Journalism underwent a flurry of virtual reality content creation, production and distribution starting in the final months of 2015.
The New York Times distributed more than 1 million cardboard virtual reality viewers and released an app showing a spherical video short about displaced refugees. The Los Angeles Times landed people next to a crater on Mars. USA TODAY NETWORK VR stories took visitors on a ride-along in the “Back to the Future” car on the Universal Studios lot and on a spin through Old Havana in a bright pink ’57 Ford. ABC News went to North Korea for a spherical view of a military parade and to Syria to see artifacts threatened by war. The Emblematic Group, a company that creates virtual reality content, followed a woman navigating a gauntlet of anti-abortion demonstrators at a family planning clinic and allowed people to witness a murder-suicide stemming from domestic violence.
In short, the period from October 2015 through February 2016 was one of significant experimentation with virtual reality (VR) storytelling. These efforts are part of an initial foray into determining whether VR is a feasible way to present news. The year 2016 is shaping up as a period of further testing and careful monitoring of potential growth in the use of virtual reality among consumers.
At the moment, 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. This report will refer to all such experiences as VR storytelling.
While there is general optimism among current VR content creators that use of the medium in journalism will expand, many concerns and open questions remain. They are primarily focused on the burden of production, accessibility of headsets and quality of content. They also include whether people’s news consumption habits will embrace immersive behavior and how to track ad metrics.
To explore these questions, Knight Foundation collaborated with the USA TODAY NETWORK to get a better understanding of what VR journalism is today, to look at which news organizations are working in VR, what the investment and financial forecasting is around VR technology, and what this medium’s potential could be for news organizations.
Key Findings: The State of Virtual Reality in Journalism
Through a survey of news organizations and industry analysis, several key themes are beginning to emerge about where VR in journalism stands today, where it may be headed and what questions remain to be answered:
News organizations have produced powerful journalistic storytelling that aims to use VR to create a deeper connection between subject and viewer that can give people the sense that they are being brought to places where they otherwise would not be able to go.
An ongoing debate questions the ethics of showing a fully spherical view of a scene without the ability for a journalist to focus an audience on a particular view, and whether action in spherical video is unnaturally staged in a manner that changes the authenticity of the story.
Where Does Hype Meet Reality?
Perhaps the biggest question facing the nascent industry is what will happen when the novelty of VR wears off, and whether the quality of the storytelling and the VR experience will bring people back to look at the content on a regular basis.
Growing Market Overall
The number of new investors in the technology, content creation and distribution of VR experiences increased 27 percent in 2015 over 2014 and was projected to continue to increase in 2016, according to analysts.
Significant Monetization Questions
No current advertising standards govern the way brand messaging can or should be associated with VR viewing. While some branded content and sponsorships emerged in 2015, whether VR storytelling can be monetized by news organizations remains unknown.
Adoption Potential Uncharted
Facebook 360 and YouTube 360 are leading the way in providing simple ways to upload and use basic viewers to look at spherical video in VR. Headsets from HTC and Facebook’s Oculus were expected to be released during the first half of 2016, albeit at higher-end price points that may make them unaffordable to many who want to try VR.
Expensive to Produce
Technology is rapidly evolving in terms of cameras, postproduction tools and viewers, but the time and effort of telling stories in VR remains prohibitive for many small and medium-sized news organizations.