CNN Blazing A Trail With Live AR Reporting

By TVNewsCheck on June 21, 2018

ATLANTA — Augmented reality reporting isn’t for the faint of heart.

Tom Foreman

Tom Foreman, the CNN correspondent who is leading the network’s groundbreaking work on that front, recently recalled the first time his team tried to use the immersive, interactive graphics live. It was election night, and they had picked a set target — a single hit helping to explain a race on the electoral map.

Foreman’s job was to gesture to a virtual map on the ground beneath him and watch it morph from 1990 to the present, declaring, “and look at it now!” as it changed.

Only nothing happened.

Unbeknownst to anyone, a backhoe had severed a line somewhere along the Atlanta-to-Washington, D.C., circuit through which CNN was pumping an enormous amount of information on that busy election night. There was a backup line, but it was inundated with information, slowing down the data for crunchier pieces like Foreman’s AR hit.

“And look at it now, but first …” Foreman stalled, ad libbing while he and his team waited an excruciating 25 seconds for the hit to finally come through.

“We finished the hit and nobody knew that anything had gone wrong,” he says.

Speaking at TVNewsCheck’s NewsTECHFutures Retreat here, Foreman used the story as an object lesson for all that is perilous in AR reporting and its manifold demands on news teams. It’s a terrain where few of CNN’s peers have yet to range too widely, and for good reason: AR is fraught with potential misuses, missteps and embarrassing on-air blunders.

Coupled with a vertiginously steep learning curve, it’s enough to make any news organization wonder: why attempt to use AR in live reporting at all?

Foreman holds that AR is wildly useful for explainers in a news environment that has become dauntingly complex for viewers. His team has used it to help visualize plane disappearances, missile launches, the Las Vegas mass shooting and Senate floor dynamics, among numerous other applications.

Equally important is planting the flag. “The reason we’ve done it at CNN is because we knew in the end, we would have something that nobody else had,” Foreman says.

But go first and be sure of a hard time.

“This is enormously challenging,” Foreman says. “There will be mistakes along the way, and everyone has to be patient.”

AR’s Best Practices: Dedicated Control Room

If there’s anything of an AR best practices handbook emerging, Foreman and his team are the ones patiently writing it. There are only six of them working across two bureaus, but they’ve evolved into a prolific — and fast — unit that can now produce hits in just a few hours that would’ve taken days when they began experimenting.

In sharing the basic chapters of that AR playbook, Foreman suggests that technology is only the price of admission. News organizations need certain baseline elements there — Vizrt, motion-capture and live cameras, audio and lighting among them — but the make-or-break differences come down to the team executing the AR hits and the planning involved.

First, Foreman stresses that news organizations need a dedicated control room for AR. “This process is too complicated for someone directing a show to manage,” he says. “Don’t underestimate that for a minute.”

Taking the AR plunge means loads of practice time and test runs, and Foreman says the team needs to be solely focused on the task of their hits and not any other element of the newscast. These hits are too complicated to simply practice over a commercial break, and when something goes wrong, they require people who intimately know the system to rescue everyone from a cataclysmic on-air failure.

Staging AR elements convincingly also requires some tightly choreographed movements on behalf of the on-air reporter. He or she must frame every gesture to be realistically in sync with the augmented graphics. That also means that a teleprompter needs to be absent from the set, lest the journalist develop too fixated a gaze on it and break the effects’ illusion.

A Tool, Not A Toy

It’s important that newsrooms ask themselves why they want to tell a story in AR before they begin to work on a piece, Forman says.

“Because it looks so cool,” many in the industry might hasten to answer. And it will, Forman says, but that’s not enough. Treat AR that way and “what you will have is a toy, not a tool,” he says, and it will quickly be used foolishly.

AR is most useful in helping viewers to see something they otherwise couldn’t or to understand a concept that might be too opaque — say the physics of a North Korean rocket launch or the layout of an Iranian nuclear facility for which no photos are available.

Once the AR goal is framed out, the next step is to determine which elements are absolutely essential for the hit and which are lower on the priority scale. Got a missing Malaysian plane? Build the plane first. Rumors that a ground crew delivering oxygen tanks may have had a role in its disappearance? Hold off on building that virtual crew, as new reporting can easily debunk the rumor while the hit is still being built.

“We have had to throw away beautiful work,” Foreman says.

He likens the process to building a sofa first, then fussing with the pillows after.

The Team: Musicians And Magicians

Anyone can buy the equipment to bring AR on air, Foreman says, but just because you’ve got a guitar, bass and drum kit doesn’t mean you have a band.

Assembling the right band is the most crucial part of AR’s execution, and there are a lot of team members needed to bring to the picture.

That starts with everyone on the team being a Renaissance person involved in all aspects of each hit. They need to be imaginative and calm, ready by nature to deal with the myriad things that will inevitably go wrong and keeping cool as they do.

The on-air reporter plays a crucial role, adopting a necessary “magic mentality” that viewers must buy to accept the hit.

That’s a role Foreman has been training for since he was 12 years old and running a touring magic show complete with some two dozen doves, an array of curtains and a disappearing box.

The show instilled in Foreman the magician’s necessity to always think of two things at once: what the audience sees and what is actually happening. If a mistake is made mid-trick, the magician can’t just throw up his hands and ask for a do-over.

“They always have to move forward as if everything is just fine,” Foreman says. “Nobody else knows it’s not working. Do your job. Defend your castle.”

Since its very first near-mishap with the electoral map, CNN has made a lot of AR mistakes on air. For the most part, no one has ever known they happened.

Other Perils

Foreman has a few other cautions for those who would adopt AR. One is not to Balkanize the process.

He says many news operations will follow their instincts to have a graphics team build the AR, a studio department install it and then a news department use the hits, often tapping the most popular anchor to do the honors.

Such disconnectedness is folly, Foreman says, and why AR is apt to make a brief appearance on air and then disappear swiftly thereafter.

Another consideration is quickly developing a set of standards and practices by which to operate. For instance, rendering a map of the Middle East on the studio floor? Better be very careful where you step, lest you gravely insult a country by planting your heels in the wrong place.

“We spend a lot of time having these conversations about what is proper to do,” Foreman says.

Pulling AR off on air is an arduous process. Even if the necessary tech is already several years old, a news operation’s build is very slow at the beginning. At first, the results are minimal and the flaws and mistakes are high.

But the payoff has given CNN some of its most popular on air and digital segments. It has also put the network on the technology’s cutting edge, where experimenting now is moving toward full gestural control of AR from in front of the cameras rather than from control room cues.

When CNN gets there, Foreman is adamant it will be more down to the team than the tech.

“This isn’t about technology evolving,” he says. “It’s about the people evolving.”