Oculus Rift
Credit: By Sergey Galyonkin on Flickr. Some rights reserved.

From Vice to The Wall Street Journal, many newsrooms are already experimenting with virtual reality as a new way to engage audiences and offer different perspectives on stories.

The 2015 Trends in Newsrooms report from the World Editors Forum flagged VR as one of the top nine trends in news outlets around the world.

However, Robert Hernandez, an associate professor at LA's USC Annenberg School, where he focuses on emerging technology, pointed out that although many journalists are interested in VR they are wary of using it for news.

"I was at a conference recently and someone raised their hand and said, 'Wait a minute, aren't you manipulating emotions'?", said Hernandez, recounting the experience at a Hacks/Hackers Colorado meetup recently.

As with any journalistic medium, it is important to look at virtual reality in context, he said.

"If you write really well, you're manipulating emotions. If you do a great audio story, you manipulate emotions. But we're doing it ethically... and this is a powerful way to tell these different stories."

Below are some highlights from Hernandez's 20-minute presentation on VR and journalism, also available to listen to in full on Soundcloud.

VR will catch on quick

The adoption rate of new technology is growing at "breakneck speed," explained Hernandez, noting that it took radio 38 years to reach 50 million users, while Facebook hit 100 million users in just nine months.

Similarly, pre-orders for Apple Watch took one day to reach one million units sold. By contrast the iPhone took 74 days, and the iPad took 28 days.

Adoption rate of new tech
The adoption rate of new technology, from Hernandez's Hacks/HackersCO presentation

Wearables designed to be worn on the head have struggled to catch on due to the embarrassment factor: people feel self-conscious having something so visible on their face (see: #Glassholes). However, Hernandez believes VR headsets are different.

Demonstrating a Samsung Gear VR, he announced: "I can wear this in my living room and no-one will judge me".

Likewise, he believes wearables such as Fitbits and smart watches are now so mainstream people are ready for something new.

New routes for collaboration

NASA is using Microsoft's augmented reality headset HoloLens to 'work' on Mars. Yes, really.

As this report from the California Institute of Technology explains, space scientists teamed up with Microsoft to develop software called OnSight, allowing them to study the 'red planet' using HoloLens, albeit virtually.

All very cool, but where does collaboration come into this?

OnSight uses real-life data to create a 3D simulation of the surface of Mars where NASA scientists can meet with colleagues around the world.

HoloLens allows them to examine the Martian environment from a first-person perspective, and also to share their view with others in order to enable discussion and analysis.

Although this "new collaborative space" may not be suitable for breaking news, it could be for journalists who are working remotely on a story such as African SkyCAM's recent drone journalism project covering a 30-acre unoffical dumpsite in Kenya.

Immersing audiences into stories

The immersive effect of virtual reality means it's a really effective way of putting the viewer in somebody else's shoes – however uncomfortable they might be.

One example of this is The Party, which debuted at this year's Sundance Film Festival.

Created by Morris May and Rose Troche, the experience comprises two five-minute segments showing the same sequence of events.

In this first, the perspective is of a young woman at a college fraternity party who drinks a shot with a man she is flirting with. Soon the viewer starts to see 'tracers,' revealing that the drink is drugged. The woman is taken into a bedroom by the man and his friend, where she passes out.

Then the perspective flips and the viewer sees events through the eyes of the man, dancing with the woman and handing her a drink before taking her into the bedroom with his friend.

Neither scene shows the assault that presumably follows, but the effect is impactful enough nonetheless, a strong, sharp strike to the heart of the campus date rape culture issue.

The Party
The Party (screenshot from Sundance Film Festival)

"To be able to put someone in this experience is to create this empathy, it's powerful," said Hernandez, although he added "it comes with a lot of responsibility there as well".

Another example of virtual reality which achieves this balance effectively is Nonny de la Peña's Project Syria, where the viewer 'experiences' a terrorist attack in Aleppo.

To avoid creating experiences which may be too distressful for some viewers, Hernandez highlighted the importance of ethics in journalism and knowing where to "draw the line" between pointing out important issues and sensationalism.

The hardware already exists

Google Cardboard, Samsung Gear VR and Microsoft HoloLens are already available, of course, while Oculus Rift, bought by Facebook in March 2014 for $2bn (£1.2bn), is due to launch early next year.

And at May's Google I/O, the team behind the tech giant's new virtual reality platform Jump announced they had partnered with GoPro to produce a 16-camera rig capable of capturing 360˚ VR footage.

However, while the hardware and technology is available, the current crop of VR stories tends to be "gimmicky," said Hernandez.

This is one of the reasons it is important for news outlets to be experimenting with VR, he said, because "the content that's going to matter, to have an impact, is the stuff that we [journalists] produce".

And while VR stories such as de la Peña's Hunger in Los Angeles showed audiences could overlook less-than-perfect graphics if the experience is engaging enough, Hernandez cautioned that journalists should make sure the technology fits the story, rather than prioritising platforms over content.

"Journalism first, technology second," he said. "It's not about the device. It's about the content, optimised for the device."

It's not prohibitively expensive

A basic Google Cardboard can be picked up for around $5 on Amazon, the Samsung Gear VR costs $199.99 (£130), and Oculus Rift, due to launch early next year, is likely to offer an "affordable" edition for consumers, according to Forbes.

While HoloLens is likely to be more expensive than Gear VR and of course Cardboard, and definitely over the $400 (£259.96) mark, it is still more affordable than Google Glass, which sold for around $1,500 (£974.85).

Virtual reality exists in two forms: 3D modelling and computer-generated imagery (CGI), or "cinematic video" or "immersive spherical video".

The latter is the easiest – and cheapest – way for journalists to get into virtual reality, according to Hernandez.

It's not small change – he uses six GoPro cameras at around $500 (£324.95) each, on a VR mount (that's another $500), plus software to stitch it together.

And while his comment that new outlets could hold a "bake sale" in order to raise funds for VR equipment is obviously tongue in cheek, he believes the expense is worth it for publishers to be able to keep up with progressive technology and shifts in audience behaviour.

"This is the stuff I'm playing with now because I think that's the easiest way for us as journalists to get into it," he said.

"You don't have to be a Pixar artist, you just need to know where to put this camera and start editing and tell a good story."

New opportunities

In future, virtual reality could be used to offer an immersive take on now well-used formats such as data journalism, said Hernandez.

"What if we visualised how many unarmed police shootings there were?" he asked.

"We can talk about it, we can have a really great searchable database that looks great on a map, but what if we can visualise it in such a way that you're standing in a room and you can see those people pop up?"

That ability to make the viewer feel surprise, sadness or any other emotion so strongly they physically react to it is what virtual reality does best.

VR also offers routes to new audiences, with de la Peña quoted in the Trends in Newsrooms report as saying virtual reality especially appeals to younger people, who expect interactivity with stories.

And in terms of monetising stories, perhaps the most obvious choice is using VR to produce experiences around properties for sale or rent, said Hernandez.

When it comes to fostering a visceral connection between news and audiences, it seems the future is already here.
  • Robert's forthcoming class in virtual reality at USC Annenberg will share findings from their experiments with software and hardware at vrjournalism.io.

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