Columbia startup sees opportunity at intersection of virtual reality, brand journalism

Imagine that one moment you are flying across Zambia by helicopter, with wild animals running beneath you. The next moment you’re back on the ground, beside people who have physical disabilities and must crawl to get from one place to another. In both moments, you can look all around, taking in 360 degrees.

Both scenes are part of “Gift of Mobility,” a story about people in Zambia who lack access to wheelchairs and prosthetics and are forced to crawl everywhere. The story is just one example of the work that StoryUp has produced since its launch last summer.

Sarah Hill is the founder, CEO and chief storyteller of StoryUp, a Columbia-based virtual reality media startup. Hill calls herself a 20-year veteran of the interactive journalism industry. She graduated from the Missouri School of Journalism, and it’s no coincidence that she started her company in a city that’s home to one of the world’s top-rated journalism schools.

“I chose Columbia because there is a high concentration of digital storytellers and it is located near the best school of journalism in the world,” Hill said.

Hill takes in interns from the journalism school and occasionally lectures there on virtual reality storytelling.

The inspiration for StoryUp came to Hill when she was working for Veterans United, a Columbia-based company that specializes in VA loans. Hill was trying to come up with creative ways to let World War II veterans who were too weak to travel still experience the National World War II Memorial in Washington. That’s how the Honor Everywhere project was born. Through virtual reality, veterans were able to experience the memorial in Washington without leaving their homes in Missouri.

The veterans were moved and grateful for the opportunity, Hill said.

“Immediately, we knew that it was a very different, powerful piece of media,” she said, “and it had the ability to touch people emotionally in a way that created unique memories for them far greater than any flat piece of content.”

The project left an impression on Hill’s colleagues, too.

“Her dedication and commitment to ensure World War II Veterans got to see their memorial, either through the Honor Flight or through Virtual Reality, is a true testament to how much she genuinely cares,” said Lauren Karr, director of communications at Veterans United.

Before joining Veterans United, Hill worked as a journalist. She reported for a handful of Missouri media outlets, including Columbia television station KOMU, where she was an anchor and reporter for about 11 years.

Hill uses her background in journalism not only to tell stories, but also to run her company. In a way, StoryUp is run like a newsroom, Hill said: There’s a news desk where story ideas come in; there are regular story meetings; and there are deadlines to meet on those stories.

She has always been intrigued by human interest stories. Honor Everywhere was a passion project for Hill, and it is reflective of the kind of stories she is interested in telling though virtual reality. She thinks of StoryUp as a social enterprise that does positive, inspirational stories and educates people about the world — stories for cause, if you will.

“Sarah has a huge heart,” said Paula Elias, StoryUp’s director of strategic partnerships. “Her vision is clear, and I admire her drive. I would follow her to war.”

Elias joined StoryUp in December, after she learned about the kind of work Hill was doing. The two women met for coffee and realized they could help each other create something that could have a positive impact in the world.

“I feel honored to be a part of StoryUp that uses virtual reality to lift people up and do good,” Elias said, “because there are so many other things that people use it for.”

Many observers project massive growth of the virtual reality industry. Deloitte’s Technology, Media & Telecommunications Predictions Report predicted that 2016 would be the first billion-dollar year for virtual reality, with VR content accounting for about $300 million of that. A February report from Goldman Sachs projected that by 2025 virtual and augmented reality will be an $80 billion market, which is about the size of the desktop PC market today.

StoryUp generates revenue through contracts with clients who hire it to produce virtual reality brand journalism. The startup also makes money hosting workshops for media companies that want to learn the art of VR.

“Journalists need training to understand all the complexities not only with shooting and editing,” Hill said. “But they also need to know how to tell a story in a 360 environment where the frame no longer controls the viewers’ direction.”

StoryUp’s brand journalism work includes a project with the Leonardo DiCaprio Foundation called “Empowered by Light.” It depicts how solar energy is empowering people around the world. Hill and her team recently returned from working on the story in eastern Congo. Before that, they were in the Amazon. Empowered by Light is one of the half-dozen different projects that StoryUp is working on at the moment.

StoryUp also has partnered on projects with tech giants including Google and Facebook.

Brand contracts have taken Hill and her team across the the country and around the world, but she hopes there will be a bigger market in Missouri for StoryUp’s work.

“In the future, we hope we don’t have to travel so far to do business,” Hill said. “The wave has not hit Missouri yet, but it is coming from the West Coast and businesses and brands really need to pay attention to this.”

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