Earlier this month, a new tool in the evolution of digital journalism arrived in the homes of 1 million New York Times subscribers in the form of a cardboard box.
The unassuming package contained a pre-assembled Google Cardboard set, a cheap and cheerful virtual reality (VR) viewer that, when combined with a smartphone and the NYT VR app, allowed readers to watch The Displaced, an 11-minute film about refugee children, in immersive, 360?video.
“The box itself seems destined to be remembered with a disbelieving laugh, like the shoe-size mobile phones in a Seinfeld rerun,” the New York Times’ public editor Margaret Sullivan wrote. “But at the moment, this is new.”
New — well, not exactly. Virtual reality, as anyone who put on a Sega VR headset in the 1990s knows, has been around for decades.
However, recently, the price of virtual reality equipment has plummeted — you can buy a Google Cardboard set for less than ￡10 (US$15.10) — and several of the world’s largest tech companies are investing heavily in virtual reality, including Facebook and Google.
“Virtual reality appears to be on the cusp of mainstream adoption,” said the introduction to a report from the Tow Center for Digital Journalism, virtual reality production company Secret Location and PBS’ Frontline show, who all collaborated on Frontline’s first virtual reality documentary, Ebola Outbreak: A Virtual Journey.
“For journalists, the combination of immersive video capture and dissemination via mobile VR players is particularly exciting,” the report continues. “It promises to bring audiences closer to a story than any previous platform.”
This sense of connection is key to the appeal of virtual reality, said New York Times Magazine editor-in-chief Jake Silverstein, who was integral to its adoption by the organization.
“Every other type of storytelling involves framing, whether the rectangular frame of a still photograph or the framing a journalist does writing a news story or feature,” he said. “In VR, there is no frame. You can look wherever you want within the scene. The experience leads to a feeling of connection and empathy that is more powerful than traditional video.”
However, the lack of a narrative frame that makes virtual reality so powerful can lead to ethical questions around its use in journalism.
“It’s certainly fair to ask whether VR — with its more realistic depictions — might be more deceptive [than other forms of journalism],” Tow Center for Digital Journalism analyst Fergus Pitt said. “Audiences, when asked, will say they understand that journalists crafted the work, but the scenes they’ve watched will stay lodged in their minds and maybe their subconscious in a powerful way. That’s a serious responsibility.”
“The pretense of VR is seeing something that actually happened as opposed to something obviously constructed, so authorship is more blurred,” University of British Columbia digital media and global affairs assistant professor Taylor Owen said. “It is a highly constructed environment, but the pretense to the viewer is that it isn’t.”
The Displaced was criticized by some journalists, including National Public Radio (NPR) senior vice president of news Mike Oreskes.
“The computer can generate the impression of being at a crime scene by blending still photos of the scene and video of the area shot later,” he wrote in an e-mail to NPR staff. “This will seem very real, but it might not pass the high standards set by most photojournalists.”
“The issue is standards,” Oreskes said later. “We should bend technology to the service of journalism, not journalism to technology.”
Rather than photojournalism, Silverstein compares virtual reality production techniques to documentary film.
“To me the concerns have to do with the complexity of the filming and what that therefore requires in terms of coordination with the subject,” he said. “If you are comfortable making journalistically sound decisions in that context then you can do the same in a VR context.”
Whatever the concerns, virtual-reality reporting is taking off. Last week the New York Times created a virtual-reality report from vigils for victims of the Paris attacks, and the New York Times Magazine is set to release a virtual-reality take on its annual Great Performers issue next month.
Others are following: Sky News has released its first virtual-reality report, which focuses on the refugee crisis, and the Guardian is also experimenting, with its first virtual-reality release penciled in for the new year.
However, given the potential costs, would smaller media companies be able to produce virtual-reality content?
Silverstein believes so. He would not say how much the newspaper spent on The Displaced — one outside source estimated it could have been as high as US$100,000 per minute — but reveals that the project was profitable, thanks to sponsorship from Mini and General Electric. Not every media company can attract such blue-chip backers, but the costs of producing virtual reality are falling steadily as new cameras roll out.
“VR doesn’t have to be that expensive,” virtual reality producer Emblematic Group co-founder Jamie Pallot said. “Our first production, Hunger in LA, was made for US$700, although we also called in a lot of favors.”
Observers might be excused some cynicism when faced with the hype around virtual reality.
However, Pitt said we should take a long-term view on what virtual reality can bring to the arts of journalism.
“Do we really think communication mediums have finished evolving? A safer bet is that some forms of media will become more surrounding and enveloping, that audiences will be able to put themselves into other worlds,” he said.
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