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

There has never been a better or more crucial time for news organisations to get involved with virtual reality, according to experts at the FT Digital Media 2016 conference in London.

Justin Hendrix, executive director of NYC MediaLab, emphasised the importance of publishers "not missing out" on the hype surrounding the fast-developing medium.

"Virtual reality has emerged from the trough of disillusionment and is now in the slope of enlightenment," he said, explaining that although the basic idea of virtual reality has been around for a long time, it is only recently that it has been heavily invested in by companies, amongst growing excitement from consumers.

Oculus Rift was acquired by Facebook for $2 billion in 2014 and Mark Zuckerberg, the company's chief executive officer, has said virtual reality is central to Facebook's long term strategy.

Other headsets such as Sony’s Morpheus, HTC's Vive, Samsung’s Gear and other similar products have entered the market, alongside a continuous stream of 360-degree cameras and rigs competing for people's attention.

In fact, reports have shown that revenues from virtual reality products are projected to increase from $90 million in 2014 to $5.2 billion in 2018.

Although Hendrix explained there are still some "nay-sayers" who remain unconvinced by the medium's sustainability in the long term, he argued their opinions simply echo those of previously shunned technology such as the telegraph, the radio and the television.

"With each advance of media and communication technology, there were people who didn't see the enormity of what was coming," he said.

My advice for getting started would be to feed the geek – the guy or girl who is in your office who likes to pick up new technology, and let them try the new software.Justin Hendrix, NYC Media Lab

"It is clear at present that it's really about the phone in your hands. It has a lot of the capability to deliver virtual and augmented experiences already, but we are really at the early stages for what the phone will be able to deliver to you – and that is going to drive the market."

So as mobiles become more powerful just like the headsets currently available in this space, audiences will be more likely to engage with and consume high quality virtual reality content and 360-degree video in the near future.

"A lot of media companies have been slow to jump on the changes brought by the web and mobile, and this is happening again with virtual reality and augmented reality – so don't miss out," said Hendrix.

"My advice for getting started would be to feed the geek – the guy or girl who is in your office who likes to pick up new technology, and let them try the new software.

"You can also work with universities to partner with or start with getting inspiration from what other organisations have produced, you just have to invest in the ecosystem – quickly."

Hendrix said that although the media industry is not going to move forward in a necessarily straight-forward trajectory with regards to this new technology, he believes that publishers who start moving in the right direction now will eventually discover how they can benefit from the technology.

Solomon Rogers, chief executive officer and founder of virtual reality production company Rewind agreed, noting that the only way for publishers to find their place in the field is to experiment, which will then open the door for commercial opportunities.

"You need to find your own niche, your own way of communicating with your audience – what do they want to see?" he said. "It is going to be incredibly different for everybody."

While filming with the BBC, he found that staff were hesitant to create harrowing virtual reality footage, such as the inside of a war zone, in case viewers would get distracted and not engage with the actual story as much as they would in a linear TV news bulletin.

"We've had 130 years to get film right, 40 years to get video games right and three years to get virtual reality right, so there are no experts in virtual reality," said Rogers.

"But we do know that this media changes everything – it breaks the barrier so there is no fourth wall. You are part of it."

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