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Virtual Reality in Journalism

I was fortunate enough to attend the ISOJ (International Symposium of Online Journalism) conference over the weekend where I witnessed unbelievable advances in technology that I’m excited to share. One of the hottest topics at the conference was virtual reality. Even though VR has been around for 30+ years, the technology has only recently been applied to the field of journalism.

Emblematic Group and Gannett Digital both attended the conference and demonstrated what their companies are doing to advance the world of VR journalism.

Gannett Digital, the digital arm of The Gannet Company, has been experimenting with VR to enhance their news stories since fall of 2014. They partnered with the Des Moines Register to take viewers on a tour of a farm in Iowa that they talked about in one of their stories.

After that, they moved on to Vail, Colorado to take their viewers on a tour of the FIS Alpine World Ski Championships.

And today they launched their next project – an on-going series with the Cincinnati Reds baseball team to showcase a constantly updated stream of visual content from the team.

These virtual reality experiences offer complete 360 degree views and includes a complete audio and visual environment. Users can download the app on their mobile phones and watch them through any VR player, such as Google Cardboard, making them accessible to anyone with a smartphone.

VR is definitely the shiny new object in journalism, and at OwnLocal, the number one question that surrounds this is, “How are they going to monetize and fund the technology moving forward?” Gannett Digital already answered that question this weekend after they received the first ever paid sponsor for VR journalism. A hospital in Cincinnati is sponsoring the Red’s experience, offering a small proof of concept for the project.

Emblematic Group is the leader in virtual reality experiences. The company has pioneered the VR space thanks to their CEO, Nonny de la Peña. While Gannett Digital is making huge strides in the field of local journalism, Emblematic has truly created some powerful pieces of journalism that allowed us to see the vision of where VR journalism is heading.

The first experience I personally tried was Project Syria. After putting on the headset I was transported to Syria seconds before a pipe bomb exploded. After the explosion there was moments of chaos where visibility was nearly zero. After the debris cleared I saw people picking up injured citizens. From there I was taken to a Syrian food bank to witness starving citizens waiting in line to get their portion of food for the day, and then to a Syrian refugee camp with statistics about how many people are forced into these camps every day.

The experience lasted 3-4 minutes and was one of the most powerful journalistic experiences I could have imagined.

The second experience was just as powerful and showcased the controversial Trayvon Martin case. After watching a brief 7-11 security camera footage I was taken to the neighborhood where George Zimmerman lived. I saw Zimmerman sitting in his car talking to a 911 dispatcher while Martin paced in a lawn several yards away. This scene continued until I Zimmerman get out of his car in pursuit of Martin.

Next I was in the home of a neighbor who was on the phone with 911. She talked about hearing a man yell for help and hearing gun shots. I traveled through several different homes and heard several other witnesses’ 911 calls. These are the actual audio from that night. The experience ended in the neighborhood with police lights flashing and rain pouring down.

There were two big takeaways I had from these:

    1.  VR experiences like this really help to take the possible bias you could experience in the media. I could see for myself what happened and draw my own conclusions without listening to hearsay. Now they didn’t actually show what happened to Trayvon because of course there’s only one living person who knows with 100% certainty what happened, but it came as close as it could. And the controversy surrounding the case really was centered around what happened prior to the gun shot.There is still a human creating the experience, deciding where to put the cameras, who to put in the room, when to start and stop each scene, etc., however knowing that it’s the actual audio from the 911 calls gives it a sense of legitimacy.
    2. Where this really has a potential to positively impact the world is the non-profit sector. These experiences are designed to give people a level of empathy and understanding previously unavailable, so the potential for a positive impact here is endless.

Along with actually demonstrating the technology, Ray Soto from Gannett Digital and Nonny de la Pena from Emblematic gave great presentations on their tech and where they see the future of VR journalism going.

A big topic of debate was ethics in VR journalism. One red flag raised was that once the barriers to entry for VR are gone, how will people use VR without journalism ethics?

Nonny’s response to the questions were that she’s not worried about ethics at at, what she is worried about the nausea caused from the experience. She said people going through the simulations understand the duality of presence and know the difference between the constructed reality and actual reality.

There will be ethical debates surrounding anything in journalism, and I’m sure we’ll see some high profile cases in the near future that push the boundaries of ethics in VR, but I’m on Nonny’s page, that isn’t my biggest concern.

Actually my biggest concern is VR getting too powerful and we all eventually turn into immobile humans that just stare at a screen all day…


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