Media have always had to fight for attention. With the multitude of tasks the average person needs to complete each day, news organizations have made a business out of persuading consumers to consume news. Now, media fight an internal struggle, battling with themselves.
The introduction of virtual reality has augmented the challenge of pulling people into and out of media and, in some senses, consciousness. News organizations must decide where they want to direct attention and convince users the experience will be time well spent.
As the late David Carr put it for The New York Times, somewhat critically, “No media viewing experience seems complete without a second screen, where we can yammer with our friends on social media or in instant messages about what we are watching. Every form of media is now companion media, none meriting a single, acute focus.”
The idea of escapism is nothing new. Every night, we have a chance to drift away in our mind within the context of our memories. The entertainment industry developed as an opportunity to experience that which is unfamiliar. What’s new with virtual reality is the development of its technology.
As virtual reality becomes more mainstream and increasingly incorporates with journalism, there is a greater to need to understand its purpose and application.
How it works
Relying heavily on the manipulations of bodily functions, virtual reality technology superimposes sound and sight over spatial positions and senses.
“Under the spell of V.R., the eyes and ears tell the brain one story, while deeper systems — including the endocrine system, which registers stress; the vestibular, which governs balance; and other proprioceptors, which make spatial sense of the body’s position and exertions — contradict it,” wrote Virginia Heffernan for The New York Times.
It is because the body is often out of balance that virtual reality experiences have been known to cause nausea and disorientation.
“By simulating as many senses as possible, such as vision, hearing, touch, even smell, the computer is transformed into a gatekeeper to this artificial world,” wrote Dr. Brian Jackson for Marxent Lab. “The only limits to near-real VR experiences are the availability of content and cheap computing power.”
Since virtual reality has not been widely adopted or commonly used by newsrooms, practical understanding and applications are difficult to find. Beta testing in a research lab does not necessarily translate into practice by working journalists nor to a quality experience by a user, reader, viewer or news consumer. This means certain rules, procedures and ethics that have historically been associated with journalism have to be self-imposed and formulated based on previous similar technology, if not simply intuition.
For example, the SPJ Code of Ethics says journalists should provide context and “take special care not to misrepresent or oversimplify in promoting, previewing or summarizing a story.”
The question Carr posed remains, “What is it about our current reality that is so insufficient that we feel compelled to augment or improve it?”
In the rush to innovate, news organizations must consider the effect VR may be indirectly having on users.
“With VR, it is possible that instead of simply escaping reality by focusing on a TV show, for example, people may choose to replace an unhappy reality with a better, virtual one,” wrote Monica Kim for The Atlantic. “VR’s advanced, immersive capabilities might bring more severe cases of social isolation to the public’s attention.”
By stepping into a virtual world, you can experience realistic scenarios without experiencing physical harm. The threat of danger, however, exists so long as you perceive it.
News organizations have embraced virtual reality as an opportunity to simulate the plights and triumphs of people around the world. In addition to the outlined journalistic ethics, I have listed a few best practices to keep in mind when creating and promoting virtual reality experiences.
- While virtual reality gives the illusion, it’s important for news organizations especially to emphasize that virtually-real experiences are not actually-lived experiences. Refugees in Europe, hospital patients and prisoners don’t have the option of taking off a headset when they’ve had enough.
- As with every innovation, news organizations should weigh the costs — which are numerous. There’s the cost of foraying time into uncharted territory with the severe repercussion of ignoring it and begin left behind. Fortunately, a number of content hosting platforms, such as YouTube 360, Vrideo and Kolor, house a number examples you can explore, and even a few news organizations, such as The New York Times, have already embraced VR giving us the opportunity to see its progression in real time. There’s the cost of the equipment and investment. Then there’s the cost for users.
- While technology continues to be perfected, news organizations need to respect human limitations. Even if the ability to simulate an experience is possible, it is important to notify users of
- The most essential requirement for journalists using virtual reality is to understand its purpose. Ask why a story would need a virtual reality experience? Is it compelling? Is it necessary to the story telling? Does it make sense in context?
- The photography brings your story to life. Make it visually appealing.
Not every story will necessitate virtual reality, but every virtual reality story should be “immersive, transporting, revolutionary. But most of all, non-nauseating,” according to Heffernan. “If it works, if it catches on, it must first give pleasure — and be fun.”
Indeed, journalists could learn from those within the industry, outside the field. “There’s a lot of work to be done with this collaboration where new forms of storytelling are yet to be developed, including immersive data visualizations,” Robert Hernandez wrote for the Nieman Lab.
If you’re on a budget, he adds, there are still options. “Using one of many, many different 360-rig configurations can get any newsroom up and proactively exploring what this type of storytelling can be. Add some stitching software, After Effects, and, of course, basic video editing skills and you’re pretty much at the industry level.”
Here are a few examples of virtual reality projects that capture the above requirements while also providing a meaningful experience.
- The Displaced (The New York Times)
- The Nepal Quake Project (RYOT TV)
- Harvest of Change (The Des Moines Register)
Use of the medium depends on input. Ultimately, virtual reality is what you make of it.