360° video is the future of journalism. Don’t get left behind

How the Hacks/Hackers Nairobi community took a step into the virtual world of storytelling.

Live feed from a 360° camera during #HHNBO

Before the smartphone, the world could not imagine having a pocket-intelligent machine that could do everything from accessing the world wide web to taking selfies.

Now they’re a gateway to whole new worlds. You don’t need to be a Pokemon Go fan to know that 360° video, virtual and augmented reality experiences are the next big thing. And journalists are jumping on the bandwagon.

Many news outlets have already introduced 360° video series or projects, showcasing innovative storytelling techniques. Esteemed outlets such as the New York Times, BBC, The Wall Street Journal and more have all developed apps or published stories that include immersive video to help readers get closer to their subject.

Virtual reality storytelling isn’t quite as well developed in Kenyan newsrooms, but Hacks/Hackers Nairobi (HHNBO) is determined to help them catch on. Which is why we organised a special session on immersive video with three news innovators.

Ben Kreimer, Tiny World Production’s Lakshmi Sarah and Kenya’s own Trevor Snapp demonstrated that these tools don’t require budgets and skillsets that limit them to the big media conglomerates, but can also be used by journalists everywhere.

Ben Kreimer, an independent journalism technologist, tells stories with drones, virtual reality, 360° video, spatial audio, 3D reconstructions and open source sensor platforms, shared some tips and tricks on how to get this done. For example, he narrated how his first 360° video camera using tape, a rubber band and two Go Pros placed back to back with fish-eye view.

360 video not only allows journalists to give their audiences an immersive experience but also allows them to tell old stories from a different perspective. In the process, it is changing the traditional principles on what to show your audience and when. Now you can show them everything at once and let them take away the most important things for themselves. What you think they need to see may not be what they are interested in.

When should you use 360° video?

Just like any other storytelling tool, 360° video is not for all situations. So how do you know when to use it?

- If the space is a major part of the story
- If putting the viewer in the middle of the story communicates it better
- To tell old stories with a new perspective

National Geographic, for example, made a 360° video showing what it’s like to go face-to-face with a curious great hammerhead shark. In this case, putting the viewer in the shoes of the divers made the experience more emotive.

Other instances where 360° video is being used is to give viewers visual and storytelling cues, and to shower Easter eggs in live event recordings (as demonstrated by NPR).

It is also valuable to record live events where a lot is happening at once, unlike the conventional cameras where a journalist shows their audience 20 to 30 second shots of different parts of the scene, 360° video can show the whole scene at once. Even the journalist, sound technicians and other crew are in frame. This brings a transparency to the medium that is lacking in traditional ways of recording events.

Because of this, 360° video does well for covering protests, natural disasters and other events where many things are happening at once. The audience has free will to choose what interests them most or watch bits and pieces of the whole thing.

I’m interested in immersing the viewer in 3D spaces where you can fly, walk or swim in a particular location.
Ben Kreimer

Drones, 3D and Virtual Reality


Other emerging technology work well with 360° video as well. For example, this story by Desert Sun used 360° drone footage to explore how Salton Sea, California’s largest lake is at a dangerous turning point that could create one of the state’s largest environmental disasters.

3D experiences can also be incorporated with 360° video by adding stereo which gives the video depth and and spatial audio that can present sounds from any direction.These all lend to providing a believable VR experience. 3D printing can also presents the option for journalists to make their own 360° cameras by mounting two cameras together in a customised frame.

Open-source software

Here’s a list of apps that can help you use virtual reality tools on your smartphone or computer.

RICOH THETA S app is a software you can download on your smartphone to shoot, view and share images from your smartphone that are taken using 360° technology. It goes hand in hand with the RICOH THETA line of 360° cameras.

Facebook 360° is a stunning and captivating way for publishers and content creators to share immersive stories, places and experiences with their audiences.

Sketchfab is a platform to publish, share and discover 3D, VR and AR content. It allows to display 3D models on the web, to be viewed on any mobile browser, desktop browser or Virtual Reality headset.

YouTube 360° provides a platform to upload, watch and share 360 videos. All you need the latest version of Chrome, Opera, Firefox, or MS Edge on your computer. On mobile devices, use the latest version of the YouTube app.

Time Lapse Camera is an android app to create time lapse videos and is best used to record events for up to one full day. It can be used to record everything from flower growth to weight loss progress. Using it you can create stunning videos and publish them on YouTube in a couple of clicks.

At the end of the day, though, VR is just a tool.

Journalistic principles of storytelling and a nose for compelling audience-grabbing stories still apply. But if and when you use these tools, remember…

Less thinking, more making, more doing.
Ben Kreimer

A big thank you to Ben Kreimer, Lakshmi Sarah and Trevor Snapp for leading this immersive and engaging session. We also thank the #HHNBO community for their participation.

Want to attend a meetup? Join your local Hacks/Hackers chapter to get invites and alerts.

The worlds of hackers and journalists are coming together, as reporting goes digital and Internet companies become media empires.

Journalists call themselves “hacks,” someone who can churn out words in any situation. Hackers use the digital equivalent of duct tape to whip out code.

Hacker-journalists try and bridge the two worlds. Hacks/Hackers Africa aims to bring all these people together — those who are working to help people make sense of our world. It’s for hackers exploring technologies to filter and visualize information, and for journalists who use technology to find and tell stories. In the age of information overload and collapse of traditional business models for legacy media, their work has become even more crucial.

Code for Africa, the continent’s largest #OpenData and civic technology initiative, recognizes this and is spearheading the establishment of a network of HacksHackers chapters across Africa to help bring together pioneers for collaborative projects and new ventures.