What Is VR?

Virtual reality (VR) is an immersive media experience that replicates either a real or imagined environment and allows users to interact with this world in ways that feel as if they are there. To create a virtual reality experience, two primary components are necessary. First, one must be able to produce a virtual world. This can either be through video capture—recording a real-world scene—or by building the environment in Computer Generated Imagery (CGI). Second, one needs a device with which users can immerse themselves in this virtual environment. These generally take the form of dedicated rooms or head-mounted displays.

Cumbersome, largely lab-based technologies for VR have been in use for decades and theorized about for even longer. But recent technological advances in 360-degree, 3D-video capture; computational capacity; and display technology have led to a new generation of consumer-based virtual reality production. Over the past three years, an ecosystem of companies and experimentation has emerged on both the content and dissemination sides of VR. This renaissance can be traced to the development of the Oculus Rift headset. Developed by Palmer Luckey, who was frustrated with the state of headset technology, the Oculus headset was first launched as a wildly popular Kickstarter campaign in 2012. Less than two years later, Facebook bought the company for $2 billion. Meanwhile, a wide range of other headsets has emerged (described below), and virtual reality is quickly becoming Silicon Valley’s next gold rush.

While devices have been evolving rapidly, so has the content for them. While the video game industry has driven the majority of content development, new camera technology also enables virtual reality experiences based on video-capturing real events. These new cameras are being placed at sporting events, music concerts, and even on helicopters and drones.

The authors of this report believe it is at this intersection of new headset technology and live-motion content production that there emerges a valuable, timely opportunity for examining what this all means for journalism.

So as to reflect on the challenges and potential of virtual reality within journalism, this project brought together a unique mix of participants: technologists who could build the prototype-camera technology and render a VR experience (Secret Location), a journalistic organization willing to experiment with driving its reporting and storytelling (Frontline), and a research group committed to studying, critically reflecting on, and contextualizing the entire process (the Tow Center for Digital Journalism).

What follows is our attempt to articulate a moment in the evolution of VR technology and to understand what it means for journalism.

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