Stanford Journalism Program’s Guide to Using Virtual Reality for Storytelling — Dos & Don’ts

Students in the Stanford Journalism Program’s inaugural immersive journalism class shoot 360-degree video of the San Francisco Bay in Menlo Park, California.

By Geri Migielicz and Janine Zacharia

August 1, 2016

Alumnus Eric Johnson (Stanford Journalism MA ‘12), now a reporter at technology news site Recode, demonstrates the Samsung Gear VR headset.

Immersive journalism’s potential

Students experience VR inside Stanford’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab, home of Professor Jeremy Bailenson’s research.

When to use virtual reality in journalism

Master’s students Jamie Stark (Stanford Journalism Program ’16) and Kim Kenny (Stanford Journalism Program ’16) use the six-camera GoPro rig to shoot 360-video for a story about the effects of coastal erosion in Pacifica, California.
  1. Where being in the actual space deepens one’s understanding of a story beyond a written narrative, photos or regular video.
  2. And most crucially, following on the previous point: where turning your head side-to-side is essential. If all the action is front and center — say at a political debate — you don’t need spherical video.

Virtual reality and narrative — rules for the road, questions and concerns

  • Generally, pieces that have been published thus far have been too long. Viewers get fatigued in the headset and bored. They should last no longer than four or five minutes. Shorter, punchier experiences are better.
  • Virtual reality does not always work as a stand-alone journalism project. Better to think of it as an add-on that brings added value to other forms of reporting.
  • Full narratives that try to replicate traditional video documentaries leave viewers wondering where they should look and as a result the viewer can easily miss the most compelling action in the scene.
  • The advantage of shooting current events in virtual reality is that it allows viewers to rediscover new elements each time they watch it that they may have missed before. One potential future area could be to capture historical events so that we can do better analysis down the road.

Adapting techniques

Few of the rules of journalism or filmmaking apply to VR storytelling.

Technological hurdles and barriers

360-degree viewing with or without a headset

Cardboard viewers allowed students to use their smartphones to view VR journalism pieces.

Camera challenges

Master’s student Shane Newell (Stanford Journalism Program ’16) adjusts settings on the six-camera GoPro rig during a 360-degree video shoot at a California landfill for a story about food waste.
Students explored shooting 360-degree experiences with the lower-cost Ricoh Theta S.
  • Each of the multiple cameras you are using must have identical settings, and the chance to accidentally change a setting increases with handling.
  • Battery life is a limitation (you need external battery packs, special cables and spare batteries to extend the shoot).
  • The remote control for multiple GoPros is unreliable and Wi-Fi kills battery life (see point above).
  • For each clip you shoot, it’s best to perform both audio and motion synchronization at the start and end to give more options for finding a good stitch point (see below for stitch issues).

Stitching — the post-production pain

Master’s student Kim Kenny (Stanford Journalism Program ’16) uses the Oculus DK2 headset at our new immersive journalism computer workstation, customized for 360-degree-video stitching and post-production.
  • Fewer cameras mean wider lenses must be employed, which create more distortion, especially in objects close to the cameras.
  • Vertical alignment of cameras creates shorter stitch seams, which are easier to correct.

Ethical dilemmas

Master’s student Naomi Cornman (Stanford Media Studies ’16) worked with classmate Anna Yelizarova on a series of 360-video stories about sports that published on Peninsula Press, the Stanford Journalism Program’s local news website.

.@Stanford University's Journalism Program and Stanford Computational Journalism Lab focuses on multimedia storytelling and data journalism.

.@Stanford University's Journalism Program and Stanford Computational Journalism Lab focuses on multimedia storytelling and data journalism.