Virtual reality is journalism’s next frontier

Why newsrooms need to consider telling stories in a different way

vrpolgreen.gifGannett Digital/Des Moines Register

Virtual reality is ascendant, and it’s time for media outlets to take notice. Why? Consumer access to VR devices is about to take off thanks to ambitious prototypes from Oculus Rift and, in the past year, several major projects have redefined immersion journalism.

In September, The Des Moines Register released Harvest of Change, a detailed tour of one family farm in Iowa. In January, Nonny de la Peña and the USC School of Cinematic Arts debuted Project Syria at the World Economic Forum. Project Syria is a full-body experience that places viewers at the scene of a bombing, then allows them to explore a refugee camp. And October’s round of Knight Prototype Fund grants included support for a blockbuster collaboration collaboration between The Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism, Frontline, and Secret Location, an interactive digital agency. These organizations are working together to produce a documentary work focused on the Ebola crisis and will share best practices and strategies for producing virtual reality-augmented journalism once they’ve finished.

These new forms of journalism are ambitious documentary enterprises, comprising many team members, cross-organizational partnerships, and potentially shocking prices to those familiar with prose journalism budgets. (Harvest of Change was produced for under $50,000.) But this work is also providing valuable, vital public services with remarkable emotional punch. Full-body journalism is a remarkable tool for encouraging empathy through what de la Peña calls “presence.”

“It’s a pretty wild thing, she says. “I’ve put thousands of people through these things now and have had extraordinary reactions.” Project Syria was recently exhibited at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London for five days. According to de la Peña, the exhibit was unadvertised and garnered more than 50 pages of guest book comments from visitors who donned the headset.

Wide consumer adoption of virtual reality is now the horizon. Oculus Rift, the crowdfunded VR headset that was acquired by Facebook for $2 billion in cash and stock, recently released Development Kit 2 at a price point of $350. That smaller up-front investment makes it easier than ever for developers to test virtual reality projects. The company is also taking steps towards hardware that is readily available to consumers, offering a sneak peek of the Crescent Bay prototype in September. In short, it’s time to start strategizing.

“Our reporters go to places where few venture or get inside,” says Raney Aronson-Rath, deputy executive producer at Frontline. “I’ve long held a curiosity about how we might take our viewers with us in a more visceral way, so that they can feel what it’s like to actually be there.”

There are a number of challenges to producing VR work. No matter how the user interacts, the audio must be authentic and high quality, or it can take the participant out of the place. And while the production of 3D avatar characters is possible, the threat of the Uncanny Valley is huge—if you’re telling a realistic story, people-esque animations might not cut it. That’s why Gannett chose to augment the 3D environment with 360 Cinema and spherical Ladybug Cameras to allow users to interact with the family on the farm.

With these potential challenges in mind, here’s what you need to consider to launch VR projects in your newsroom.

Start with the story

Each of these projects is built on a firm foundation of traditional journalism, which is critical to crafting an honest experience. de la Peña’s team meticulously constructed the street scenes in the Syria Project using cellphone video from multiple sources. Harvest of Change utilized hi-res photographs to map the farm beforehand.

“I remain devoted to the idea of longform documentary linear film as well, so I see this as an important experiment and expansion, but not replacing documentary film as we know it,” Aronson-Rath says. “That’s crucial to understanding my vision—I don’t see these as an either/or, but rather as an important exploration for myself and Frontline creatively and journalistically.”

Forge unusual alliances

Dan Pacheco, professor of journalism innovation at the S.I. Newhouse School at Syracuse University, served as a consultant with Gannett Digital and the Des Moines Register on Harvest of Change. He describes team-building as part two of a “three act” process. (Act one: Find the story and conduct preliminary research.) Pacheco hired a game designer to handle 3D rendering who enjoyed the experience so much that “he got the journalism bug” and stayed with Gannett. They also brought in a second intern who had experience with Unity, a multiplatform gaming engine. The team was rounded out with Total Cinema 360, a New York-based film company.

Strong partnerships with media entities that don’t specialize in journalism seem to be key. Virtual reality projects draw heavily on gaming and transmedia experiences, something that calls for an outside-the-box expertise. “We wouldn’t have even been able to get to the start line if we weren’t able to work with Secret Location,” says Fergus Pitt, a senior fellow at the Tow Center.

A strong foundation is critical

Bringing these unusual allies together means that foundation-building is critical to the process, as is developing a smart workflow. The Tow-Frontline-Secret Location collaboration has just gotten underway, and the first stages involved agreeing upon methods and terminology to anchor the project.

It’s already apparent, according to Pitt, that standard scripting and storyboarding terminology “don’t make quite as much sense for virtual reality.” It’s important to establish a core language for the team. Sample linguistic snags include “Do we call them ‘audiences’ or ‘users?’” or “Is it an ‘experience’ or a ‘scene?’”

But those shifts in terminology don’t mean that story and narrative are no longer important. I worked with the Gannett team on The Midway, a lab for journalism innovation, at the 2014 Online News Association Conference. When I tried out Harvest of Change, one person told me that they sought feedback beyond just the quality of the visuals. They wanted to make sure the experience still had a great story.

Be prepared for costs

Undertaking a full-scale production is costly, especially for newsrooms used to prose or print budgets. Pitt described Tow’s forthcoming collaboration as having a similar budget to an “expensive documentary film.” The project is supported by $35,000 from the Knight Prototype Fund with additional financial support from Tow Center and Frontline.

Those costs may be changing, however. Not every experiment in virtual reality journalism will require 360-degree cameras and multimedia teams to create a full scale, multi-platform experience that replicates a real-life environment. Interactive data visualizations are possible now and require less initial investment. And the length of time to build will shrink as well, especially once consumer-focused devices are widely available. Just a few weeks ago, more than 20 volunteer game developers built a virtual reality simulation to train healthcare workers treating Ebola for the first time. They produced the work in just under two days.

De la Peña maintains that an immersive experience doesn’t have to involve a headset. “You can do what I call the IMAX version, where it’s [an installation like Project Syria], then you can have your Oculus experience, which is like your DVD experience, then you have your mobile phone experience,” in which users can explore a landscape simply by holding their phones out and moving them around to tour an environment, much like using a flashlight in a cave.

So get to it!

Pitt recommends connecting with the many meetup groups that are popping up all over the country to experiment with immersive experiences to start understanding the skills and tech necessary to work in this space. And going back to the partnerships theme, virtual reality journalism seems to be uniquely positioned to connect universities with journalism organizations in new ways. de la Peña is a fellow with USC’s school of cinematic arts and produced the Syria Project with university students. The Tow Center is just one of many organizations producing this work. And Pacheco describes his work at Syracuse as specifically being focused on what’s new and next in the technology and innovation space for journalism.

Harvest of Change is a model for industry and academia partnerships, according to Pacheco, who has built a foundation for an ongoing creative partnership with Gannett. “Gannett didn’t have time to find out what’s new,” he says. Now they regularly share information about developments in 360 cameras. “It’s good for me too, opportunities to tell new stories. I took research [outside of] the lab.”

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Erin Polgreen is the cofounder of Symbolia, a magazine that mixes comic books and journalism. She regularly consults with media outlets and foundations on innovation. Follow her on Twitter @erinpolgreen