Virtual Reality: Going Beyond the Gimmick

Sarah Markewich
May 15, 2018 · 27 min read

How Journalists Can Stay Ahead of the Game.

Photo credit: Sarah Markewich

In Short

Virtual Reality (VR) is a hype that has been coming and going for more than 30 years. At times, it feels like a fake trend with no real advantages for the already technologically overwhelmed news industry.

Why add yet another disruption into the newsroom mix? How can such a clunky, confusing, content-poor and cost-rich medium ever become profitable and worthy of the buzz?

As trendsetters like The New York Times and The Guardian, sometimes in partnership with major players such as Google and Facebook, actively experiment with it, ignoring VR is no longer a viable option for newsrooms. With the gamer generation becoming the future news consumers, it is essential for the news industry to be open to their needs and habits.

In this paper, we will look at the ongoing challenges in VR and the upcoming opportunities.

Despite VR’s numerous shortcomings, stakeholders in the journalism field must keep their eyes on the VR market and be ready for its possible impact.

  1. If you need or want to get an overview of the current issues facing VR in the journalism sector, the content herein can help you do that. It will give you a brief view on the history of VR and take you through the pressing issues such as hardware, content, audience behavior and awareness and monetization challenges.
  2. If you are in the news industry, VR sceptic or not, we urge you to stay alert to the various technological trends and disruptions. This paper can help you do that.
  3. Though virtual reality might be the least of your newsroom worries right now, knowing its current position in the media market will give you a competitive edge. This paper will suggest ways to stay open to VR.
  4. You will not get a detailed breakdown of the latest VR technology, content and statistical projections. With varied and inconsistent predictions coming from all sorts of directions, you would be better suited to set your Google alerts on “VR” to get up to date number crunching and tech development information, as needed. This paper will, however, give you indications about trends and prepare you for the VR vocabulary, going beyond just the notions.
Photo credit: Sarah Markewich

What You Should Know about the Ongoing Challenges in VR

1. Clunky, costly, non-portable headsets have plagued the VR market. Recent announcements about soon-to-be released products are getting people excited as annoying cables disappear, prices drop as standalone versions enter the market making mobile and desktops less necessary. The vast divide in quality and price will remain among cheap, cardboard viewers, mid-range ones and high-tech, high-cost headsets. All will offer different VR experiences though only some will provide truly immersive ones. Lack of speed and bandwith are also technical issues, among many others, that still pose problems for smooth VR use.

2. Content continues to be a problem for VR as there simply isn’t enough of it to go around to keep consumers coming back for more. The early adopters and innovators are offering a continuous supply of compelling content, but not enough to drive, let alone sustain, the VR market. As the headsets get better and cheaper, the content must keep coming or none of it will matter.

3. Monetization models are unclear and profit seems far off in VR, especially due to the combination of high equipment and production costs. Dabbling in low-end, less quality 360° VR is a money-saving option, but many wonder why bother if it ultimately won’t keep users engaged due to its limitations.

4. Digital disruption, some say, is an ongoing hurdle for the news industry and a “new” medium such as VR will need time to find its place in the crowded, mobile-focused media market. Why bring in a new, visual medium, when many newsrooms are just finally figuring out how to pivot to video, how to create data journalism teams and graphics and how to handle social media?

5. Audience behavior on VR is hard to measure as there are limited data available and too few user studies until now. VR has been mostly associated with gaming and gamers until now, who haven’t necessarily been considered a viable news audience yet. The news industry needs to get a better grasp on the potential of VR in the future as today’s young gamers might be tomorrow’s engaged citizens.

6. Storytelling methods need rewriting for VR. Not all stories are meant for the medium. A new narrative requires different framing, literally and figuratively. Design thinking and multidisciplinary teams might be necessary to create good VR experiences. This can be costly for newsrooms, with little return. The VR stories so far that people are talking about have mostly revolved around struggle and oppression. Some argue that we shouldn’t forget about VR’s entertainment value, which probably brings more profit possibilities with it.

7. Ethical questions arise with any new medium and newsrooms struggle to redefine codes and practices while maintaining standards such as truth, transparency and fairness. Virtual Reality offers a new format that changes the role and positioning of the journalist and user. With these new roles come new challenges.

Welcome to the Unpredictable World of VR

VR has gone through various forms and phases but is said to have been coined “virtual reality” by tech pioneer Jaron Lanier in the mid-1980s as he was working with and popularizing VR development.[1] Ten years later, in their highly regarded book on Communication in VR, theorists Frank Biocca and Pierre Levy suggested that it could still take 50 years for VR to “be in full bloom”, which would bring us to around 2045.[2]

Back in 1995, Biocca and Levy also predicted:

If VR technology remains a gimmick of video game manufacturers for the next 10 years then VR adoption will remain a toy and have a stunted technological development.”[3]

With more than 25 years to go until possible full-bloom status, VR still remains semi-stuck in the gaming realm with game manufacturers and players the first early adopters and the current market drivers. It’s easy to understand why immersive environments that allow you to bring various characters to life, while hanging out in your bedroom or basement, fit in to the gaming world. It’s also not a surprise that serious gamers are willing to pay more for better quality headsets and experiences.

In a March 2017 Reuters study, “VR for News: The New Reality,” more than 20 VR experts from leading newspapers and broadcasters were interviewed about the future of VR. Martin Heller of German daily Die Welt, sharing the sentiment of many others said:

I hate discussions like, ‘which is the year of VR?’ 2016 was a year of VR in terms of technology developments. But when we look to a mass audience, it’s more 2020 or 2022 or 2025. We know that it is a question of years until VR goggles are in every household in Germany.”[4]

Indeed, there is almost no use in discussing such predictions because nobody can seem to agree on what will happen when, by whom and how. Yet it is still essential to stay alert because one thing we know for sure is that VR is not going to go away any time soon.

Even Immersive journalism expert Nonny de la Peña, a.k.a. “The Godmother of Virtual Reality,” got it wrong when she said back in 2010, “it is not unlikely that the near future will allow for larger portions of the public to experience highly-immersive experiences at home or in their work environment.”[5] In various sectors that are experimenting with VR, perhaps, but at home and at work? No, not yet.

Eight years on and it still feels like we are nowhere near any sort of mass adoption of virtual reality. To add to the unpredictability and confusion about VR, we now have to add a lot more acronyms and descriptions to our technical trends’ vocabulary, such as AR, MR, DR, which you can see described in the Deloitte graphic below.[6]

For the purposes of this paper, we are going to keep the focus on VR only, though we cannot talk about VR without also quickly mentioning AR and going into more detail on Immersive 360° video. A 2016 Knight Foundation report on the future of VR gave this description:

“…virtual reality and immersive storytelling comes in several forms: “virtual reality,” which, properly defined, creates environments that allow people to be “present” in an alternative environment; “augmented reality,” which starts with the real world and overlays virtual objects and information; and “spherical” or “360 degree” video, which captures an entire scene in which the viewer can look up, down and around.”[7]

Which Newsrooms Are Using and Not Using VR so far?

According to the March 2017 Reuters study, the past 3 years have been ones of experimentation for many newsrooms, some of which are already firmly integrating VR into their journalism practices. The more than 20 people featured in the report from The US and EU, which you can see listed in the chart below, are all from “organizations that champion digital innovation and began experimenting with VR in some form” in the 12 to 36 months prior to February / March 2017.[8]

This is just a representative portion of newsrooms working or experimenting with VR in its various forms of 360° video to higher-end headset immersion. There are obviously many more, with the list growing each day. There are also far more examples of those not using VR. The recent Reuters report features highly reflective delineations on VR adoption within the news industry. We strongly recommend your looking to it for deeper analysis and insights and sharing it with relevant stakeholders within your newsrooms.

Why Are Newsrooms Using and Not Using VR so far?

The clearest message to come out of the Reuters report is that choosing to already experiment with VR in this unpredictable market is choosing to “stay on the cutting edge” and “get in on the ground floor.” Other ways those interviewed described their reasoning include, but are not limited to phrases such as:[9]

  • Positioning for the future
  • Cannot afford to ignore
  • Can’t avoid calls to innovate
  • Want to be the first
  • Get involved in developing a new medium from the start
  • Exciting and creative way to look at stories for future audiences
  • VR users are younger audience we want to pursue
  • Need to stay current
  • Want to be an industry leader
  • Need to be forward thinking
  • Hope to distinguish themselves from other local papers

Of course, there are those more skeptical and cautious who probably represent the majority of current newsrooms, with those above more likely in the minority, as pioneers usually are. The Reuters report, for example, highlights the Belgian public news broadcaster VRT as specifically deciding not to make VR a strategic priority yet because initial testing reflected that their audience is not ready for VR yet. The emphasis is on the word yet as VRT NWS Digital Strategist Maarten Lauwaert says:

“When a bigger group of youngsters starts wearing VR [headsets], then we’ll be there… it feels like a platform where the artists and the gaming industry can have their fun and try things out and push the adoption rate, and then we’ll get in once it’s time for us.”[10]

It is worth considering where you see your newsroom in the above approaches to VR. Do you want to lead daringly, follow cautiously or somewhere in between?

How Are Newsrooms and Users Using and Not Using VR so far?

One of the reasons the VRT decided not to take on VR is because they found that users and the news industry have not yet significantly adopted the technology needed for VR.[11]

360° video with cardboard viewers that rely on smartphones are one of the ways that early adopters have been experimenting with VR production and publishing. Until headset prices come down and portability goes up, 360° cameras and content are the only option for most newsrooms. There’s a lot of discussion about how productions viewed through 360° cardboard sets are not really VR as they do not allow for real immersive experiences. However, studies also show that users have too many issues with higher-end headsets and therefore prefer using the lower-quality ones in connection with their smart phones.[12]

Photo credit: Sarah Markewich

Though steady growth is predicted for VR headsets as they become cheaper, lighter, wireless and independent of smartphones and desktops, tech industry experts seem to agree that until there is the right combination of headsets and content that VR is still going to take a while to catch on.[13] It seems to be a chicken-egg situation of not knowing which needs to come first. For sure, it is obvious that both need to be ready at the same time to reach a wider audience than gamers and early adopters.

While industry professionals say data on VR / 360° news consumption is hard to come by, plenty of industry players assemble yearly lists of the top VR content to look out for and learn from. The best way to learn is from the best, which is why the below, brief sample list of current content with a buzz is included. The New York Times and The Guardian seem to get the most attention due to their industry positions and their collaborations with the likes of Facebook and Google. Other well-known productions such as “Clouds over Sidra” come from collaborations from major industry players and organizations like Samsung and the United Nations. Whether low, mid or high quality productions, the bigger the partnerships, the better the chance for recognition and profit.

Watch and Learn

· Clouds Over Sidra (Within, United Nations, Samsung…)

· 6 x 9 (The Guardian, Google News Lab…)

· The Fight for Falluja (The New York Times, The Pulitzer Center…)

· Behind the Fence (RYOT — now owned by The Huffington Post / AOL)

· Hajj 360 (Al Jazeera)

Share Knowledge

In the case of Hajj 360, as well as with other such content, including that from major media outlets, detailed production information is available online. Al Jazeera put it this way:

“We hope that we have been able to relay the lessons we learned from this trial to other journalists on the ground. Because we believe that the 360-degree footage can not only give viewers a rich, immersive experience, it could better tell the story with its new dimensions.”[14]

The more stakeholders in the news industry share knowledge with each other and collaborate, the more the VR market will be driven, the more opportunities there will be to create compelling content with audiences in mind and the more monetization models there will be. From both the news industry and user perspective, a “monopoly of knowledge” that only serves a chosen few should be avoided. 360° video and cardboard viewers can be considered the portable papyrus of VR available to many, while expensive headsets and productions could be the clay and stone for the elite few.[15]

Space, Time, Gratification and Competition Superiority[16]

Media industry scholar John Dimmick looked at how, where and with what — people consume media, noting that mobile usage fills gaps in time that used to be left unfilled. It’s no great leap to say smartphones have become the biggest time and space fillers of our days because we can take them and use them everywhere almost any time we like. Because of that, they have high gratification opportunities. Virtual Reality, on the other hand, is quite the opposite and is low on gratification opportunities, which makes it hard to appeal to younger (and older), on-the-go, multi-screen-using audiences. Dimmick said that opportunities for audience access is crucial for media channels, noting:

“If a medium cannot differentiate itself through some form of competitive superiority, it will not be able to survive or compete/coexist with other media for serving an audience.”

An April 2006 Ipsos MORI VR user study in collaboration with the BBC concluded, “new-comers to VR are unsure about what to expect and about the type of experiences they want to have.”[17] One surprising find of the study was that “headsets provide audiences with a rare opportunity to engage with content utterly free from distraction” and that they are a “helpful blocker to being distracted by multiple mediums.”[18] The research also noted that the young people tested really appreciated that their VR experiences allowed them “to walk in someone else’s shoes to better understand the world, experience something you wouldn’t normally do” and “remove all distraction, enabling focus on activities like relaxation”.[19]

The same study found the young adult testers with no previous VR usage had imagined that VR would be an underwhelming experience with flashy, futuristic gear that would seem like gaming, while making them feel sick and look silly.[20] The users were most drawn to novel and “heart-pumping” VR experiences and generally “enthralled and excited” by them, which they themselves hadn’t expected to be the case at all.[21]

Such studies, of which there are far too few, reveal a lot about VR’s potential. More user research is needed, as it is the audience that will tell us how to make VR market viable.

Kill your Darlings, Love your Users

Media business and policy scholar Robert G. Picard wrote the following when pondering if it was a period of twilight or a new dawn for journalism:

“News providers of all sizes are now employing multiple platforms for reaching and engaging with the public. They are reconceiving the nature of audiences and rethinking what information the public needs in different places, at different times, and the methods in which that information is conveyed. These are all indications of the appearance of new journalistic relations and practices.”[22]

With VR, and any new medium, the public (and the news industry) needs information and awareness so expectations are realistic and the medium can get momentum. As the Ipsos MORI study suggests “we must put the audience not just the technology at the heart of our thinking”. This will help us understand “audience perceptions, needs, usage occasions and how best to curate” and will “enable us to produce more relevant, impactful and memorable content that fits into real people’s lives.”[23]

Whereas in traditional times under legacy news structures the audience often played a mass and passive role, today, more and more, the public is taking an active role in news construction.[24] Though VR is not about audience participation in terms of contributing to the stories, it is all about the participatory, immersive experience of the user. This also shifts the role of the journalists and requires them to put themselves in the audience’s shoes and imagine how the audience will feel immersed in the content.

Media expert Seth C. Lewis said:

“Boundary work is a rhetorical exercise taken up in all professions, but one in which journalism is particularly engaged, in part because of journalism’s malleable, evolving character — especially in the digital era — and also in part because journalists tend to talk openly about such things.”[25]

What’s the Story with VR? To Empathy or Not to Empathy?

The Boundaries of storytelling and truth in journalism can also cause a lot of tension in the relationship between news organizations and consumers. While we know that compelling content is required to get and keep audiences interested in VR, we are definitely at the dawn of trying to figure out what kind of content it should be.

Ever since “Clouds Over Sindra” producer Chris Milk gave a Ted Talk on VR in 2015 and branded VR an “empathy machine,”[26] many have tended to approach and perceive VR content from the empathy angle. During the Ted Talk, Milk passionately said about VR:

“It’s difficult because it’s a very experiential medium. You feel your way inside of it. It’s a machine, but inside of it, it feels like real life, it feels like truth. And you feel present in the world that you’re inside and you feel present with the people that you’re inside of it with.”[27]

Interestingly, not one of the 22 people interviewed for Reuters’ recent report mentioned empathy when asked what stories worked in VR.[28] Others argue that it is the window of opportunity for VR as it opens a window into other people’s worlds. Though an executive producer of VR from the New York Times told Reuters that empathy was not part of their VR agenda, she also said the part of the goal in VR journalism is to take their users to places they might not usually get to and experience things unique to them through real sights and sounds.[29] Empathy has all sorts of definitions, but some of them involve taking on the feeling of a person or object. Even just being in a virtual place can bring up feelings of connection and understanding of another community’s lot in life. Furthermore, a lot of the New York Times’ VR content does more than just dabble in empathy.

Milk’s VR Ted Talk and Nonny de la Pena’s VR empathy studies[30] and speeches combined with a lot of the pioneering VR journalism content certainly give the impression that VR experiences are all about empathy. But the overuse of the word in the VR sector has led to some backlash and it’s currently out of fad, so consider using the word lightly.

Photo credit: Sarah Markewich

The Ipsos MORI — BBC research revealed that its VR user group was initially drawn to “things like horror, rollercoasters and other extreme experiences that had some novelty value.”[31] The researchers found that when they suggested particular pieces of content, the appeal of VR could go far beyond “the novel and extreme”, and that audiences could have profound experiences.[32] An interviewee of the Reuters study noted that VR has been quite a dark medium until now with the focus on “war and struggle”. While acknowledging its power in those areas, the person said the VR can also be “delightful and fun.” The conclusion was that a wise content strategy would be to not only offer harrowing reports from war zones but also lighter and more delightful ones.

Other interviewees suggested a range of content from high-end documentaries to hard news, on-the-spot coverage to short features for mobile. While another person interviewed cautioned newsrooms to choose wisely and ask if it works better in 360 than 169, if it passes a witness test and if it’s presence-based. Another trick to choose if something qualifies for the VR format is to determine if it passes the “be them (is it visceral) or be there (does it offer unique access)” test.[33]

Truth Be Told

You cannot mess with truth when it comes to journalism. It’s the deal you make with your audience so that they trust your news organization and find its content credible. The same goes for Virtual Reality experiences.

Former director of Guardian Australia Paul Chadwick said in an opinion piece on stepping into the “brave new world” of VR Journalism:

“For centuries journalists have adapted new technologies and, together with their audiences, developed vocabulary and conventions to help new forms fulfil an old task: convey as truthfully as possible an account of aspects of life in ways that engage audiences and contribute usefully to their worldview.”[34]

He added that newly understood codes for VR “will need to give audiences confidence in what they are offered as journalism.” Trust will be essential and criteria to keep in mind are “fidelity to truth, transparency and appropriate signposting.”[35] If it sounds like the codes and ethics of legacy journalism to you, do not be surprised. As with all new approaches in journalism, many old, tried-and-true practices remain the same.

What might be surprising is that a November 2017 user study from Penn State suggests that if a VR news experience seems too real, takes on too many game elements or is too flashy and fantasy-like then users can lose trust in it easily.[36]

When it comes to VR news, avoid hyperreal furry animals at all costs. Photo credit: Sarah Markewich

That’s Entertainment

As mentioned previously, VR journalism can and should sometimes be delightful and fun. Just as celebrity news often gets the most clicks online, they are also areas that could have a huge potential for the necessary monetization of VR. It’s not hard to imagine taking a virtual seat on a couch next to an entertainment journalist interviewing your favorite actor. It’s already possible to virtually hang out with musician Bjork on the beach and in an underwater world as she sings to you. Why not virtually join other fans backstage at a concert while a music journalist fields questions to ask your favorite music star. The sky might not even be the limit when it comes to the VR entertainment journalism field. We’re already seeing many examples of it, such as the collaboration between ABC news and Lexus to take a VR walk down the celebrity carpet at an awards show. With just a basic 360° camera, your newsroom could easily experiment in some celebrity and music-related on-the-spot content. Once again, it would teach you and your audience more about VR.

Be a Sport

One area of VR journalism that is growing exponentially and many say is guaranteed to be a profitable hit is sport coverage. From the upcoming Olympics in South Korea Intel –NBC pair up[37] to the early 2018 announcement that World Wrestling Entertainment Inc. (WWE) would use VR in partnership with live VR broadcaster NextVR.[38] WWE’s chief revenue and marketing officer Michelle Wilson said that it is an incredible fan-engagement opportunity and that they are going to provide “these amazing, oh-my-god moments in VR.

NextVR’s VP of content Danny Keens added:

“It’s something you can’t see or experience on television,” he said. “WWE and VR is a match made in heaven.”[39]

The possibilities for VR sport journalism are endless and can present partnership opportunities that lead to profit and wide exposure. If you are looking for the fastest-growing area of VR journalism to get into, go for sport, followed by celebrity and don’t forget travel journalism, which we haven’t even touched on.

The Long Tail and the Long View of VR

Virtual Reality is gaining momentum in many fields outside of journalism. Much can be learned from staying alert to how VR is being used elsewhere, for training, education and promotion. You might also find some interesting news and feature stories through your search. By shining a light on such stories and including the related VR content itself, you can spread VR awareness and get people accustomed to it without extra expense or effort.

The 2016 Knight Foundation report on VR mentioned “a long tail of diverse, consumer-facing brands” exploring virtual reality, such as Ricoh electronic imaging, Valve game developers, Ikea household shop, Nokia communications and electronics company and Marriott hotels.[40] The 2018 Deloitte tech Trends report also points out car manufacturer BMW and airline Air France.[41] Air France partnered with premium passenger entertainment start up SkyLights to test offering customers immersive in-flight content experiences.[42] It may not be journalism, but it sure is something to write home about — and we can expect to see more such examples coming to life over time. The significance of this to VR journalism is that it’s validating and creating a market for, curiosity about and exposure to the virtual reality medium; an important step in any medium’s adoption rate.

Head of immersive technology insights at SuperData Research, Stephanie Llamas, said:[43]

· “Adoption rates for different media show us that new communication tools follow the same trends as the ones that came before.”

· “Their revenue growth follows a predictable pattern: Slow to startup, and then a quick upswing when they hit an inflection point.”

· “If we use revenue as a proxy for where we are in the adoption of this medium, we are still clearly in the preliminary gap, although there is a growing number of indications that this will end soon.”

· “Venture activity is up. Relatively inexpensive standalone headsets are now coming to market. And the VR ecosystem continues to scale at a remarkable pace.”

Show Me the Money

Llamas goes on to say VR ad networks analytics platforms are starting to appear, which should motivate brands to invest thanks to potential ROI. She says it’s “inevitable since advertising has permeated every entertainment medium we currently use.” Once VR adoption in the U.S. hits a third of households in 2019, Llamas says, “there will be enough content, impressions, and engagement for brands to justify venturing into this new territory.”[44]

Llamas concludes:

“VR could not have existed without the media innovations of the past 100 years, because it incorporates virtually all of them. That’s what makes it possible for it to be a viable product. But before it can be profitable, VR needs three things: Critical mass, compelling content, and affordable, but high quality hardware. Once the industry can achieve that, the money will come.”[45]

This is a positive enough look forward for the news industry to take seriously the need to keep its eye on the VR market to stay ahead of the game.

What You Need to Do to Prepare for Upcoming Opportunities in VR

1. The absolute minimum a newsroom should do is keep a close watch on how its regional, national and global competitors are approaching the Virtual Reality market. What you don’t know, can hurt you, so make sure to know. Eventually, the news industry will have to come together and share knowledge on VR issues.

2. Good partnerships are often essential in VR creation and distribution. While looking at the competition’s relationship with VR, try to get an idea of whom they work with to make VR happen. Imagine if your news organization wanted to look further into VR production or publishing, consider with which partners you could possibly combine resources.

3. Speaking of collaborations, keep in mind that journalism schools are trying to get their heads around the future of VR as well. Working together with them on ideas and action in VR could lead to innovation and help you keep your finger on the pulse when it comes to VR.

4. For those who don’t really get VR, in order to understand VR, you have to try VR. Even if you can only get your hands on a cheap, cardboard VR viewer, it will be worth it. There is no sense in being a sceptic without doing a little experimenting with VR first. Go through the motions that your audience would. Get a feeling for VR before deciding it is not for you or your newsroom.

5. While you have that headset in hand, a next, easy step is to have a good look at what kind of VR content already exists in the media-related field, what kind of stories are being told through it and which approaches are and are not effective and appealing.

6. Now that you’ve experienced a little journalistic VR magic and VR trash, it’s a good moment to look beyond the journalism field and see how VR is being used elsewhere. Not only will such content be an eye opener, it might also inspire ideas for news coverage. Virtual Reality is spreading through many sectors and can be game-changing within certain fields. There are numerous stories there. Sharing them is a good way to create VR awareness and media literacy among your audience.

7. Get to know about your potential VR audience. Who are they and what expectations do they have? VR might not take off for a while, but try to figure out who will be using it and how when it does. Turn to existing and upcoming VR user research or conduct your own. Not all VR users are news consumers yet but they will be. Be ready for them.

The Bottom Line on Bringing VR into the Newsroom

A common joke in the VR industry is that to get a better grasp of VR’s potential and to be able to make better predictions about it, we should create VR experiences to walk us through the possible worlds and scenarios that VR can lead us to before taking the actual risks and diving in.

Unfortunately, as with any new technology and trend, there is always some risk involved. If you do not take some risks, you are likely to fall behind your competitors.

Virtual reality is a virtually new world for legacy news organizations. It creates more noise in an already too noisy technological landscape. It is hard to justify the cost in time and money, especially because it is not made for today’s mobile audiences due to hardware, headset and content issues. Just as data journalism necessitates, VR requires multidisciplinary teams with a wide range of skill sets. This kind of set up puts a lot of pressure on newsrooms to rethink their newsroom structures in mindset and in reality. Data journalism, though hyped, still seems bound within a niche though it promised so much. VR promises a lot for the audience too, but it’s too soon to know if it can deliver.

Regardless of understandable skepticism, we urge you to have a look at VR data regularly, through the numerous VR newsletters and websites that exist to help you measure your approach and strategy to incorporating (or not incorporating) VR into your newsroom ecosystem.

We also highly recommend signing up for this initiative set up by Google News Lab, Knight Foundation and the Online News Association in September 2016. “Journalism 360” is described as an “initiative of thought leaders, practitioners, and journalists dedicated to accelerating immersive storytelling in news.” It provides an easy way to get an overview on the many facets of VR in journalism and to join in the conversation about it.[46]

Final Notes & Thoughts, at minimum

Get a Cardboard Viewer & Keep Your Eyes Open to VR

Photo credit: Sarah Markewich

Experiment with 360° formats or sharing VR content in some way and start with “delightful and fun” entertaining news, such as celebrity, sport and events.

Photo credit: Sarah Markewich

Last but no least

Keep design director of emerging technologies at Gannett Ray Soto’s words from Nieman Lab’s “Predictions for Journalism 2018 “ in mind this year:

“2018 is the year we all need to stop making excuses and jump head first into the unknown. We must embrace these technologies and understand the future of media will not be driven by what we’re already comfortable with.”[47]


[1] Adams, T. (2017, November 12). Jaron Lanier: ‘The solution is to double down on being human’ | Technology | The Guardian. Retrieved January 13, 2018, from
[2] Biocca, F., & Levy, M. (1995). Communication in the age of virtual reality. Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, p. 137.
[3] Biocca, F., & Levy, M. (1995). Communication in the age of virtual reality. Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, p. 319.
[4] Watson, Z. (2017). VR for News: The New Reality? — Reuters Institute Digital News Report, p. 7. Retrieved January 10, 2018, from
[5] De la Peña, N., Weil, P., Llobera, J., Giannopoulos, E., Pomés, A., Spanlang, B., … & Slater, M. (2010). Immersive journalism: immersive virtual reality for the first-person experience of news. Presence: Teleoperators
[6] Briggs B.; Hodgetts C. (2017). Deloitte Tech Trends 2018 The Symphonic Enterprise, p. 76. Retrieved January 11, 2018, from
[7] Doyle, P., Gelman, M., & Gill, S. (2016). Viewing the Future: Virtual Reality in Journalism. John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. Retrieved January 11, 2018, from (bold, my own)
[8] Watson, Z. (2017). VR for News: The New Reality? — Reuters Institute Digital News Report, p. 4, 25. Retrieved January 10, 2018, from
[9] Watson, Z. (2017). VR for News: The New Reality? — Reuters Institute Digital News Report. Retrieved January 10, 2018, from
[10] Ibid:
p. 6
[11] Watson, Z. (2017). VR for News: The New Reality? — Reuters Institute Digital News Report. Retrieved January 10, 2018, from
[12] Fiennes, T. (2017, July 21). BBC Blogs — Internet Blog — Putting audiences at the heart of VR. Retrieved January 11, 2018, from
[13] Gallagher, D. (2017, December 30). Virtual Reality Needs to Cut the Cord — WSJ. Retrieved January 9, 2018, from
[14] Atassi, B., & Haddad, M. (2015). How we made HAJJ 360. Retrieved January 13, 2018, from
[15] Dimmick, J., Feaster, J. C., & Hoplamazian, G. J. (2011). News in the interstices: The niches of mobile media in space and time. New Media & Society, 13(1), 23–39. (in reference to Innis 1964)
[16] Dimmick, J., Feaster, J. C., & Hoplamazian, G. J. (2011). News in the interstices: The niches of mobile media in space and time. New Media & Society, 13(1), 23–39. (in reference to Dimmick 2003 and Dimmick and Albarran 1994)
[17] Fiennes, T. (2017, July 21). BBC Blogs — Internet Blog — Putting audiences at the heart of VR. Retrieved January 11, 2018, from
[18] Ibid
[19] Ibid
[20] Ibid
[21] Ibid
[22] Robert G. Picard (2014) Twilight or New Dawn of Journalism?, Digital Journalism, 2:3, 273–283
[23] Fiennes, T. (2017, July 21). BBC Blogs — Internet Blog — Putting audiences at the heart of VR. Retrieved January 11, 2018, from
[24] Edson C. Tandoc Jr. (2015) Why Web Analytics Click, Journalism Studies, 16:6, 782–799. (In reference to Singer and Ashman 2009; Hermida 2011; Bruns 2005).
[25] Seth C. Lewis (2012): THE TENSION BETWEEN PROFESSIONAL CONTROL AND OPEN PARTICIPATION, Information, Communication & Society, 15:6, 836–866
[26] Chris Milk: How virtual reality can create the ultimate empathy machine | TED Talk | (2015, March). Retrieved January 9, 2018, from
[27] Ibid
[28] Watson, Z. (2017). VR for News: The New Reality? — Reuters Institute Digital News Report. Retrieved January 10, 2018, from
[29] Ibid
[30] De la Peña et al. (2010). Immersive journalism: immersive virtual reality for the first-person experience of news. Presence: Teleoperators and virtual environments, 19(4), 291–301.
[31] Fiennes, T. (2017, July 21). BBC Blogs — Internet Blog — Putting audiences at the heart of VR. Retrieved January 11, 2018, from
[32] Ibid
[33] Watson, Z. (2017). VR for News: The New Reality? — Reuters Institute Digital News Report. Retrieved January 10, 2018, from
[34] Chadwick, P. (2017, October 8). First steps into a brave new world of virtual reality journalism | Opinion | The Guardian. Retrieved January 10, 2018, from
[35] Ibid
[36] Sundar, S. S., Kang, J., & Oprean, D. (2017). Being There in the Midst of the Story: How Immersive Journalism Affects Our Perceptions and Cognitions. Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking, 20(11), 672–682.
[37] England, R. (2018, January 9). NBC’s Winter Olympics VR streams will work on almost any device. Retrieved January 14, 2018, from
[38] Spangler, T. (2018, January 9). WWE Tags NextVR for Virtual-Reality Wrestling Highlights — Variety. Retrieved January 9, 2018, from
[39] Ibid
[40] Doyle, P., Gelman, M., & Gill, S. (2016). Viewing the Future: Virtual Reality in Journalism. John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. Retrieved January 11, 2018, from
[41] Briggs B.; Hodgetts C. (2017).Deloitte Tech Trends 2018 The Symphonic Enterprise. Retrieved January 11, 2018, from
[42] Immersive headsets on board Air France flights | Air France — Corporate. (2017, August 7). Retrieved January 14, 2018, from
[43] Fink, C., & Llamas, S. (2018, January 2). How Are People Making Money In VR… Or When Will They? Retrieved January 10, 2018, from
[44] Fink, C., & Llamas, S. (2018, January 2). How Are People Making Money In VR… Or When Will They? Retrieved January 10, 2018, from (including graphic)
[45] Ibid
[46] Google News Lab, Knight Foundation, Online News Association, & Contributors. (2016, September). journalism360 — Medium. Retrieved January 14, 2018, from
[47] Predictions for Journalism 2018 » Collections » Nieman Journalism Lab » Pushing to the Future of Journalism. (2018, December 20). Retrieved January 12, 2018, from

Journalism trends & technologies

A collection of White Papers addressing new trends & technologies in journalism, brought to you by experts-to-be from the Master in Journalism and Media in Europe at the Vrije Universiteit Brussel. References:

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Journalism trends & technologies

A collection of White Papers addressing new trends & technologies in journalism, brought to you by experts-to-be from the Master in Journalism and Media in Europe at the Vrije Universiteit Brussel. References: