The Exciting Potential of Virtual Reality Journalism


We are at the threshold of virtual reality becoming part of our everyday experiences.

Affordable head-mounted displays like Google Cardboard are already available to the public, giving widespread consumer access to people with smartphones. The consumer version of the Oculus Rift, a highly anticipated VR headset, is slated for release in early 2016, with competitors like Playstation’s Project Morpheus also waiting to make their debuts.

For the news industry, virtual reality’s impact on storytelling and media consumption could be transformative. Instead of just sharing a story, journalists can digitally plant viewers into unfolding events, giving them truly immersive experiences.

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Below are some noteworthy projects embracing VR journalism and how they are impacting this emerging field.

The New York Times – “The Displaced”

This month, The New York Times mailed its subscribers more than one million Google Cardboard VR viewers so they could watch its film “The Displaced.” Created with virtual reality production company Vrse, the 10-minute feature explores the stories of children forced away from their respective homes in Syria, South Sudan, and the Ukraine.

To watch the virtual reality film, viewers must download the free NYT VR app available on iOS and Android. This move is being considered a major milestone is bringing immersive journalism to the masses. Instead of only giving access to the few people with pricey VR developer headsets, it is offering inexpensive tools to the everyday person at no cost.

USC School of Cinematic Arts – “Project Syria”

Covering the plight of refugees with virtual reality is becoming popular. According to writer and director Nonny de la Peña, the medium evokes a feeling of presence and an emotional understanding of what the subjects are going through. With this form of storytelling, her aim is to encourage people to think about how they can help bring about change.

Her film “Project Syria”, which premiered at the 2014 World Economic Forum, is a digital recreation of an explosion on a busy street and of life inside a refugee camp. de la Peña built the scenes based on actual audio, photographs, and videos captured at the events.

Los Angeles Times – “Discovering Gale Crater”

“Discovering Gale Crater” is a virtual reality audio tour of the Mars landmark that was explored by the Curiosity rover. It is available on Google Cardboard, an Oculus Rift developer kit, or a standard computer. The 3D project allows viewers to explore the crater on their own or be guided by NASA geoscientist Fred J. Calef III.

The Los Angeles Times took on the project to determine how journalism can benefit from telling stories with virtual reality. The publication found a serious setback is that even when the tour ran smoothly, people using VR devices often felt dizzy and disoriented. There is clearly more work to be done to improve user experience. However, the interactive also represents a hopeful future for sharing remote, natural environments most people will never visit.

The Future of VR Storytelling

Television screens have separated us from the scenes of news stories, but virtual reality is making the audience part of them. There is immense possibility for journalists to create more engaging and stirring films with this medium. There is also a huge potential to attract younger audiences, many of whom may be interested in gaming and emerging VR technology.

There have also been words of caution about virtual reality journalism. In a letter to The New York Times, former managing editor of The Washington Post Robert Kaiser warned it is vulnerable to tricks and deceptions in how camera people choose to weave images together. This can distort how unfolding action is presented, and suit what the reporter wants the audience to see.

Laying out other potential ethical issues, The Associated Press Standards Editor Tom Kent suggests creating a code of ethics to overcome challenges and ensure fair and accurate reporting.

With the age of immersive journalism newly upon us, there is no better time than now to begin having these conversations. As consumer VR devices become more affordable and mainstream, there will likely be increasing demand for compatible content. The media organizations that can work out the kinks and streamline a set of best practices in advance will have the most to gain.

Image source: Nonny de la Peña