Virtual reality: The shift from storytelling to “storyliving” is real

A new Google News Lab ethnographic study — aimed at trying to better understand how people experience virtual reality in order to help inform the journalists who are building these experiences — finds that, despite the decades of hype surrounding this technology, it is, in fact, a significant shift in storytelling, one unlike any other medium.

And journalists, whether they want to admit it or not, have a new set of challenges and responsibilities when creating these immersive experiences, the study finds.

While the technology has significantly advanced, VR for journalism has many unknowns about how the content truly affects the consumer, about how the medium fits within journalism’s multiplatform realities and even about the vocabulary used by VR content creators.

With that in mind, the News Lab hired an anthropologist to study immersive journalism creators and early-adopter consumers in hopes of better understanding nonfiction VR’s impact on journalism.

Through a series of ethnographic interviews, Tom Maschio documented the shifts currently happening and set up a framework to get journalists to proactively reflect on this disruption now, while it is still being shaped.

Maschio found, among other things, that:

  • Embodiment and shapeshifting through this immersive technology allow the audience to experience a story like no other medium before it.
  • In consuming this type of content, the participant experiences vulnerability and openness while living the story.
  • This isn’t simply consuming a piece of journalism; it’s living through an experience prepared by the storyteller.
  • Journalists face a series of dilemmas with this technology, which will require us to re-examine our role as passive, “fly on the wall” witnesses to become more active storytellers creating these highly influential experiences ethically and accurately.

Among the findings in the paper, co-written by USC’s Karl Baumann based on Maschio’s work, the expansion of perspective and the invocation of emotional states stand out.

The study suggests that we need a new term for this medium, since it is different from reading, listening or passively watching.

“I think we need a new name for the empathy paradigm or a more expansive definition,” said Maschio in an interview. He suggests that a new story culture is being developed and participants in these immersive experiences are living rather than consuming stories.

But with the technology’s known history of hype, many leading immersive content creators are hesitant to embrace some of the study terminology.

“I think we’re all so excited for where this medium is going,” said RYOT Co-Founder Bryn Mooser at a SXSW breakfast organized by the News Lab to gather early reactions to the study. “[But] we’re not there now. The medium has suffered from this overhyped moment. Once you start calling a 360 video with a cardboard ‘storyliving,’ it’s a disservice to what’s really coming.”

The leading immersive storytellers around the table were hesitant, if not reluctant, to create new terms that may overpromise where the current technology is now or, perhaps more importantly, may limit where the technology could go.

“I would argue, under no circumstances, do you understand what it’s like for a child in a refugee camp,” said Nathan Griffiths, VR Producer with The New York Times, referring to watching an immersive piece about refugee camps while on your sofa. Though he doesn’t embrace the empathy machine concept, Griffiths does agree that the technology brings you closer to understanding.

But the group also acknowledged that this is a significant shift.

“It’s more like taking a drug than it is reading,” pointed out Christina Heller, Co-Founder and CEO of VR Playhouse. “It alters and heightens your state. Your heart is beating faster, your mind is disoriented, and that to me feels more like a psychedelic experience.”

“It’s not just new, it’s physiologically different,” added Sarah Hill, CEO of StoryUP VR, which has been studying how immersive stories stimulate and affect parts of the brain.

Whether we want to label it or not, immersive stories — even now — are having a different type of impact on those who are experiencing or “living” these projects.

And, whether we like it or not, this puts a new level of responsibility on the storyteller.

“Something that keeps me up at night: Are we injecting trauma on people by putting them in these situations?” said Hill, who raised concern about which kinds of immersive experiences we should put participants in. “We know VR affects them differently. They aren’t just watching it, they are feeling it.”

The ethics of storytelling, Socrates Lozano of E.W. Scripps Co. said, don’t change simply because the technology is new.

“As far as how I approach a 360 story, it’s exactly the same from an ethics and storytelling standpoint,” said the national technology coordinator and photojournalist for Scripps. “The approach of how I am going to engage with the audience doesn’t change journalistically. All the same rules still apply.”

That is one thing the group agreed on: Story is still king, despite the tech.

There is also no turning back from immersive storytelling. This is, as the study finds, a new development in storytelling — or story crafting — and a significant one.

Hype or not, it’s here.

“I just want to make sure that we’re still challenging and pushing the medium forward,” said Mooser. “It’s up to us to keep making that [immersive storytelling] language … there are no rules anymore. Journalism is changing. The world is upside down. I hope we continue to push it.”

Disruptions are messy. And this one is no different.