Back with a Bang: The Return of Interactive Video

James Cory-Wright, Head of Learning Design at Brightwave, explores why interactive video is back with a bang and how best to deploy it for learning.

The 1980s seem to loom large again! Whether it’s trying to paint a portrait of the Instructional Designer, a different beast to the 2014 Learning Designer, now it’s the return of interactive video, which used to run on those big old laser discs. Interactive video is back with a bang. Except now it’s online, and these days darling, we call it interactive film, actually – much groovier.

Anyway it’s branching video, like the Resuscitation Council’s interactive film ‘Lifesaver’ about how to do (and not to do) CPR that quite rightly swept the board at last year’s E-Learning Awards. Have a go! And if you do it on a tablet or smart phone you can even rock it side to side to simulate real-life. Fantastic.

So what’s not to like?
Interactive film is like TV or a film except it allows you to immerse yourself in a situation and interact accordingly, make decisions and branch out to see the consequences and so on. People love it – end users, customers and e-learning production houses alike – and it makes good training and educational sense.

It only ever really went away with the arrival of HTML, bandwidth issues, prohibitive video costs; not to mention the fear of uncontrolled complex branching. And so it became, in the words of Roxy Music, “Just out of reach – glowing very holy grail.”

But much has changed, if not the branching paranoia. Streaming video across networks in corporate environments is a goer – video production costs themselves are down – it’s within our grasp now, so all we have to do is remember what drew us to it in the first place.

Best practice
If you need convincing, reminding or want something to aspire to, check out The Metropolitan Police’s amazingly effective ‘Choose a different ending’ film about knife crime on YouTube.

Why is it so good? Great script, great footage shot from the viewer’s point of view (POV). What really blows me away is the simplicity and immediacy of the choices you make, and the speed with which you move seamlessly in to the next piece of action.

This sets the bar for what we can achieve in the realm of corporate e-learning.

The snag
However, a great deal of content in the corporate context does not obviously lend itself to interactive film in the way that emotive subjects like knife crime or practical, demonstrative subjects like conducting CPR do. Content is more often than not ‘conceptual’. This includes subjects like compliance, financial risk, consultancy or accountancy, where there’s a lot of content to read. And even when it’s condensed and rendered into e-learning, it can still result in anything from 30 minutes to several hours ‘seat time’.

Consequently the budgets that go with such projects, even if substantial, have to go a long way – which can itself rule out video.

But what if we can make interactive film both affordable and effective for all e-learning projects?

How can we square the circle so interactive film can be used to enhance most, or better yet all, e-learning, regardless of the dryness or scope of the content? Could we come up with a production and budget model that would make interactive film viable for e-learning projects where once video would have been considered a no-no?

The way we’re answering this challenge at Brightwave is through innovative design approaches to interactive film, including a recent R&D project designed to establish proof of concept and explore the best ways to deliver successful, and cost effective, interactive film.

We also need to think about really getting behind its adoption across as many projects as possible, i.e. not just the obvious ones to do with practical subject matter, but also the more esoteric content we often work with, and within budgets that aren’t always presumed to be able to pay for a video component in the finished product!

In other words, without wishing to sound too eager to please, we’re looking for ways to dramatically increase the value and quality of our learning designs, but at no extra cost.

So here are some thoughts, kicking off with three different high level approaches to designing interactive films:

1. Video branching – a literal scenario or situation that’s dramatised and/or filmed as a reconstruction with decision points which, depending on your choice, branch to an associated piece of video. Good for experiencing content for the first time and learning by doing, discovery, etc.

This and ‘Stop the action’ may be shot from your point of view or as if you’re looking on as a third party.

2. Stop the action – again, a dramatised situation where the action runs and you’re challenged to make an intervention by stopping the action. Bad moves can be penalised with a ‘three strikes and you’re out’ gaming element. This technique is especially good for testing comprehension and application. In other words, you may already have the knowledge but can you spot when it’s not being put into practice?

3. Interactive dialogues – the action is from your point of view and you’re in a conversation with a person talking directly to you, or perhaps you’re part of a wider conversation. The conversation pauses at various points and you have to decide how best to respond. Then, depending on your choice, the conversation branches accordingly.

These innovative approaches to interactive conversations are where I’d like to focus as they have the greatest potential for dealing immersively with considerable amounts of content; content that may be quite technical or dry, explanatory or descriptive.
The key is clever scripting, in such a way that it becomes a two way conversation in which you are involved, punctuated by questions at very regular intervals with reactions to your responses, but always moving on with the next piece of content. The key to it is something the knife crime video throws up: pace. More on that in a moment.

Perhaps I should acknowledge that the interactive films, while they can work stand-alone, can be integrated and supported by text, information, links and exercises. But the key to their success is to leave such content and activity entirely outside the video narrative itself which needs to flow seamlessly. It needs to gather momentum and maintain a level of immersion and involvement.
Interactive film R&D for innovation

The big mistake of much existing video with questions is the questions are posed as a separate screen that punctuates the action. Interactive films have the questions to be answered within them, expressed as captions overlaid on the video as the action freezes.

It’s little things like this and how the film is framed, how much dialogue you can have between interactions, etc. that make the difference between success and failure.

These are the sort of things we wanted to explore in our R&D project, as well as making sure our interactive films are responsive/adaptive to run on all devices, from PCs to smartphones.

One of our current preoccupations at Brightwave is to make sure that smartphones are not the poor cousin when it comes to running content where e-learning is ‘responsive’. In other words we’re avoiding designing for the PC then simply squidging the content onto a smaller screen.

For our recent R&D project, we used tightly framed ‘talking heads’ of our main characters to get the full impact and expressiveness of being talked to directly and seeing their reactions, and this works well. We went for a black and white finish to see what sort of impact that would have on the overall effect.

Crucially, we shot the video using a single basic set-up, a simple green screen backdrop to give us the opportunity to incorporate or superimpose graphics into the video and autocue to help us cover more material with the timeframe of the shoot. All of this will be significant in filming a lot of material in, say, a one day shoot. There is no point being innovative if you can’t deliver at a reasonable cost.

The latter two elements of the shoot are great examples of how costs have come down dramatically since the ‘old days’ when there would have been no end of expensive brouhaha. The autocue alone would have needed a paid operative!

It’s much more fun now and less exclusive. Meaner and leaner video production methods enable us to take control, to innovate and explore fresh approaches like interactive dialogues that suit the content and budgets we typically work with. I’m looking forward to seeing what today’s Learning Designers come up with!

If you’d like some further reading on this fascinating technology, you could always check out Brightwave’s recent publication – There’s a ‘v’ in learning: A practical guide for video-rich learning.

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