In order to explore the potential of VR for journalism, our project team gathered journalism scholars (Tow Center), virtual reality experts (Secret Location), and world-leading documentary filmmakers (Frontline).
CEO James Milward and Creative Director Pietro Gagliano helmed the Secret Location team, which included nearly a dozen technical experts. PBS’s Frontline, in particular Executive Producer Raney Aronson, Managing Editor (digital) Sarah Moughty, and filmmaker Dan Edge, led the editorial process and enabled our virtual reality experiment as it was shot alongside an ongoing feature documentary. The Tow Center for Digital Journalism facilitated the project. The center’s former research director and current assistant professor at UBC, Taylor Owen, and senior fellow Fergus Pitt embedded themselves within the editorial and production process, interviewing participants and working to position the experiment at the forefront of a wider conversation about changes in journalistic practice.
We begin this report by reviewing the history of virtual reality journalism, placing the current socio-technological moment in a context of decades of research and experimentation. We identify key concepts and theories we believe should be at the center of virtual reality journalism. We know that virtual reality has a rich history in forward-thinking research labs and is sparking interest in the fields of digital media and communications, but it is important to ground this study in the origins of its journalistic utility and how this history might shape our understanding of the opportunity and limitations
We then outline our own experiment with live-motion virtual reality journalism—a VR documentary on the Ebola outbreak in West Africa. Secret Location, a trailblazer in interactive storytelling and live-motion virtual reality, built a prototype, 360/3D camera and took the lead on extensive, post-production development processes.
Having outlined the background to this experiment, we provide an analysis of the case study, detailing both technical and journalistic opportunities and challenges. First, we explore the technical requirements for doing live-motion virtual reality. This is a nascent practice, and much equipment and expertise are required for each stage of production. The technology is evolving quickly, but it is still possible to divide this process into three identifiable stages, each with its own technologies and required skill sets.
Capture via new camera and sound
Post Production using a mix of image processing, motion graphics, CGI, and 3D-modeling software;
Distribution via a spectrum of emerging headset technologies and their associated content stores.
Finally, for journalists, what does it mean to report in this new medium? We already know that producers need advanced equipment and technical skill sets, but the requirements for reporting and storytelling may also change. Does virtual reality challenge existing divisions between editorial and production in ways that push journalism in either problematic or beneficial directions? VR could also force us to rethink narrative form, bringing discussions about nonlinear storytelling and user agency into journalism.
This mixed-method approach, of simultaneously experimenting with and studying a new journalism technology, has provided notable benefits unavailable when theorizing from a distance. After being directly involved in all stages of the production process, we’ve accessed it in great detail and depth.
It is our collective hope that this project can serve as the start of a thoughtful industry and scholarly conversation about how virtual reality journalism might evolve, and the wider implications of its potential mainstream adoption. This project investigates what’s involved in making virtual reality journalism and provides a critical reflection on the potential of its practice in journalism.