Virtual reality for Dutch news media: 8 serious chances and / or obstacles

Is immersive journalism a good idea?

The power of virtual reality is that you are completely immersed. Imagine watching the national news with a VR viewer. A short item about Syria can become an invasive event, instead of a passive news broadcast. But is bringing in news in VR a good idea? And is it at all feasible? I talked about VR and ‘immersive journalism’ with Andy Chu (YVRFF), Lammert de Bruin (1 Vandaag) and Lara Ankersmit (NOS).

Dutch journalist Sander van Hoorn reporting in 360 video about Aleppo

Is this #social, #personal or #fake news?

Independent media have the power, or they should have in any case, to distinguish social, personal and fake news from the real stuff and place facts in the correct context. With respect for the privacy of both news sources and subjects. I therefore welcome any initiative, which allows news media to discover new ways to stay independent in the present media world.

News media should be financially independent

In a democratic society it is important for media to be independent from politics and stay away from other forms of conflict of interests. The arrival of internet and social media has long been a threat for mainstream news media. You could say that Dutch media are finally becoming successful in inventing new business models and news formats like longreads, NOS on 3, payment walls and digital news channels.

VR is hot

VR is hot. But is it just a hype or is it more than that? Several sources say that the virtual reality sector accounted for more than 1 billion USD turnover in 2016. Also, other authors pointed already at the chances of VR for news media (i.e. on Forbes , Frankwatching and Valuebound). Moreover, last year Mark Zuckerberg demonstrated a very impressive realtime interactive VR experience. That’s why I’m going to go deeper into the question: what could Dutch news media do with VR?

What could Dutch news media do with VR?

Experiencing VR is becoming easily accessible

The New York Times, that successfully launched innovative digital journalistic publications before, published The displaced in 2015 (embedded below, watch it in a Chrome browser), a documentary about refugees, recorded in 360 video.

AP has already published dozens of VR productions, the most recent being the Lost ruins of Nimrud (Syria). And on Youtube, the number of VR videos is growing explosively. This virtual reality channel for example, already has playlists with hundreds of VR videos and over 2.3 million subscribers.

For $ 7 you can buy a cardboard VR reader, in which you insert your smartphone and watch 360 video. Combine that with the ever-growing thinking power of chips, the on going increase in speed of our wireless networks and the affordability of VR readers (like the cardboards) and you could easily conclude that it is only common sense that VR is the next step in bringing news. Right?

What is the definition of VR?

But before we dive into it — what do we mean when we talk about virtual reality? During the interviews with Lara Ankersmit, Andy Chu and Lammert de Bruin I notice that there are subtle differences in the use of the term. Is VR just any shape of 360 video? Or is there more to it?

It is more than an “device”

The online publishing expert Jonathan Steuer underlined years ago ( in 1993) that VR is more than a “device driven medium”: such an approach would, he thought, do not do justice to what the experience of VR can do with a person.

VR can be an intense experience

In fact, to experience VR was why Canadian film producer Andy Chu organised the first YVRFF in Vancouver (BC), Canada. The basis of each VR experience, is that the user feels he is in a different reality.

“Watching VR for the first time with a viewer on your nose is an intense experience.” — Andy Chu

“What you should not forget,” Chu says, laughing, “is that watching VR for the first time with a viewer on your nose is an intense experience. You may become nauseous, sea sick as it were. Your body can try to tell you something is not right. Much depends of course on the quality of your headset and the quality of the film. I hope that visitors of the YVRFF will leave the festival inspired and eager to apply VR to other industries, such as the medical world and real estate.“

Andy Chu, me :-) and crew during the preparations of the YVRFF

A computer generated reality

As pioneering it may have been at the time, the definition used by Steuer in 1993 has become somewhat out of date. Steuer speaks, quite understandably, about experiencing a “telepresence”. In the 1990s, this was an important concept, but nowadays we do not need such a qualification any more. A workable definition that I recognise most in the applications around us, and also in discussions with Chu, Ankersmit and De Bruin, I found at techterms.com. Simply put, and somewhat altered, I would say: virtual reality is the experience, with multiple senses, of a computer generated reality.

Virtual reality is the experience, with multiple senses, of a computer generated reality.

Operable (full feature) or viewable VR(mobile)

Another important distinction is to distinguish the degree of VR. You have the more expensive VR experiences, like for Oculus Rift. Deloitte refers to this as full feature VR. Devices to run this cost at least 100 USD, users can use this VR-experience with its own display. On the other hand, you have simpler VR, the 360 videos, which you can view, to your satisfaction, with a cardboard VR reader. Deloitte characterizes this as “mobile VR”. Such films are free to view on Youtube for example, or available in app stores for only a few USD. Both experiences can be considered VR, but the costs for both purchase and production differ widely, as do the intensity and interaction of the VR-experience.

8 Opportunities and / or obstacles of VR for news media

If, with all this in mind, I consider the desirability and feasibility of “virtual reality journalism”, I see a number of chances and limitations. Maybe there is not enough reason to cheer just yet, but I’m getting quite enthusiastic.

+ 1 VR can help professional news media stand out

“VR is not for everyone,” notes journalist Lammert de Bruin (1Vandaag). “Therefore, this is one way you could distinguish yourself from protruding civil journalism and, for example, the ‘Youtube news agencies’. On social media everyone is a journalist, with VR you’re at the forefront and you’re distinctive.” Yet, the journalist thinks Dutch media won’t be too quick to embrace full feature VR: “I feel that news organisations will not be in the forefront of it, for different reasons.”

- 1 Producing VR is costly and not every news item is VR-material

De Bruin explains: “The biggest problem is mostly the price tag. It is still relatively expensive and labor intensive to make good VR productions. The tendency for many news organisations is to keep all costs as low as possible. Secondly, VR will not be suitable for all the stories, only for very specific ones.”

“Creating VR should really add something, in order to really add value to leave your audience in a certain place. AP has made VR productions eg about the temples devastated by IS, enriched with animations of what the temples used to look like. That’s great to see. But this whole technology is just starting and evolving.”

+ /- 2 Live VR news broadcasts ‘Dream For Every Journalist’

Lammert: “I definitely see opportunities for VR in news production. However, for a news organization or journalist live streaming VR stream news reports, would be the ultimate dream. That way you could really let your audience be there, when it happens. That would really add something. But so far, the technology is not ready for that yet,” De Bruin concludes.

+ 3 With VR, you do not need to be physically on-site to report the news

Canadian television and film producer Andy Chu (LinkedIn profile) also recognises how news media can benefit from virtual reality. Chu is the initiator of the first virtual reality film festival in Canada, the YVRFF. We met during the build-up of the festival, in the CBC studios in Vancouver.

Chu: “Yes, I could definitely see the benefits of casting a live streamed VR news broadcast on the spot. You know what could also work well for news organisations? Have people on location send you the VR-recordings and do your reporting from within the VR. That way you don’t always have to be in place to report the news.”

Impression of the first edition of the YVRFF © YVRFF, 2017

+ 4 Real-time, interactive VR is already possible

Although mobile virtual reality is inspiring, there is not much you can do in it as a viewer. That’s different with realtime interactive VR: you respond to your new context and that context responds to you. Technically this is already possible. At least, if we are to believe the demo at Oculus Connect 3. Mark Zuckerberg showed how he was in real-time conversation in VR with two Facebook employees, Lucy and Michael.

Although Facebook recently announced to stop the in-house creation of content for the Oculus Rift, the shown possibilities for communicating in VR are promising.

- 4 The cost of VR are high

There is no doubt about it: creating virtual reality experiences is costly. Forbes reportedly estimated that it costs 500,000 US dollars to create a full feature VR-production, and 10,000–100,000 USD for mobile VR.

+ 5 With 360 video, you let people experience places

Lara Ankersmit, head of Digital at NOS (the Dutch Public News Broadcast Organisation): “360 video is interesting, it’s not as labour intensive as VR. And since our journalists and correspondents are in places our audience is not, we think that news in 360 video is an important extra for our viewers.”

Sander van Hoorn, for example, our Middle East correspondent, has filmed in Aleppo with a 360 camera to show what the city looks right now. The 360 video’s we make are more a registration than a directed story. We are definitely going to continue producing 360 videos.”

- 5 The production time of full feature VR is long

The NOS has experimented with VR, says Lara Ankersmit. “When I talk about VR, I have the consumer in mind who is looking through a VR spectacle. We experimented with VR and 360 at NOS Lab. VR is interesting but difficult to plan, especially because of the post-production editing. That can easily cause us to bring news too late.”

+ 6 Interactive holograms are possible

Chu: “The future of VR? Yes, that’s definitely interactive VR, but also a better quality of characters. Now we work with animations, CGI, but what you really want in virtual reality are holograms.” The Canadian film producer adds: “Do you know what the toughest part is of shooting a 360 video? finding a place to hide. Shooting 360 is totally different from traditional film.”

What does a movie and TV series producer see in VR? Chu: “1,5 years ago I was in Amsterdam with a friend. We discovered there, by chance, a pop-up VR film theater and we said to each other: “We should have that in Vancouver!’. I preferred to have a festival there, so that you could do more at once and offer more variety. And now we are here, with over 100 VR films submitted from 39 countries. “

- 6 The quality of VR films sometimes leaves something to be desired

Not every VR movie is of good quality. Chu: “For our festival we only selected movies that met 3 criteria: 1. Storytelling, how was the story told? Does VR really add or could this as well have been filmed in 2D? 2. The quality of the film; is it technically well-made? And 3. How do they have the story set out in VR — is the full feature of mobile only?

+/- 7 You look weird with a virtual reality viewer

During my research for this article, social media expert Chad Politt published an article on Social Media Today, in which he advocates that virtual reality is just a hype and can never be the future of marketing. I reached out to find out where he bases his conclusions on.

Politt thinks VR will be passed by augmented reality because of the device’s inconvenience. “Let’s be honest — people look like idiots with this stuff on,” he writes. Whether he is right in terms of marketing, I do not know. But when it comes to consuming news, you can easily do that in the privacy of your own home. If you are indeed worried about the way you look with a pair of VR glasses.

+/- 8 In virtual reality, the producer re-creates reality

Finally, an important opportunity of VR for Dutch news media is a possible obstacle at the same time: you produce the reality you show, more than with regular news items.

Steven Rosenbaum wrote about this dilemma in Forbes: “Journalism is — after all — about telling the truth. But VR provides the platform, and therefore the ambiguity, or presenting a number of truths, some of them directly contradictory.’

Of course, you could say that this is already the case with present news productions. What sources does a journalist use? What viewpoint does the cameraman choose? And what quote does the reporter leave out?

However, in VR, or immersive journalism (a term coined by Nonny de la Peña) if you will, there are two extra reasons for requiring more transparency of journalists:

  1. “Journalism is about covering real things, and reporting the “truth,” while VR is about creating new worlds, or in the case of 360 VR video, gathering a complete spherical video feed of an event in real time.” (source); and
  2. “The power of an immersive news experience transforms the viewer’s role from observer to participant. Rather than just watching events, audiences are now in them.” (source)

I end this article with a quote from Tom Kent (AP): “Viewers need to know how VR producers expect their work to be perceived, what has been done to guarantee authenticity and what part of a production may be, frankly, supposition.”

What is the difference between fake and fact?

In other words the critical success factor for VR to successfully add value to journalistic productions, may be that journalists increasingly need to account for the editorial choices they make.

Can citizens make well-informed choices in a democratic society by distinguishing fake from fact?

Only then will democratic societies get reliable “immersive journalism”. Because at the end of the day, once VR productions have become more affordable and the processes faster and less labour intensive, the question remains: can citizens make well-informed choices in a democratic society by distinguishing fake from fact?


What do you think: will full feature VR be create Dutch newscasts one day or will Dutch media continue to focus on mobile VR/360 video?

This article is the English version of “Virtual reality voor nieuwsmedia: 8 serieuze kansen en/of obstakels”, that was published on Frankwatching.com. © Kirsten Vos

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