VR Journalism: How Tech and Storytelling Are Converging

JANUARY 28, 2016 • Blog Post • By Lisa Davis, WIRED Brand Lab


  • New virtual reality technologies are redefining what it means to watch the news—soon, we won’t be watching, we’ll be participating
  • Immersive journalism takes participants from the front lines in Syria to a food bank in Los Angeles

The “godmother of VR,” Nonny de la Peña, on the opportunity for immersive journalism

Imagine witnessing a terrorist attack, surveying a major earthquake's impact or walking around a scene from an episode of NPR's “Serial” podcast. Rather than watch news footage of the next president's inauguration, you might experience it from the front row, or perhaps examine the scene of a high-profile crime.

It could happen. Check that—it likely will happen, as more stories like these are not just told, but experienced in virtual reality. Virtual worlds have long been the territory of computer games and entertainment videos. Now, 360-degree video and a new generation of affordable headsets like Gear VR and Cardboard are allowing documentary journalists and news organizations to adapt gaming technology to help report their stories.

With the combination of high-end computer graphics and 360-video capability, viewers can be “present" (not only on the scene, but in the scene), walking around and exploring the landscape, bringing virtual reality into, well, reality. Pioneers of this new type of immersion journalism hope to create more empathy and understanding for events far from the average viewer's daily life, and maybe even capture that holy grail of news consumers: those younger than 30.

“Why wouldn't the audience want to use this as a way to get their news?" asks VR journalism innovator Nonny de la Peña. “It's a no-brainer to me. The younger audience in particular is very comfortable with their digital phone. This is not a place that will be problematic for them to get their news stories from."

De la Peña, who has worked for Newsweek and the Los Angeles Times, began exploring virtual reality video in 2008 as a documentary filmmaker. She caught the media's attention in 2012 with her film “Hunger," which places viewers outside a Los Angeles food bank as a diabetic man loses consciousness. The experience was real enough that some viewers tried to reach for their cell phones to call 911, de la Peña recalls.

VR journalism innovator Nonny de la Peña

360 degrees of reality

The most basic, and accessible, of rapidly evolving film tools is 360 video. It can produce something that looks and feels a bit like VR, but actually is not. Creating 360 video involves six or more cameras mounted on a panoramic rig (the Google Odyssey, for instance, has 16 GoPro HERO cameras) that shoot from different directions simultaneously. Editors then use photo stitching software that distorts and combines the captured footage into a whole picture. The finished product can be played on a screen that wraps around the viewers' head, submerging him into the scene, or on a computer screen using controllers to navigate the image.

There's no body involvement, however, which is to say that people are not walking around inside a virtual world. To walk toward the screen is merely to get closer to the same picture. And, in fact, the disconnect between real body movement and what the eye tells the brain it sees in a headset can end in nausea. But 360 video allows readers to better see and understand a story.

Last fall, the New York Times made a big splash when it sent Google Cardboard 3D viewers to more than 1 million print subscribers in order to show the Times' venture into VR storytelling: “The Displaced," which tells the story of child refugees of war.

“The nice thing about it is that it's fairly straightforward," says Dan Pacheco, the Peter A. Horvitz endowed chair in journalism innovation at Syracuse University's S.I. Newhouse School of Journalism and a consultant to Gannett Digital. “You just get the right number of cameras, put them in a rig, capture all the video at the same time and then put them into stitching software, and you've got a 360 video."

A 360 video is relatively inexpensive to produce (a setup can be had for less than $15,000), but there can be some glitches in quality, notes Pacheco. Sometimes seams are noticeable, as well as something known as “ghosting," an occurrence in which a person appears on screen, disappears randomly and then reappears.

And while it's impossible (for now) to walk through a 360 video, the addition of computer generated pieces such as avatars and buildings can simulate the real thing. Viewers can have the experience of walking into a room and exploring. Objects are revealed as people move toward and around them.

Getting inside the news

More complicated productions, known as “walkaround," allow viewers the experience of exploring inside the picture, bringing the body along for the ride. This might involve filming a real scene and scanning in graphics of buildings, cars, people or whatever is needed to replicate the real experience.

The “immersive journalism" quality is largely in the detail. For instance, in “Project Syria," a film commissioned by the World Economic Forum that includes the scene of a bombing, de la Peña's Emblematic Group built photorealistic models that recreated the scene using video and audio recorded at the event. By using the computer models with audio recorded on scene and the ever-improving technology of 3D headsets, viewers can feel like they are witnessing the event firsthand, not separated by a screen.

“The equipment has changed radically since I started," says de la Peña, who started out with headsets made in the studio. “The hardware is so much easier to work with now."

With new 3D headgear—including higher-end models like the much anticipated HTC Vive, Oculus Rift, Samsung's Gear VR (which sold out at $99 in less than three days) and the everyman's Google Cardboard—hitting the market in rapid-fire, virtual reality is likely to get more real and more readily available.

The price of capturing VR

The cost and time of VR production, of course, depends on the story. In 2015, de la Peña premiered “One Dark Night," a digital project on the Trayvon Martin shooting in Florida. The film relies on trial evidence, including recordings of 911 calls, and uses 3D computer graphics to put the viewer at the scene. Though created after the shooter George Zimmerman's trial, the video doesn't lack news. Audio recordings were cleaned up by forensic experts, one of whom asserts that the victim, not Zimmerman (who was acquitted), can be heard crying for help, and that Zimmerman can be heard cocking his gun just before chasing Martin.

“One Dark Night" was less complicated to make than, say, “Project Syria," in that it does not include any actual film shoots, but rather relies on the previously captured cell phone calls. The whole project was made with one person working full-time and another working half-time for less than two weeks, according to de la Peña. The cost grows when projects that require shooting 360 film scenes take place in multiple locations and have numerous people involved.

After seeing de la Peña's “Hunger" project, along with some “unstructured R&D and playtime," Pacheco brought the idea of VR to Gannett Digital, which quickly embraced it. The Des Moines Register, a Gannett news property, added a VR video piece to its five-part print and web series “Harvest of Change," which documented the economic struggle of farmers in Iowa. With Pacheco as consultant, the newspaper hired game designers to handle much of the technical end in Unity, a popular software program for gaming and CGI video, and contracted Total Cinema 360 to shoot the film footage. The project was done in three months, which Pacheco admits was a little nerve-wracking, and cost about $20,000.

“Blending VR with computer-generated graphics and then 360 video that captures real scenes allows people to kind of move through the farm scene in 'Harvest of Change,'" explains Pacheco. But he's also quick to point out that it doesn't require a giant project to find good use for VR technology in news. Travel stories and “you had to be there" moments, he says, also work easily in the virtual world.

Weighing the dangers of immersion

As with each new step in journalism, VR technology brings with it new ethical concerns. Unlike gaming and entertainment, journalism, and in particular recreating events, demands accuracy and authenticity. And it's never been easier to manipulate the story or add propaganda into a virtual world. De la Peña and Pacheco both say there is a need for journalistic responsibility with VR in the same way demanded by investigative projects, photo editing or cutting audio for a radio broadcast.

Also, along with the question of what journalists can do with better technical tools, Pacheco says, is the question of what they should do. In some instances, thrusting viewers into a highly realistic experience involving traumatic events may create a PTSD-like effect or turn people away altogether. And, in trying to foster better understanding by building more empathy for people and situations far from consumers' everyday life, journalists may risk inadvertently desensitizing viewers to the impact of genuinely horrific news events.

“The journalist needs to understand that this is something that someone is going to experience," Pacheco cautions. “It taps into the brain in ways that media has never done before. So, with every story, I think we need to ask, would it be appropriate to put people into this scene?"


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