VR in the newsroom: Don’t wait too long, don’t spend too much
If there were remaining doubts as to the potential use of virtual reality and immersive journalism to augment the quality of traditional reporting, this year has quashed these doubts: whether it was the extensive use of 360 video to cover the Rio 2016 Olympics (see coverage from NBC, live 360 coverage through the BBC’s app, or in this 360 video by Immersiv.ly) or the Guardian’s 6x9 VR project, which placed the user in a jail cell to hear inmates’ stories, or Google’s Brexit data visualisation — there have been more than enough examples to prove the journalistic potential of VR. Undoubtedly, the news industry is tackling VR head-on.
According to Juniper Research, VR hardware sales will jump from $5 billion in 2016 to $50 billion in 2021, a tenfold increase in just five years. A few weeks ago, Oculus Rift announced a $500 million plan for content.
Nevertheless, there are some “buts”.
First, the prices of VR headsets (and VR-compatible computers) will remain high for the next couple years, which will bar them from the mainstream — beyond loyal video game enthusiasts. There’s also much confusion about what we mean by a VR piece: is it a 360 video? A 3D animation? A mixed media piece (videos with overlaid 3D elements)? At the moment, more than 80 percent of VR pieces are simply 360 videos, mostly posted on YouTube 360 or Facebook VR. Another challenge is that, for many, VR experiences mean motion sickness. This remains the most significant limitation of the technology.
None of these drawbacks is a deal-breaker. The main issue is related to the distribution system: how can users access VR productions with so many competing platforms (even if YouTube and Facebook/Oculus are the major players)? It will take time to know which standard and which platform will win out. As of now, users have to navigate from one platform to another, which greatly limits mass adoption.
Granted, for many newsrooms, their foray into virtual reality remains at an experimental stage. “The overall numbers right now are not what we’re concerned about,” said Len De Groot, head of the data visualisation department at the Los Angeles Times. He has been overseeing the newspaper’s first attempts at 360 video and VR, including a virtual tour of Mars or a 360 photo of downtown LA.
And many newsrooms, already strapped for resources, may find it difficult to justify these added costs when the audience for VR experiences, and the ways to monetise these experiences, are still limited. But the point is that the barriers to entry are quickly eroding, and that most news organisations can now afford to deliver their first VR projects.
For example, on the hardware side, the options to capture 360 degree video have multiplied to the point of possible confusion: there are now several relatively cheap consumer-grade cameras, which can be handheld and used by reporters in the field, such as the Ricoh Theta S, or the Nikon Keymission 360 which was just announced at Photokina, or the Samsung Gear 360, all of which for less than $500 can produce stitched 360 degree footage which can be uploaded directly to a platform, with almost no specialised skill involved (save for knowing the basics of filming in 360 degree).
For higher-end use, media companies can also have access to broadcast-quality cameras, such as the Nokia Ozo (now $45,000 reduced from $60,000), or through partnerships with specialised firms like Jaunt or Google with the Google Jump (a circular array of 16 GoPros synced together, and stitched through cloud-computing). These setups come at a much higher price point but they have the huge advantage of being stereoscopic, adding depth to the image.
It’s true that software and development of computer-generated virtual reality and 3D environments, designed for devices such as Oculus Rift or HTC Vive, remains a costly operation: most VR projects still require a skilled developer team to program in a 3D engine such as Unity or Unreal Engine, and quite a few of the better 360 degree cameras still require time-consuming stitching of 360 video. But these skills are becoming more accessible to newsroom staff as well — and quickly at that.
Lastly, the main challenge for newsrooms will be to understand how to tell stories in virtual reality and 360 degree video, taking into account the public’s increasingly fickle attention arc, “because we’ve been so conditioned to snacking,” said Andreas Hoffman, VP of Publishing for Samsung, referring to our fragmented consumption of news — and indeed most content in general — through social networks and mobile phones.
Audience literacy will need to greatly improve — and so will reporters’ VR storytelling skills — before newsrooms can harness the true power of VR, but the moment to begin implementing these practices is today.
Here are five good reasons not to wait too long and not to spend too much:
- VR productions in 2016 are missing storytelling. Where do you find storytellers? In Hollywood, in the gaming industry and in (digital) newsrooms. Now’s the time for journalists to practise VR storytelling methods if they don’t want journalism expelled from the VR universe by 2020.
- Experimentation is one thing, sustainability is another. As many news organisations are no longer profitable, the only way to begin production is to work with brands or foundations and to integrate — from the beginning—a monetisation and value chain strategy for VR.
- Early adopters are not always the final winners, but in this case, plan for a learning curve. An advantage of VR is that you can start with very small teams, even with one producer for quality 360 videos. News organizations can outsource some aspects of the production for their first VR pieces, as did the New York Times, but should swiftly aim to build their own teams: you need to learn now.
- Don’t invest in hardware above $1,500: prices are decreasing every six months as quality and simplicity are improving. Just rent the hardware you need and work with suppliers. You will create a profitable ecosystem for all parties.
- Define a one-year strategy and collaborate to avoid one-offs. As you need to create an audience for your VR products, always plan the next step. Don’t hesitate to cooperate with other news organisations as they have the same interest as you in developing this specific audience: you are allies, not competitors.
Virtual reality and immersive journalism are no longer hypothetical niche products of the distant future. It is imperative for news organisations to begin training their reporters and editors to think about, and understand, how to tell stories on this new medium; stories which are no longer meant to be only consumed on a flat screen or device, but in three-dimensional space — just like our lives — and sometimes with enjoyable avatars to make VR more social.
Basic Tip Sheet for 360 Video Immersive Journalism
In the past year the use of 360 video to produce immersive journalism has boomed, thanks to the emergence of plethora of 360 video cameras on the market, along with developments in video editing software that have helped to make the post-production process less time-consuming (though not altogether painless). Here are some of the basics to get started:
- 360 video is captured through a camera (or several) with enough lenses to cover a 360 degree horizontal field of view, and 180 degree vertical field of view, or in other words, a full sphere surrounding the camera.
- When conceiving a shot in 360 video, unlike traditional frame composition, it is important for the storyteller to keep in mind that the camera will in turn be the head of the viewer when watched in a VR headset: they will be able to look around and see their environment from the camera’s point of view.
- ‘Stitching’ refers to the process of linking and editing the images captured by the different lenses so as to form a seamless sphere or 360 video. For a long time, this was a cumbersome process, achieved through specialized software such as Videostitch and Kolor (which was purchased by GoPro, a major player in the field of 360 video capture).
- While this is still the case, many of the cameras emerging on the market come with automated stitching software which does most of the heavy lifting. In fact, the Samsung Galaxy S7 can perform this intensive task for Samsung’s Gear 360, and in the matter of a few minutes, a viewable 360 video can be ready to be uploaded.
- The only current drawback — and for this too it is only a matter of time before it is solved — is that very few of these cameras currently offer the ability to live-preview the fully stitched view. In other words, content creators most often discover the result after the fact, at the risk of having missed their shot (though it is often possible to preview the cameras or lenses one by one, so as to ensure that at least the main subject is captured accurately).
- ‘Parallax’ refers to the distortion in an image caused by it being viewed by multiple lenses as the subject moves too close to the camera. Without getting too much into details, this means that the closer an object, and likewise the more distance between your camera lenses, the more risk there is of experiencing parallax (just like your two eyes see different sides of an object as it gets very close to you).
- Despite the conventional wisdom of early days, camera movement is very much possible in VR experiences and 360 video, and can result in a more engaging experience — but this movement should be controlled. Slow, rectilinear and forward-facing movement seems to work best, but more complex motion can be thrilling too, and works especially well if the shot contains a fixed frame of reference (for example being filmed from within a moving car, or on the side of a helicopter, etc.).
- Even handheld 360 video is possible, provided there is sufficient stabilization both during capture, and / or applied in post-production.
- However, remember that for most use cases, changing the horizon line (pitch) or sudden rotation along the Y-axis (yaw) will most often result in viewer discomfort.
- Most often, but not always: so that being said, in these early days of immersive storytelling, perhaps the key is to encourage content creators to experiment — and sometimes to fail along the way (but make sure you try on yourself first).
- (Unfortunately, current research contends that nearly a tenth of viewers will regularly experience discomfort or simulator sickness when viewing a moving VR experience — a definite brake to the mass adoption of VR.) Whether this may be resolved by advancements in the devices used to consume VR remains to be seen.
- In terms of storytelling, remember that one of the major advantages of 360 video and immersive journalism is just that: to give the viewer the ability to be fully immersed in a scene that they would otherwise not have a chance to experience.
- And straightforward as it may sound, it’s important for journalists to resist the temptation of succumbing to the novelty of the medium and to rush to publish any content — the novelty is quickly wearing off anyhow — and to remain focused on what they do best: telling good stories!
Natalie Whittle — Financial Times
“We didn’t want it to just be floating around on the website, unconnected to anything, and I thought it would make a lot of sense if a VR film could be an enrichment to a in-depth piece of journalism.” (Journalism.co.uk, 1 September 2016)
Eugene Wei — Oculus V.R.
“It’s not like regular video, where everything has been figured out. It’s hard to tell stories in 360 video.” (SlashGear, 11 May 2016)
Jenna Pirog—The New York Times
“The storytelling potential that VR holds for journalism is huge, and we are slowly experimenting with what stories work best with this technology.” (MediaPost, 30 June 2016)
“I think it’s something video journalists should start experimenting with and play around with if they can access some cheap VR gear and rigs.” (ijnet, 5 September 2016)