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Q&A with Nancy Andrews, former Chief of Innovation for the Detroit Free Press

Nancy Andrews is former Chief of Innovation for the Detroit Free Press, now the Ogden Visiting Professor for Innovation at West Virginia University. She has used Matterport Spaces to enhance several stories, including the Detroit Stock Exchange, the Detroit auto show, and the decommissioned Boblo Boat.

The Boblo boat is a turn-of-the-century steamer which ferried people from Detroit to Boblo Island Amusement Park (on Bois Blanc Island, Ontario) for almost a century, before being decommissioned. It is now being restored and moved to the Hudson River.

Read the full story and explore all six Boblo Boat models online on the Detroit Free Press website.

Let’s talk about the Boblo boat. We thought this was such a great story, with a community perspective with a lot of interest and emotion for people who live in Detroit and have for a long time. What sparked your interest?

People can be very nostalgic about things in Detroit. Detroit itself - the rise and fall of Detroit - the decay. So here you have this beautiful boat and I’m sure there are millions of people with memories of this boat.

It ran from the early 1900s to 1991, built in 1902. And there’s this love of the boat from the people who lived in Detroit. It was an outing. You would get on this steamer and you’d go from Detroit to Boblo Island amusement park, and it would take a while to get there and they would have a band on one of the decks.

One of the photographers with me on the shoot said, “I had my first kiss on this boat.” He could go to the part of the deck where he had his first kiss. So it has all these fond memories.

To me, a Matterport Space was the perfect way to show people what the fate of the boat is now; for people to be able to explore as they would as a child or parent or crew member. It’s also a way to document it pre-renovation, and the SS Columbia Project was incredibly helpful and patient with us scanning over multiple days.

People care about re-walking their memories.

How did the Matterport Space change the way you wrote the story?

In this case, we made the model the story. We had a complementary column that was written by a staffer who specializes in Detroit history. But in this case the story was that you can see the Boblo boat like you’ve never seen it before. You can see it right now and walk along the deck and look around.

You capture it, but you - the journalist - are not in control of the viewing of it.

It’s truly nonlinear. I put you in the space and you explore. I try to say, well, what would I want to look at in this room? What would I find interesting? I look for symmetry so when you go stand somewhere you can get the perfect view.

What’s fascinating about this is that I can virtually put you places that I couldn’t physically go. This boat is deteriorating, so I would put the tripod on floor that was compromised (with big gaping holes in it) and wouldn’t support me. You can see where you couldn’t see from a vantage point where you couldn’t physically stand right now.

I also created a model of the Detroit Stock Exchange, where the model was simply one of the elements in the story. I wanted you to know that you could go up some steps and out a window onto the 23rd story fire escape. How do I lead you to do that? If you happen to be looking in that direction, you’ll see that a guy is standing on the steps. As you move toward him, he moves up the steps and ducks through the window and out onto the fire escape. So I have to think about it and sort of show you that path.

Annotation, when it comes, will make this much easier. But there’s plenty now to experiment with. It’s important that you know your audience. Most people have no memory of the Detroit Stock Exchange, so I needed to try to show them something.

I know you’re transitioning into education. Do you have thoughts on using this medium in your classes?

I plan to use Matterport in some of our basic classes because it makes you think differently about a story. It makes you think in a nonlinear way. If you can look in any direction in a model, how do I make you look to the left or the right? It’s a puzzle for the journalist and students to figure out. You might do this with sound, or by putting little surprises throughout the model. We thought about having a scavenger hunt of items that you could find and look for on the boat.

I was showing this to a colleague who teaches Photography 220. They thought of it as a great way to actually teach composition by having a student move around a model and frame the most interesting shot, then talk about it - leading lines, texture, light. I can actually teach basic photography in a model. It’s endless, which is exciting.

As Chief of Innovation, I look at when the 20-somethings on staff get excited and share it on their own. That’s the cool thing. I want people to see that journalism is cool and can be cool, and you don’t have to be a rocket scientist to produce something interesting. You just have to use the right tools and think as you use them. Most of these stories take time and patience. Not many people have the patience to try to put 800 scans in a model, and I think that’s about where we came in.

For our current technology, 800 scans is huge. It’s an impressive feat, and one of the larger models we’ve seen to date.

My goal was to get the three decks, the roof, and the interior in one model, and I couldn’t do that. So what I did is duplicate the model, then split it up into different decks to upload separately. A single deck took about 10 hours of pure scanning, and I returned for multiple days over a two week period.

How does something like Matterport change what a journalist is? Does it affect objectivity?

Part of this might be my history at The Washington Post. I remember being sat down in orientation as a 26-year-old and being told that there’s no such thing as an objective story. Everything has a human touch and a perspective. You can try to portray a story as fairly and accurately as possible, but there’s not an objective neutral.

What I would challenge is that all journalism and all documentation modifies the information in some way in order to tell the story of it. It’s deletion of information. What we have is the boat, which is a real object. If I take a still photograph, I made choices about the lens and framing. That’s all modifying the information to convey it. So I don’t see a Matterport model as any less journalistic than a text or photograph.

Is it a fair and accurate portrayal of the boat? Absolutely. But there’s modification in all storytelling. With Matterport, you need the curiosity of the person running the camera.

What are you excited to see from Matterport in the future?

I would say the first wave would be telling stories of a space itself. There are also stories of relationships between different spaces. If you really want to understand what’s happening (like in a news event), I think it would help get viewers into the time and space of understanding how events happen. You can experience the storyline.

That’s where you’d want annotation. What I like about it that’s different from 360˚ video is that it’s less linear. In video, you might look in different directions, but there’s still a timeline. With Matterport, you’re in the space and you have to go explore.

You can contact Nancy @NancyAndrews on Twitter.

Go deeper...

Walk the empty floor of the former home of the Detroit Stock Exchange.

Go behind the scenes and into the stacks of the Detroit Public Library.

Learn more about the Boblo Boat restoration from the SS Columbia Project.