As director of visuals and immersive experiences at National Geographic, Whitney Johnson oversees all forms of visual, video and audio experiences.
That includes helping people virtually visit an emperor penguin colony in Antarctica or shadow the Perseverance on Mars. When she thinks What the Future, she wants to scale AR and VR to make it more accessible.
Kate MacArthur: The pandemic accelerated everything digital and virtual. Do you think it will change the way we use virtual tools for visiting places?
Whitney Johnson: In some ways, it has created this opportunity or emphasized an opportunity that was already there. I don’t think virtual travel is going to go away. For many people, it allows them to have experiences that they might otherwise not be able to have in the real world.
MacArthur: How far can virtual travel go to satisfy our need to explore things?
Johnson: I think these experiences will be done in partnership. There are places where the experience would be just as satisfying to have virtually than not. Not to mention that you can binge-experience—whether you’re putting on a VR headset and watching a whole range of experiences in our app, or listening to “Overheard at National Geographic” and being able to travel around the world in six episodes—obviously, that’s something most of us can’t do in the real world.
MacArthur: Are there mid-term steps to get people into the right mindset and accustomed to using virtual experiences?
Johnson: We found that being in a VR headset is the most immersive way to experience this content. That’s also the least accessible way to do it, both in terms of who can actually afford the headsets and then getting accustomed to how to utilize that space. The first time that you’re in a headset, it can be disorienting. You almost need to have someone supervising you. It’s one reason that we’ve leaned so heavily into delivering AR through the Instagram Spark AR platform. Because with over 150 million people on our hero Instagram account, it is much more accessible.
Augmented reality and 360-degree video can be just as transportive and can be experienced using a mobile device or computer. The key to helping people get accustomed to virtual experiences is to continue creating high-quality digital content on all of these platforms and making it easy to use and as accessible as possible.
MacArthur: As you grow as a virtual content creator, how does that shape how you think about presenting future content?
Johnson: We’re thinking about what the average traveler is not going to have the opportunity to do. There’s also the consideration of accessibility. I only have a handful of photographers that I can send to the top of Everest, who have the expertise and the skills to do that. Then there’s the ethical considerations. Virtual experiences allow people to visit these places without harming potentially fragile or over-touristed landscapes. They can even give users an experience that isn’t possible in the real world, like seeing what Machu Picchu might have been like at the height of the Inca empire, or safely coming face-to-face with wild animals in Africa.
MacArthur: What are the biggest obstacles right now and what may be the easier or more difficult ones to tackle in the next three to five years?
Johnson: Companies have been making improvements in the headsets so that they’re more affordable. But they’re still not widely utilized. Some companies have been talking about more glasses, bringing that technology so that AR can really become a part of our everyday experience. Just a dozen years ago, who knew that the mobile smartphones would be as ubiquitous as they are? I think that there’s the possibility that the glasses could do the same thing in terms of bringing AR into our everyday life.
MacArthur: Can we really replace actually being somewhere?
Johnson: It depends on what the experience is. Food, for instance, is an important piece of travel for me. And I think about how we can immerse all our senses when we are traveling. Taste and smell are things that we’re not yet able to incorporate into these immersive experiences. But I have been interested in seeing how we can still reach across communities and have that shared experience of cooking and eating, even from across the planet. So, what kinds of partnership experiences could go hand in hand with some of these immersive experiences that we have?
MacArthur: I like the idea of using these experiences to scout locations or experiences.
Johnson: I think it can do that. I don’t know that after doing our Machu Picchu experience, I now feel a need to go there. I know it would be completely immersive in a way that the VR experience is not, but there are some experiences that you might be able to also check off your bucket list in the VR world, instead. Of course, there’s the flip side of that, which is that so many of these communities depend on tourism from an economic perspective.
MacArthur: Where else could we explore in the next few years?
Johnson: We’ve been exploring the ocean as our brand, and I think we’ll continue to do that. And obviously there’s a lot of unexplored territory there. For our VR and AR producers, it’s an added challenge as they think about how to create these underwater universes. This also plays into the conservation conversation. We can create a space that would take a viewer back in time to experience what the ocean might have been like centuries ago. We could also make a prediction about what might happen to the ocean if we’re to continue down the path we’re going, and model that for people. There is potential to travel through time as well as through space in that way.