Virtual reality is journalism’s next frontier

Why newsrooms need to consider telling stories in a different way

Columbia Journalism Review, Erin Polgreen November 19, 2014

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.”

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.

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