You don’t need to be the NYTimes to do VR

Yay! Here comes everybody!

It’s great to see the rush of people coming to explore the emerging tech of virtual reality. Yes, it appears the overly-hyped promise that under delivered for several decades has finally become a legitimate reality.

All thanks to a former journalism student turned billionaire and this smart lady.

I’ve been exploring different forms of VR dating back to my college days when I was fascinated by Apple QuickTime VT Studio, but I am no pioneer. I have been more into Augmented Reality (I still think it is the most promising future) since I became a professor at USC Annenberg some six years ago.

But after attending a local VR conference about a year ago, I knew this was going to be huge.

So, I created a course with the aim of exploring what the hell VR experiences could be in journalism.

My goal — like with most of my projects — is to empower journalists by demystifying tech and inspiring them to go innovate.

Back when I was in the newsroom I was frustrated when we, the Web team, would pitch ideas to leadership… only to be greeted by confused looks. Then have those same ideas pitched back to us after the NYTimes did them two years later.

I know that struggle.

I also got frustrated (or jealous) by the influence the incredible paper had over the industry… if they did it, then it was legit. But, sadly, if they did it smaller news orgs felt like they couldn’t do it.

Hence, this is why I am writing this piece.

You do not need to be a national news organization or Google to begin exploring and developing VR experiences for journalism.

I can.

My students can.

You can.

And chances are, after just some experimentation, your VR work can be as good as the shining, rising stars of the industry.

Let me be frank, there is a lot of bad stuff out there that is getting a lot of VR innovation buzz: VRSE/Vice protest or NYTimes Magazine or Gannett’s skiing.

This isn’t a hater trying to hate.

This is the reality of early days of VR and journalism that is yet to be fully defined.

You need to get involved and help shape this.

Please do not leave this to people like the New York Times and Google.

There are two typed of VR you can do:
1- Live-action, 360 video (Polar Sea or Hong Kong Unrest)
2- CGI/3D modeling (Harvest of Change or NASDAQ ride)

For most news orgs, option 2 is quite a costly endeavor because those skills may not be in our newsrooms. (But you might be surprised. I am hearing from a couple news orgs that their graphics people are exploring this in earnest.)

So, for the sake of starting out, let me focus on option 1: 360-video.

To start, you need a 360 rig… and, while there will eventually be a better solution once the tech goes mainstream, the best setup right now is having GoPros strung together to capture video from every angle.

While there are different 360 mounts out there, my research leads me to recommend the Freedom 360 version, which goes for about $500. (There are other mounts, like 360Heros, and you can even 3D print one yourself.)

Mounts come in different setups depending on how many cameras you want to use. The more cameras, the better the resolution. The basic model, though, is good enough to start.

You’ll need six GoPros for the basic 360 mount. If you go for the latest GoPro model (which has its own problems, like overheating and shorter battery life), those will run you about $500.

From there you need a thin tripod or sturdy monopod.

And you’ll need software to stitch all the video together. There are a couple out there, but I’ve been using Kolor’s suite of software. That costs money too. But you can download them for free to test it out, although videos will have watermarks.

All together this goes for around $5,000. With that, you are ready to take on the big players like the NYTimes.

I’m serious.

Once you produce these videos, you publish them on platforms ranging from YouTube to VRideo (a startup) or Kolor Eyes (the platform from Kolor).

Okay, if $5,000 is too much, check out the Ricoh Theta that goes for $300.

This is the Flip Cam of VR video and the latest version has some impressive features.

What matters is that you get started.

This next disruption is being shaped right now and you need to be a part of it.

Yes, you!

I have to say this small but growing VR Journalism community is pretty great and collaborative. I’ve been fortunate to have learned from a lot of people in the industry, giving me some invaluable tips.

My students and I will be sharing our best practices via our site vrjournalism.io. And I have created a VR Journalism Google Group to help foster knowledge exchange.

It’s great the NYTimes and Google are teaming up. But it will be better if you joined in this disruption too.