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What I learned from testing Google’s Story Spheres at New York Fashion Week

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It was about 40 minutes before the start of the Givenchy show when I got a familiar knot in my stomach, accompanied by the crippling wave of anxiety every digital journalist feels while testing a new product.

“This may not work,” I admitted to my colleague Jabin Botsford, referencing my crazy scheme to add to our New York Fashion Week coverage using Story Spheres, a beta product from Google Labs that embeds sound in 360-degree panoramas.  

We were sweating in the heat outside Pier 26 along the Hudson River, watching the lucky contest winners who scored tickets to designer Riccardo Tisci’s New York sojourn form an impressive line, when we realized the remote control that was supposed to fire the six GoPro cameras on our 3D-printed mount was dead. There was no time to get to a store to buy a new one. And the GoPro app only connected to one camera at a time — meaning we had no way to take the images we needed in order to create a panorama. It was time for frantic phone calls.

We found a lifesaver in Post photo editor Wendy Galietta, and devised a plan. We would set the GoPros to take video during the show, and Wendy would pull screengrabs from a set segment and stitch them together.

The quality was less than we’d hoped for but we got the shot — an impressive view of the runway with New York City and One World Trade soaring in the background. One down. A half-dozen more to go.

The possibility of failure is omnipresent in the realm of digital experimentation — an image doesn’t materialize, audio doesn’t record, an app crashes. It can happen in the blink of an eye and ruin an entire coverage plan. That sobering reality — that you are constantly walking the fine line between disaster and success — can be addictive for many of us who thrive on the freedom of trying something completely unprecedented.

In my role at The Post I am constantly experimenting with new products and platforms, and have often used Fashion Week to do so. The news value is obvious — fashion is a $1.2 trillion global industry and many of the trends are set at the semi-annual shows in the big four locations of New York, London, Milan and Paris. And the artistic significance can’t be overstated — seeing a garment that was meticulously manifested from a designer’s imagination can be a captivating and emotional experience.

But Fashion Week is also an exhausting gauntlet of crowded photo pits, WiFi dead zones, uncertain venues, complicated lighting scenarios and general chaos. This makes it an ideal environment for testing.

As every product manager knows, the most significant bugs are not revealed in staged testing environments. They require real-life, worst-case scenarios to emerge organically — scenarios fashion week has in spades.

Which explains our second big challenge of the project. After replacing the remote and one of the finicky GoPros the next morning, we tried the whole process again at Rebecca Minkoff. The show was set at Skylight Clarkson Sq — essentially a warehouse off the West Side Highway. The cavernous room killed our cell reception, as well as the connection between the now-working remote and cameras. A situation we never dreamt of while shooting in our controlled environments in D.C.

We were back to video, and a significantly more labored stitching contribution from Wendy than we had originally planned. We tried the same approach a few hours later with Mara Hoffman to the same success, though the quality was still low.

For the last two shows of the day, we decided to bump the cameras up to a higher quality video setting to help with the glare and graininess on some of the earlier images. The change caused the images to make a smaller crop, an unexpected result that reduced the overlap of the images to the extent that they could not be stitched together. It was only after Wendy began to edit the images from Alexander Wang — one of the most important shows of the weekend — that we caught the mistake.

For anyone who hasn’t received one of those calls from an editor — the ones that lead to the news your material is not usable — it is fairly traumatic.

First there is denial.

“You’re going to have to trust me on this,” Wendy replied to my whimpering and disillusioned request to see the end result. “I tried it all. It doesn’t work.”

Then there is the desire to hack it into something else.

“Can we make GIFs with sound?”

No, we didn’t account for any video resourcing for this project.

Then comes acceptance and the need to replace the failure with a success story. We had one more appointment and one more show, and we needed to make them count. Michelle Smith of Milly invited us to crash her showroom as she finished model fittings and final preparations, and we took advantage of the light-filled, 20th-floor studio. Miraculously, the remote fired all cameras and the stitching took a fraction of the time of the other panoramas.

Last we headed backstage at Prabal Gurung, where our lucky streak continued. We wound up with three panoramas, and some beautiful quotes from the Nepalese designer who opened his show with songs by Buddhist monks to recognize the generous contribution the fashion community made to his home following the devastating earthquake earlier this year.  

At the after party, photographer Steven Sebring explained how he created the 360-degree GIFs of models in Gurung’s clothing that were projected onto the walls — patented software and a track of 100 DSLRs is the trick, he said. As we discussed tactics, we agreed that this type of interactive, immersive experience is the future. What if every look from every show was stored in a digital archive? A museum a la Vogue’s new Runway feature, but with fully rotating images? Let’s hope. And in February we’ll try it again — with better cameras.