VR headset
Credit: Image by pdjohnson on Flickr. Some rights reserved

The Associated Press has been experimenting with the planning, production and distribution of various forms of virtual reality (VR) and 360-degree video content over the past year, having worked on a range of stories and formats, from 360-degree international news reporting, to virtual reality in the form of 3D modelling and animation.

Speaking yesterday (June 12) at the World News Media Congress in Colombia, Nathan Griffiths, interactive editor at the Associated Press, discussed various pieces that the organisation has produced, and explained the challenges they encountered and lessons subsequently learned.

"Our big takeaway is that for news packages, you need to be focusing on 360-degree video content right now, not VR," said Griffiths.

Our big takeaway is that for news packages, you need to be focusing on 360-degree videos content right now, not VRNathan Griffiths, Associated Press

"It is the most feasible option, both in terms of the overheads required in production of virtual reality, and how we can distribute it.

"It doesn't make sense for me to spend a month building a VR piece that a handful of users might see on the Oculus or Samsung Gear, because I can make a video that takes me a week to produce that gets seen by millions on Facebook and YouTube."

The AP is mainly collaborating with other media outlets to produce the projects, but is also working in-house to improve its production capabilities, looking to provide customers with either primary 360-degree video content, or that which supplements the material they have.

In one of the first attempts with 360-degree video called 'Rush Delivery', Griffiths used a self-stitching 360Fly consumer camera to film inside World Port, the world's largest packing facility, in order to produce a quirky feature about the journey of a parcel through the system.

"This was cheap as there were no overheads in terms of post production work or distribution, and the process was really straight-forward.

"The experience didn't really take advantage of the platform and the footage wasn't perfect, but for any important news event, you can take a little 360 camera out there and capture a short bit of footage that is very distinct and takes people somewhere."

The Associated Press has also experimented using GoPro rigs, and filmed a larger project called 'Seeking Home' in partnership with RYOT for publication on YouTube, MilkVR and RYOTVR.

"This took much longer – it was two weeks just of post-production.

"When using GoPro rigs, you need to stitch the footage together which is quite time-consuming. We had six cameras that all needed to match up and then go through the process of colour correction and further editing."

He said that publishers would be best suited to use this method on longer term projects, as the workflow would be "completely untenable for any kind of breaking or fast-paced news".

Another project named 'The Suite Life', which was shot in a variety of high-end holiday destinations to focus on the rise of the luxury travel experience, was filmed using a camera which rotates around before scanning areas in 360-degrees, producing a Google Street View-like space, where people can walk around an area as if they are actually in it.

"Users loved experimenting with the space and walking through it, and seeing the annotations in the space around them.

"However, it was very time-consuming because it takes about 45 minutes to shoot a thousand square feet. Of course, things in the scene can't move at all because it is taking pictures, so this model might fit some use cases but not all."

Griffiths has also experimented by mounting cameras on a remote-controlled rig when following a parade as it went through New Orleans.

"This is one of the only pieces that I had seen where you actually got some dynamic shots.

"One of the problems with VR is that if you want a moving shot, you risk people feeling sick, that is why most of the footage so far is static."

At the end of July, the AP will be releasing a piece on Alzheimer's disease, produced with computer-generated imagery (CGI), taking audiences inside the brain to see how it is affected by the disease.

"I would argue this is one of the strongest current use-cases you could find for 360-degree video or VR, because with the CGI model you can do whatever you want so you have endless flexibility.

"The problem with that is you have to have people who know how to do 3D modelling and animation, and most of those people aren't working on newsroom budgets.

"Luckily for us, we have some people with these abilities in-house, so this is something we want to leverage."

But Griffiths also pointed out that with amazing visuals come long periods of rendering, which can take days to complete.

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