Why Now?

Technophiles have followed virtual reality (VR) for a long time, but a number of recent technological advances have finally placed the medium on the cusp of mainstream adoption. Oculus has released its Rift headset to developers, while the company’s consumer headset, Crescent Bay, will reach customers in early 2016; Samsung has released Gear VR; Sony has a device in development; and Google has built a clandestine intervention called Cardboard (a simple VR player made of cardboard, Velcro, magnets, a rubber band, two biconvex lenses, and a smartphone). Together these advances, along with leaps in video technology, screen quality, and web-based distribution portals, have inspired a surge in media attention and developer interest.

We now have the computational power, screen resolution, and refresh rate to play VR with a small and inexpensive portable headset. VR is a commercial reality. We know that users already enjoy its capability to play video games, sit courtside at a basketball game, and view porn, but what about watching the news or a documentary? What is the potential for journalism in virtual reality?

Our goal with this project was to explore the extension of factual filmmaking onto this new platform, and to reflect on the implications of doing so. Is live-motion virtual reality a new frontier for documentary journalism, or will the expense, cumbersome production process, and limited distribution channels render it a medium unsuitable for the field?

Virtual reality is not new. A generation of media and technology researchersi have long used bulky prototype headsets and VR “caves” to experiment with virtual environments. Research focused mostly on how humans respond to virtual environments, especially when their minds are at least partially tricked into thinking they are somewhere else. Do we learn, care, empathize, and fear as we do in real life? This research is tremendously important as we enter a new VR age, out of the lab and into people’s homes.

In addition to the headsets, camera technology is set to transform the VR experience. While computer graphics and gaming dominated early content demonstrations for the Oculus Rift and similar devices, new, sometimes experimental cameras are able to capture live-motion, 360-degree and stereoscopic virtual reality footage.

While 360-degree cameras have been around for years, the new generation of systems is also stereoscopic, adding greater depth perception. This added dimension, along with the spatial and temporal resolution of current VR headset displays, can get users closer to what researchers call presence, or the feeling of being there.

These new cameras, feeding content to a new and exciting medium, open up a tremendous opportunity for journalists to immerse audiences within their reporting, and for users to experience journalism in powerful new ways.

We are all acutely aware that this emerging medium, while exciting, represents significant changes for the practice of journalism. Virtual reality presents a new technical and narrative form. It requires new cameras, new shooting and editing processes, new viewing infrastructure, new levels of interactivity, and can leverage distributed networks in new ways.

The medium itself raises important questions for the relationship and positionality of journalists and audiences. Virtual reality affords users increased control over what, in a scene, they pay attention to. The medium also supports interactive elements, although virtual reality is not the first medium to pull storytelling from its bound, linear form. This is potentially a far more fluid space, where the audience has a new (though still limited) kind of agency in how it experiences the story. This appears to change how journalists must construct their stories and their own places in it. It also changes how audiences engage with journalism, bringing them into stories in a visceral, experiential manner not possible in other mediums.

More conceptually, virtual reality journalism also offers a new window through which to study the relationship between consumers of media and the representation of subjects. Whereas newspapers, radio, television, and social media each brought us closer to being immersed in the experience of others, virtual reality has the potential to go even farther. A core question is whether virtual reality can provide similar feelings of empathy and compassion to real-life experiences. As will be discussed below, recent work has shown that virtual reality can create a feeling of “social presence”—the feeling that a user is really “there”—which can engender far greater empathy for the subject than in other media representations. Others have called this experience “co-presence” and are exploring how it can be used to bridge the distance between those experiencing human rights abuses and those in the position to assist them.1 For journalists, the promise is that VR will offer audiences greater factual understanding of a topic. Could users walk away from a journalistic VR experience with more knowledge than they might get from watching a traditional film or reading a newspaper story?2

We also imagine that journalists may need to produce content for the VR medium simply to keep up with audience expectations. Generations that have grown up with rich media on interactive platforms may expect immersive, visceral experiences. Current audiences for news and documentary on linear TV skew older3, whereas more than 70 percent of U.S. teens play video games, according to Pew Research.4 Pew also notes that young audiences are heavy users of interactive, visual media like Snapchat and Instagram (admittedly much less cumbersome platforms than VR headsets). The new storytelling method of the current era is virtual reality, and the media industry expects it to attract major audiences.

So, although the medium has decades of history, it is the recent surge of technical and social interest, its new relevance for journalism, the breadth of the communications puzzles, and the industry’s pressing need to keep innovating that have all come together to make this research opportune.

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