How to immerse your newsroom in VR

Lessons from GEN Summit’s bootcamp

Virtual reality is one of the big topics at this year’s GEN Summit — even Mozart has got his goggles on. And attendees will get the chance to explore the possibilities of immersive journalism at the VR Studio.

The hype around virtual reality has been steadily growing over the last number of years — and journalism looks set to take on this disruptive technology before it hits the mainstream.

But how will wearable news work (where the viewer wears electronic goggles), and how much attention should newsrooms pay to the platform?

“For the first time in the history of storytelling, [VR] gives us the power to place the viewer in the middle of a story,” Alina Mikhaleva, RT’s director of strategic development, told delegates at the GEN Summit in Vienna.

“VR is fundamentally different” to other disruptive technologies, Ms Mikhaleva said. “It is a different planet. It is by far the most powerful new medium [for journalists]” because it “places the power back in the hands of the professionals”.

The rules of immersive journalism

Zillah Watson, the BBC’s editor of R&D internet and future services, wants to capture the excitement of other VR experiences and apply it to news content. But there are a number of challenges that the technology currently faces.

“At the moment, production is too slow,” Ms Watson said. “Stitching footage is too laborious. VR is expensive and only really good for one-off pieces. And good audio takes a lot of time.”

Through a number of experimental 360 videos, the BBC has come up with some rules for producing immersive content.

Reporters must first question whether a story really needs to be presented as a 360 video. Unless you can place the camera at the heart of the action, there is little point — something that Ms Watson learned from filming her cousin’s wedding in 360, which resulted in lots of boring, unusable shots.

“If you can do it better with a normal camera, you really shouldn’t bother [with 360].”

The usual rules of filmmaking apply as well.

“Empty streets don’t make compelling films.” Zillah Watson, BBC.

Reporters must also question whether they can tell the story without using cutaway shots.

VR poses a number of unique ethical questions, especially around news framing, according to Shahar Bin-Nun, CEO of HumanEyes Technologies.

His concerns were echoed by Chamsy Sarkis, director of the SMART news agency in Syria, who was concerned about VR becoming a propaganda tool.

“Better to be the first to use this technology before extremists use it,” he said.

Putting a shape on a story

One of the other major challenges for VR content is showing the viewer where to focus their attention.

“We can’t control what is happening in the mind of the viewer,” said Darío D’Atri, editor-in-chief at Clarín Web TV.

L-R: Zillah Watson, BBC; Darío D’Atri, Clarín Web TV; Chamsy Sarkis, SMART news agency; Alina Mikhaleva, RT; and Jean-Yves Chaînon, Global Editors Network. Photo: Luiza Puiu of European Forum Alpbach for GEN

Based on the BBC’s experiments, traditional pieces-to-camera don’t work because the viewer doesn’t spend enough time immersing themselves in the story.

“People need time to look around, so the pacing is much slower than a regular TV news film,” Zillah Watson said. “A very relaxed reporting style is needed. You need somebody beside you, telling you what you see.”

Voice-over with overlaying graphics has been the most successful style so far for the BBC.

“VR is technology you really need to experiment with,” RT’s Alina Mikhaleva said.

Right now, there is a huge shortage of quality video content, which creates a Catch 22 situation: Publishers hesitate to invest in the platform while audiences are slow to catch on due to the shortage of immersive content.

But as the technology moves from the hands of developers and into the hands of users, Ms Mikhaleva warns that things are starting to change right now, and she predicts that VR will develop twice as fast at mobile technology did.

“Let’s not let our fears keep us on the sidelines. Get into the game right now.” Alina Mikhaleva, RT.

Showtime at the GEN Summit’s VR Studio

Experience real immersive journalism, face-first. One of the highlights of the GEN Summit 2016 is the VR Studio, located at the back of the conference hall.

Using various headsets, attendees are invited to explore films presented by a host of media organisations.

Here’s what is on display:

BBC — We Wait

Shown on Oculus Rift, this story brings the viewer into the heart of the refugee crisis. They travel alongside a Syrian family crossing the Mediterranean Sea, sharing their hopes and the terror of the ordeal. The content is based on a number of BBC News interviews with migrants.

Also on display are a number of 360 video, shown on tablets, Samsung Gear VR and cardboard, which were introduced at today’s session.

RT — various 360 videos

Russia’s English-language news agency RT presents a number of 360 videos in the VR Studio. The GEN Summit team recommends checking out Donbass 360: The Ravaged Heart of Europe, which was RT’s debut immersive journalism video. It gives the reader a detailed look at war-torn Donetsk and its bombed-out airport using footage shot on a drone.

Attendees can also take a tour of RT’s newsroom.

immersiv.ly + JYC

There will be a number of 360 videos shown on Samsung Gear VR, including Hong Kong Unrest and Speed Flying in Val Thorens. You can also experience the premiere of Inside the Zika Epidemic, Jean Yves Chainon’s film that explores the impact of the virus in Pernambuco, in the heart of Brazil’s epidemic.

There will also be an exclusive video focussing on the upcoming summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro.

SMART News

The Syrian Media Action Revolution Team will showcase a number of VR experiences, also on Samsung Gear VR. Films include Life in Aleppo.

Still from “Inside the Zika Epidemic”, which premiere’s at the GEN Summit VR Studio