Virtual reality and the news

Imagine this: you get a buzz on your phone that alerts you to the “breaking news” of a fire in a downtown warehouse. You drop what you are doing, grab your headset, plug it into your phone, and a couple of taps later you are standing outside the safety cordon, looking around at the spraying water and the stunned spectators. An ambulance screeches to a halt to your left. You turn to watch the medics jump out and set up the stretcher. A policeman emerges to your right and urges you to move away. You turn your head just in time to see part of the building collapse.

You’ve no doubt seen the scuba-diving-like goggles covering people’s rapt faces in images from Barcelona’s Mobile World Congress this week. Perhaps you’ve been lucky enough to try some of these VR headsets yourself. Whether you’ve taken them for a spin or not, it isn’t hard to appreciate the awesome potential of visual experience that you actively participate in. We are so used to sitting and watching a flat screen that our neural wires have configured themselves to assume that that is “viewing”. External visual stimulation is in two dimensions. Even the awkward 3d movies that require special glasses… well, however clever, it’s still based on a flat screen in front of you.

virtual reality journalism

image via Wired

But a visual experience that you actually form part of? That you can influence? In which you can affect what you see? That level of interaction is already commonplace in gaming, but with virtual reality it takes on a whole new dimension (literally and figuratively). Being able to affect the experience just by turning your head is a totally different sense of empowerment. Imagine a virtual reality movie (or maybe you’re one of the lucky few who’s already seen one) – your line of sight becomes part of the plot, and since you control that, you yourself play a part in the experience.

What does all this have to do with the news? With media outlets constantly searching for ways to engage their audience, and with the tech constantly seeking out new use cases, it was inevitable that the two would meet. And in the process, raise more fundamental questions than either party expected. More on this later.

The development is still new, the projects are still limited in number and reach, and the technology is far from perfect. But stuff is happening in the sector, and some interesting projects are attracting attention. Back in late 2014, digital artist and filmmaker Chris Milk (I’ve written about his amazing work often before) set up Vrse, a production company for VR documentaries. Among its early projects were a film about the Millions March in New York, produced with Vice, and an emotional piece on the plight of children in refugee camps, produced with the United Nations. Waves of Grace, another collaboration with Vice, documented life in an Ebola camp.

virtual reality journalism

image from Clouds Over Sidra

Production company RYOT has a history of VR documentaries, and has partnered with organizations such as The Huffington Post and Associated Press. AP just last week announced a new partnership with chip maker AMD to launch a VR news channel.

At the end of last year The New York Times gave away Google’s cardboard VR viewer to its readers, so that they could enjoy the documentary “The Displaced”, about children in refugee camps, on its new VR app. Since then the company has released several more VR documentaries, including one on the US presidential campaign and the vigils after the Paris attacks.

virtual reality journalism

Fusion, the digital news outlet funded by Univision and Disney, announced in August of last year the creation of a virtual reality unit. ABC, the news division of Disney, recently demonstrated virtual reality reporting on its show Good Morning America.

These are not isolated examples. The list of news organizations experimenting with this format is growing almost weekly, and the storytelling potential is being harnessed by other institutions with stories to tell, such as NGOs.

Why? Because the emotional impact is significant, and all journalists and story tellers want to connect emotionally with their audience. By “placing them at the centre of the action”, they can draw the audience in, convey more than words can, and create a lasting memory. They can stimulate the imagination, and most importantly, generate empathy. This empathy can transform initiatives, and motivate people to learn more, to think, even to help. The power of the immersion has producers and journalists excited over the possibilities and the potential impact. Note the shift from storytelling to story experiences.

And yet, the empathy quotient – while most likely higher than for flat-screen viewing – is still limited. Visually, the experience is very cool. But the technology is not yet perfect, what you see does not look real. Almost, but in most films you can see the joining lines, and unless your headset is very good, there is some distortion. And your experience is limited to vision, which not the only sense used in experiential empathy. The technology does not yet take into account important details such as smell, sound, temperature, wind, dust, moisture… Full immersion it is not.

Note that none of VR news examples seen so far are breaking news stories. They are documentaries. While definitely an important part of journalism, can documentaries be considered news? Or are they more in the category of education? It’s just a short step from documentary-style virtual reality reporting to VR in the classroom. Getting the next generation to empathise with world crises (refugee migration, climate change) and historical situations (social development, military strategy) will have a significant impact on the comprehension of cause and effect, while stimulating even more creativity in communication. The boundaries between journalism and education begin to blur.

It could be argued that the technology limits the potential application for VR news reporting. The need for special equipment to enjoy the experience is a barrier. Google’s Cardboard viewer is cheap and very cool but flimsy and a bit clunky. Higher-quality headsets are expensive, and not yet widely available. But prices are coming down and more variety is entering the market. And the films generally can be viewed on a flat screen, using the mouse or your finger to turn around.

virtual reality journalism

image from Waves of Grace

And at the moment each VR film takes up considerable time and expense. Breaking news coverage would require a logistical and editorial scramble. That will probably change, though, as the technology gets more accessible, and more creatives come up with fresh ways to use it. Giroptic sells its tiny 360º camera – with native YouTube support – for under $500. At the Mobile World Congress this week both Samsung and LG launched 360º cameras, which will make it easier than ever for anyone to film and upload virtual reality footage.

Citizen journalism itself raises many issues. Combine that with the as-yet-untested impact of immersion reporting, and the subject gets complicated. Which brings us to the deeper questions that we referred to earlier.

Here we go:

To what extent can we let the news become entertainment? Seeing a disaster unfold before our very eyes is compelling, but to a generation that grew up with video games of intense but lifelike situations, the divorce between reality and immersive screen can get fuzzy.

Are we fooling ourselves that empathy can come from a video? Being able to control your line of sight is cool, but does it really make you feel like you are there? How much can you feel part of a war-torn slum when you’re in your sanitized, comfortable and clean living room? How much can you experience the chill of the mountain when you’re slumped on your sofa in a T-shirt? Are the characters in the film actually part of your life? Is a memory from a VR experience the same as a memory from a real life encounter? And to what extent can we smugly believe that we understand when we can turn off the VR at any time?

Does the growth of VR make us even more vulnerable to media manipulation, this time on a deeper, more sensory level? Given the (relative) intensity of the experience, do we not need to be even more careful about the messages that get through? If so, who decides what gets through and what doesn’t? Is it ok to include commercial advertisements in such a deep, visceral experience? Where is the line between neutral and biased reporting? When does a message become propaganda? And although in VR you have the impression that you are controlling what you see, in reality your set of potential experiences is chosen and limited by the storyteller, by the director and the production team. To what extent are we living their experience, along with their interpretation and biases?

Will this become mainstream? VR is still a very niche experience, accessible to those with a headset (expensive) or a Cardboard viewer (cool, cheap and clunky). But this will change, as the New York Time’s viewer giveaway introduced hundreds of thousands to the concept for the first time, and Samsung gives away VR headsets with pre-orders of its new S7 phone. As prices come down and the technology improves, VR headsets will become more accessible, but will they become ubiquitous? The cool factor is huge. But is it enough to overcome expense, logistics and discomfort?

These questions are important, and we can’t let the excitement over the technology whisk us along without a thought for the possible consequences. But nor can we let fear of the consequences stop the development. Virtual reality’s potential is breath-taking, in so many fields, including those we haven’t even thought of yet. The aesthetics, the reach and the connection with our innate curiosity can transform experiences for all ages and professions.

As usual, philosophy, ethics and legislation are way behind reality. But that doesn’t mean that we can’t marvel at the technology’s accomplishments, ­­­test the limits of its reach and enjoy the creativity behind the material. And above all, find new ways to tell stories, because there are so many stories to tell.

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