WRAL's Google Glass broadcasts preview possible TV news future
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Raleigh, N.C. — "Hello, Glass," spoke Bill Leslie. And with that voice command, a new era of truly immersive broadcasting began last Tuesday morning at WRAL TV.
Watchers could very well have experienced what newscasts of the future will include on a regular basis: The action, the sights, the sounds as seen by reporters and anchors who deliver the news.
They did so courtesy of Google Glass, a powerful voice-controlled computing device that resembles glasses but is as different from your prescription bifocals as digital is from analog. First users of Google Glass - as picked by the Internet giant - are called "Explorers." And WRAL went exploring over four consecutive days, having also been the first station last fall to demonstrate Google Glass "live" with a team of Google employees who visited the station. Google also put on the first demo for the public in Durham a couple of days later.
But on Tuesday through Friday from 6:30 to 7 a.m. last week, WRAL took the Glass experience to its audience. Viewers could watch simultaneously online at WRAL.com, and a small screen was embedded in the actual newscast to show viewers what they could see through the anchor, reporter and producer who wore Glass each day.
Viewers were really, really there.
What the WRAL team saw, viewers saw.
When they moved, the watchers moved.
"Viewers are always demanding new blood. We gave it to them," said Leslie, a near-30 year veteran reporter and anchor at WRAL, in an interview shortly after his 30-minute deep-dive into reporting's new world.
"Viewers are there. Viewers are in the camera. That's a remarkable experience," he said.
BroadcastCable, a bible in the telecommunications industry, called WRAL TV's latest venture into technology innovation a "stunt." Leslie certainly didn't see it that way. He is excited about how he can use Glass as a reporter.
"This is like having an entire satellite crew in the field - but it's just you," Leslie said.
Scott Nagel, morning news executive producer at WRAL, oversaw the operation. What viewers didn't see was the "monumental effort by a lot of people in the newsroom" to make the Glass event happen.
"It was exciting, but it was also scary," Nagel said, noting that Glass was used live during one of the busiest news weeks in recent memory due to the huge snowstorm that wreaked havoc across the region. WRAL heavily promoted the Glass telecasts, which station management believes is the first to be done by a TV station on a live basis, and stuck with it even as the storm hit. "We even did Glass during the weather," Nagel said. "It was a very complex operation. Our weather coverage never faltered.
"The end result was extraordinary - and probably unprecedented."
Tools, not Toys
Nagel noted that management chose to use Glass because it "offered an exciting opportunity ... to integrate cutting-edge technology into our newscasts in a way viewers had never seen before."
But, putting aside audience involvement, the real potential of Glass could be the technological boost it gives to journalists in reporting. Whether in the field in a middle of a snowstorm or hurricane or on a busy studio set, Glass gives reporters and anchors tools they haven't had before - resting right on their nose.
Developers around the work are pursuing apps that will make Glass a real tool, not a toy. An example is a Rocky Mount firefighter who created apps to help first responders get to incidents faster and also getting instant information about the scene.
The WRAL team experienced many of the Glass capabilities.
As an example: Through a built-in display in the upper right corner of the Glass device, Leslie and traffic-technology reporter Brian Shrader read questions sent to them or searched for more information.
"Imagine you are doing a live shot in the field. You are typing or talking on air and the director speaks through your ear," Shrader said, recounting some of the distractions and obstacles reporters encounter. "With Glass, I can be interviewing someone and the producer can send questions to me that I can read. Or I can get information for more questions and background."
To read rather than hear was actually easier, Shrader explained. He wasn't distracted by a voice. He could glance at the small screen and take in data while not losing eye contact with the person he was talking to.
And to be able to access the world of the Internet with a couple of words - well, that's powerful, Shrader said.
Like a fighter pilot using a heads-up display, or HUD, Leslie and Shrader also could operate in a hands-free environment.
Both Leslie and Shrader also stressed that they found Glass very intuitive to use, making it easy to learn to navigate and control.
Although he had only 15 minutes of time to rehearse with Glass, Leslie described the experience as "fun. It was surprisingly easy to control." He quipped later that he "felt naked without it" after setting Glass aide.
Shrader echoed those remarks.
"It is so simple," he said.
Google Glass also provides the ability to take still photographs.
If all those tools weren't enough, Glass also includes translation tools. But the key is understanding voices and translating those into the right app or tool the Glass user wants.
"I found the voice transcription to be very accurate," Shrader said.
Inside the Newscast
For the first time, viewers saw the various monitors Shrader works with as he delivers traffic updates as he sees them.
Studio Crew Chief Stuart Todd and News Producer Kianey Carter also took viewers inside the control rooms.
The video was not pristine as is high-definition. And there were lags in transmission as the camera in Glass "saw" and processed the news.
Some people found the constant motion of the video – almost always moving since Glass is resting on the user's ears rather than a stable camera – very jarring.
But viewers responded with phone calls and e-mails, seeking more information about what the WRAL team was seeing – even wanting to know the contents of candy jars and the stuff crammed under desks.
They also asked about the huge "green screen" on the news set. It is not visible during newscasts as through the magic of TV, video images are incorporated in the stream of signals sent to TVs or other video-enabled devices. What viewers see are weather maps, graphics and live video feeds.
Reporters and anchors have to learn how to point and direct viewers as if those images were actually on the green screen. (They coordinate by watching video monitors hidden to the side.)
"We got in on the ground floor, and we certainly blazed the trail," Nagel said."
Leslie took pride in that, even though he and everyone involved in the effort realize that there were technological risks. WRAL engineers had to work with the Glass devices to enable live video transmission, for example.
Why do it?
"You have got to be bold," Leslie said, referencing WRAL and parent company Capitol Broadcasting's joint history of setting industry firsts. He then rattled off a list:
First satellite truck; first helicopter; first team of meteorologists; first commercial high-definition TV station.
And now, Google Glass.
WRAL Local Tech Wire Publisher and Editor Rick Smith dishes out tidbits from the local technology sector. Read more articles…
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