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Test driving virtual reality in the newsroom

"We’re hacking into the audio and visual systems of your brain," director Chris Milk and co-founder of VR company, Vrse said to The New York Times just over a year ago regarding virtual reality projects. "A major part of journalism is painting people a picture of what it was like to actually be there. With this, the audience actually feels like they are there."


In the year that followed, it became increasingly clear that VR is pushing its way beyond the realm of sci-fi and gaming and into the mainstream. A few VR highlights over the last 12 months also indicate that Milk’s take on the relationship between VR and journalism, while complex, is crystalising. Immediately after introducing Sundance audiences to the Millions March in NYC, a VR journalism broadcast venture between directors Chris Milk, Spike Jonze and Vice News, Milk marched onto Davos to debut Clouds Over Sidra. The groundbreaking collaboration with the UN used VR to highlight the life of a Syrian girl in a refugee camp.

Google cardboard ()

Fast forward to November. An unassuming cardboard box—Google Cardboard—lands on 1.3 million US doorsteps in tandem with the Sunday New York Times. More recently, dispatches from the 2016 Sundance Film Festival describe the ‘boom’ in virtual reality, augmented reality and immersive films that include an extensive line-up of documentaries.

For the researchers, scientists, investors and engineers who have spent decades attempting to push VR across the finish line, this may look like the victory lap. On the sidelines, there are those cheering and eager to seize the storytelling opportunities this technology brings. Yet among them there are many—particularly from the newsroom—that are grappling with the implications of an emerging and highly elastic platform transforming to an established platform. 

Merging the Newsroom onto the VR Superhighway

There is a balance to be struck between the unparalleled potential of a highly compelling storytelling format and the practicalities and many implications that arise from a platform that spans diverse genres. At the same time, it’s time to lead, follow or get out of the way, according to Robert Hernandez, of the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism at the University of Southern California. In his 2016 media forecast published in the Neiman Lab, the Harvard-based media innovation report, he asks, ‘Do news orgs get in early and risk the tech not working out? Or should they wait and let others define VR journalism and risk being left behind, again?’ His answer: Both.

The question then is, how? While journalists and media organisations are eager to get behind the wheel, there is broad consensus that there are no rules of the road. Taking practicalities and logistics into account, VR demands innovation, expertise, bigger budgets, flexibility and longer production lead time. The price of admission is going down, and Hernandez, echoed by others in the industry, cites 360-degree video as ‘the low-hanging fruit of VR’. Partnering with universities leading the charge and tapping into fresh student talent also may serve as a practical and efficient onramp to the VR track.

The New York Times has committed strategy and resources to make VR a viable journalistic tool. Their earnings released on February 4, showed net income of $52 million for the fourth quarter—a 48 percent increase over the same period in 2014—may point to efforts paying off.

‘We believe that our strategic approach—to rapidly build out new high value propositions for marketers in branded content, mobile, video and VR—is paying off,’ said Mark Thompson, the company’s chief executive said in an earnings call with investors.

The human connection: Proceed with caution

A constructed experience that inserts the user in the perceived present, VR is pushing the role of journalist and user into uncharted territory. Unexplored and unexpected implications await. The VR experience, as Milk described it, is ‘the ultimate empathy machine’. Yet what are the ethical responsibilities when it comes to broadcasting an unmitigated 360-view of the frontline of war or a terrorism event?

This question comes at a time when there is increasing buzz around the genre of ‘immersive journalism’, which brings a viewer, as a digital avatar, into a virtually recreated scenario, or news story. The figure who brought immersive journalism to the fore, Nonny de la Peña, former Newsweek correspondent, who co-founded, Emblematic Group, is playing an ever-greater role in shaping the future of VR-journalism.

De la Peña offered a new lens on the intersection of VR and journalism at the 2012 Sundance Festival with a piece called ‘Hunger in Los Angeles’, depicting a scenario where a diabetic man falls into a coma while waiting in line at a food bank. More recently, she’s delved into domestic violence and taken to the frontline of an abortion clinic.

Hunger in Los Angeles ()

Lined up against the more traditional long-narrative documentary format, de la Peña’s work prompts lively debate. And perhaps fittingly, she has been handed a key role in exploring best practices and charting next steps. With the support of a $580,000 Knight Foundation grant and in partnership with Frontline, Emblematic Group is collaborating on three virtual reality projects.

‘Our well-established editorial standards will guide us,’ writes Raney Aronson-Rath, executive producer for Frontline on the Knight Blog. ‘But virtual reality presents its own challenges, opportunities and questions. As we go forward in developing best practices, we will be consulting with Frontline’s network of producers, journalist colleagues in other news organisations and journalism schools.’

Increasingly a go-to journalism tool, VR is predicted to forge further into the mainstream and to go mobile. As for the rest—budget, production, innovations and content development and the parameters for it—the road sign mapping the way forward for journalism is as clear as it is confounding: it’s an arrow forward on top of a squiggly line: Read, sharp learning curves ahead.

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