VR: A virtually realistic aim for all


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By Dana Branham and Phi Do

Six hours of training and two weeks of production. That’s all it took for Veda Shastri and a team of other New York University graduate students to direct and produce an eightandahalf minute virtual reality documentary.

Shastri and her project — “Return to Chernobyl” for PBS’ Frontline — are evidence that it doesn’t take hours of training to complete a virtual reality project and that VR isn’t only for the most prestigious newsrooms.

“It’s more accessible than people think. It feels confusing, it’s new and people don’t know how to approach it, but we self-taught ourselves,” Shastri said. “It takes a lot of time, but with anything, once you get started, you’re doing it.”

Options abound for producing VR projects — cameras from hugely varying price ranges, GoPro rigs for six or 16 cameras, and all types of software for stitching and rendering video.

Still, for many newsrooms, there’s a fear factor when it comes to committing to VR — especially when it comes to cost.

“If I’m trying to even convince a newsroom to even get into this 360 game, they immediately think, ‘I don’t have the resources,’” said Robert Hernandez, a digital journalism professor at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism. “But here’s why I’m advocating for it now: It’s not that expensive to start.”

Hernandez, who updated his VR journalism tip sheet this week for journalists who want to start experimenting with immersive storytelling, pointed to relatively inexpensive 360 degree video cameras as a way to enter the VR scene — both the Ricoh Theta and the Samsung Gear 360 cameras run about $350. Hernandez, who has studied emerging technologies for at least a decade, said now is the time for newsrooms to dive into virtual reality.

“If you start, you help shape what this is,” Hernandez said. “We have an opportunity as storytellers to really own this space.”

VR journalism tip sheet | Robert Hernandez (@webjournalist) by ONA Newsroom on Scribd

Nick LaMartina, a game audio professional and VR specialist, suggested that the final clincher in convincing a newsroom to invest in the technology lies in allowing journalists to experience it for themselves first. He recommends newsrooms create a VR vertical slice so they can have a clear understanding of what VR can do for their content and how it it can affect audience engagement and retention.

“Because until somebody actually puts it on their heads, puts the earphones in and really feels that difference and what it means, it’s next to impossible to convince somebody,” he said.

Sound, which can make or break video content, can be an even tougher sell. As a game designer with years of experience, LaMartina said sound always needs a strong advocate. Like visual content, he added, the best persuasion is to show, not tell.

“It’s about strong selfadvocacy but also [about] taking the time to put the work into making smaller advances that people can take bite-sized pieces of and really see what a difference it can truly make,” LaMartina said.

Virtual reality also means more immersive storytelling. James Pallot, co-founder of the Emblematic Group, said because VR requires viewers to believe that they’re somewhere else, it heightens their empathetic response. It can also give viewers a greater spatial understanding of how and where news unfolds, Pallot said.

Still, not every story needs to be told with virtual reality.

“No. 1 is: Can the story be told in any other medium? And if the answer is no, then we do it,” Pallot said. “And the answer is often yes. It’s only when we feel that there’s a way that it can be illuminated that only VR can illuminate, that we decide to do it.”

Pallot said stories that do best with virtual reality are features with longevity that need the interactivity and spatial awareness that virtual reality can provide.

“A story that has legs, that’ll give you the time and the breathing room to think,” he said. “Try it on a big story. Try it on a story that fits the medium. Try it on a story that has legs.”

For a newsroom that wants to be cutting edge, Hernandez said, virtual reality is going to be big, and the time to get started is now.

“Right now [virtual reality is] not mainstream, and that means we have two options,” Hernandez said. “We can wait until it becomes mainstream and then jump on that train, or we can jump on the train, learn and fail when nobody’s looking, and when the moment hits that it becomes mainstream, we’re ahead of the curve before everybody else.”

The Online News Association, Google News Lab and John S. and James K. Knight Foundation want to jump on that train. The three organizations on Thursday announced their partnership in creating Journalism 360, an initiative to build a network of support for journalists getting their hands dirty with 360 video, augmented and virtual reality.

“The ONA community prides itself on being early adopters and experimenters, so we are delighted to work with our long-time partners to offer valuable help around this technology, which has already shown incredible potential for deeper journalism,” said Jane McDonnell, ONA’s executive director.