto the world that they have chosen to look through – it’s a responsibility I don’t think any of us should take for granted. It’s a challenge now especially in this day and age as we face existential and fundamental questions about the shape and structure of our industry – but the responsibility to readers is the same.
More specifically and more practically I would say that anyone looking to get into immersive storytelling should do a lot of legwork on the front end. Understanding what has already been done, what makes for a good user experience, what makes for compelling content is requisite for even having a conversation as to the why’s and how’s of undertaking your own immersive storytelling initiative. There’s already a broad range of content out there – what we need to do now is keep pushing it forward and learning from what’s been done.
Thank you so much for taking the time, Mia, to share your insights and experience. I am excited to see what else you guys produce!
Thanks for your time Robert, it’s always a pleasure to talk with you. Thank you for the incredible resources and insight you bring to all of us – you’re an invaluable contributor to our industry in so many ways.
Very kind of you to say.