Credit: Screenshot from the AP's 360-degree video documentary, Seeking Home

The Associated Press is on track to expand its work with 360 video and virtual reality storytelling, by producing stories that can be viewed both with and without a headset.

The new experiments, showcased on bigstory.ap.org, will be developed in collaboration with American technology company Advanced Micro Devices (AMD), whose graphics chip, software and hardware will be used by the AP to enhance the organisation's existing VR capabilities.

"I think right now, VR and 360 video are still so fresh and people use different terminologies to refer to them, so it can be very confusing," Paul Cheung, director of interactive and digital news production at the AP, told Journalism.co.uk.

Currently, people who don't own a headset can still experience 360-degree material through their mobile device or a desktop web browser.

It's really about democratising 360-video and VR for people with and without headsetsPaul Cheung, The Associated Press
For example, YouTube has been supporting video uploaded in 360-degree format since March 2015. By tilting their smartphone up and down and using the on-screen dial to navigate direction, users can get a sense of being immersed in the story.

"That's not the best experience, but we want to make sure that people still have access to it.

"It's really about democratising 360-video and VR for people with and without headsets, and once you have a headset, it also depends on its quality," Cheung explained.

AP wants to experiment with producing video for a range of products, including Google Cardboard, Oculus Rift and Samsung Gear VR, according to what type of content fits the device best.

"A Google Cardboard for example, you don't really strap on, you hold it in your hand. So, in theory, how much time will a user actually spend in terms of holding it up versus someone who is willing to put on a headset?"

So far, the AP's channel features six examples of 360-degree video, ranging from entertainment reporting from events such as the Star Wars premiere and the People's Choice Awards, to Seeking Home, a virtual reality documentary showing life inside the Calais migrant camp.

To produce the material, Cheung's team worked with business, entertainment and news journalists from across the AP, as well as with media company RYOT for Seeking Home.

The piece was part of a larger, cross-platform project that included other formats such as photo packages and short text stories, with AP journalists and produces working on the storyline, scripting, shot-list and the post-production side of the documentary.

"Down the line, I think there will be certain stories that will make sense in this VR environment, but if there are components of the story that are better told with photos or text, it wouldn't stop us from doing that.

"We're not really going into this with the mindset of 'either or' or 'nothing', we still look at it as 'what is this story about' and how do we tell it?", Cheung said.

AP is still thinking of 360-degree video as an editorial initiative, rather than a commercial opportunity, he added, because otherwise "we risk trying to monetise a terrible experience".

But monetisation and distribution are two of the challenges Cheung anticipates the format will bring in the near future.

We're not really going into this with the mindset of 'either or' or 'nothing', we still look at it as 'what is this story about' and how do we tell it?Paul Cheung, The Associated Press
"Right now, we think about distribution through our own portal, YouTube and maybe Facebook, but how does that translate internationally to a place like China, where these two social platforms don't work?

"So we increasingly have to think about how the rest of the world is consuming VR."

The organisation is trying to expand production using a variety of 360-degree video equipment, from "lower end" hardware such as Ricoh Theta to the more advanced 360fly and GoPro devices, and develop different approaches according to the story.

AP also aims to develop a set of standards and ethics on the use of virtual reality, which could eventually make it into the AP Stylebook as best practices on experimenting with this new technology.

"When we think about VR, because the world 'reality' is there, people assume that everything they see is real, when in fact it's actually a journalist's perspective.

"So we have to be very transparent about what's going on and ask ourselves how do we carry the same journalism standards of ethics and practice into the world of VR," said Cheung.
  • Virtual reality and 360-degree video storytelling will also be explored at the upcoming news:rewired 'video focus' conference on 16 March at Reuters in Canary Wharf, London. Check out the agenda and book your ticket to find out more about how news organisations are experimenting with online video.

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