Storytelling Leads to Innovation in Chapel Hill: Steven King

Posted | by Davis Rhodes |


 Steven King

Steven King left the Washington post to work at the UNC School of Media and Journalism in 2011. Image courtesy of UNC.


In the last 20 years, technology has disrupted the business model for news, as well as the way people seek and consume information.

But instead of seeing change as the problem, Professor Steven King is looking for answers in emerging technologies such as virtual reality, drone photography and data visualization.

“The technology world is growing, people are changing and if the journalism and information industry doesn’t keep up with that then people are going to leave it,” said King, associate professor in digital and multimedia for the School of Media and Journalism.

Augmented reality, virtual reality and robotics may not seem like they fit among traditional tools of journalism. King sees them as new methods that address an age-old problem: audience engagement.

King’s research into each of these technologies stemmed from trying to solve a bigger problem. His team needed a slow-moving, stable shot for aerial 360-degree video. So he built a drone that could do it.

“I didn’t get into drones for drones’ sake,” King said. “The building of the robot, it was just solving a problem.”

Student-Led Innovation

 Reese News Lab, UNC

King collaborates with students on practical applications of virtual reality in the Reese News Lab. Image courtesy of UNC.


King’s energy and often unpredictable humor are a fit for someone who thinks tirelessly about the practical applications of new technology.

Patrick Seelinger, a former student and teaching assistant, said he never could tell what King might say. “Hey, do you want to know how to fend off a knife attack?” Seelinger remembers him asking out of the blue one day.

“He’s a quirky guy,” Seelinger said. “He’s also definitely the best professor I had at UNC.”

Most of King’s projects are student-led, meaning that he works to mentor and advise students as they develop their visions.

“There’s an army of ideas out there,” King said. “And we have an army of students here to come up with those ideas.”

King serves as Chief Innovation Officer of the Reese News Lab. He also works with the newly developed Emerging Technologies Lab, created in the School of Media and Journalism to solve storytelling problems by delivering immersive experiences to audiences.

“When you work for a company that has a particular job to do, for example at the newspaper, you’re churning out a product everyday, it’s hard to innovate,” King said. “Here, there’s this flexibility where we work time into my daily calendar for me to innovate, to work with partners, to meet people and to solve problems.”

The Emerging Technologies Lab works with media companies such as Lucasfilm on sponsored projects that explore new storytelling strategies.

“Talking to Lucasfilms and their xLAB, they’re doing what they call ‘interactive narrative,’” King said. “And that’s exactly what we do: create an interactive narrative for audiences.”

Lucasfilms’ xLAB and UNC’s Emerging Technologies Lab are using their combined expertise in storytelling to improve the quality of immersive virtual experiences.

“In what (Lucasfilms) is doing, nobody gets killed, there’s no points to earn in the game, it’s all about the storytelling experience,” King said.

Although Lucasfilms creates fictional stories and King nonfiction journalism, he believes the partnership is beneficial for both parties in learning how to fit good storytelling into the technology.

Virtual and Augmented Reality as Storytelling Tools

King believes that virtual and augmented reality both have practical uses in media.

“Think of AR as the way you use your phone,” King said. “You use your phone every day, all the time, over and over again through quick glances.

“Now think of VR as the way you binge watch a show on Netflix,” King said. “You sit down in a dark room and watch it for hours. It’s an immersive experience that’s prepared.”

Augmented reality will be used “at a glance” and habitually, whereas virtual reality experiences will be more curated and prepared, King said.

“Virtual reality is the opportunity to tell stories in an immersive way that gets people more engaged,” King said.

Facial Recognition Technology

King and UNC students in the Emerging Technologies Lab created a facial recognition AR HoloLens application that has caught the eye of the TSA and FBI.

The application is meant to identify passersby to the wearer, and display information such as their social media profiles.

“So is this journalism? Not really, but we started out with a journalistic purpose and then found other uses for it,” King said. “If we can use other avenues and find other companies to pay the bills for us to do great journalism then we are gonna do that.”

Data-Visualizations for Liberia

King and his students worked with the Liberian Ministry of Information during the Ebola outbreak in 2014 to create data visualizations that could assist the government in understanding and handling the outbreak.

“It was us trying to do what we do best very quickly to try and solve a problem,” King said. “They needed data visualizations in real time so that they could make better decisions.”

The team’s visualizations were built in less than two weeks and later used to brief the president of Liberia.

“I was really proud of our students — to see what they could come up with so quickly,” King said. “I mean we didn’t sleep, but it was a powerful, very impactful thing that we got to be a part of.”