Journalists must choose a place on the spectrum of VR technology. Given current technology constraints, a piece of VR journalism can be of very high technical and narrative quality, but with that comes the need for a team with extensive expertise and an expectation of long-turnaround—demands that require a large budget and timeline flexibility. Or, it can be of lower-production quality, quicker in turnaround, and thereby less costly. If producers choose to include extensive interactivity, with the very highest fidelity and technical features, they are limiting their audience size to those few with high-end headsets.
Draw on narrative technique. Journalists making VR pieces should expect that storytelling techniques will remain powerful in this medium. The temptation when faced with a new medium, especially a highly technical one, is to concentrate on mastering the technology and to make prominent those elements which highlight the technology—often at the expense of conveying a compelling story. In the context of documentary VR, there appear to be two strategies for crafting narrative. The first is to have directed-action take place in front of the “surround” camera. The second is to adulterate the immersive video with extra elements, such as computer-generated graphics or extra video layers. The preexisting grammar of film is significantly altered; montages don’t exist in a recognizable way, while the functions of camera angles and frames change as well.
The whole production team needs to understand the form, and what raw material the finished work will need, before production starts. In our case, a lack of raw material that could be used to tell the story made the production of this project more difficult and expensive. While the field crew went to Africa and recorded footage, that footage only portrayed locations. Although those locations were important, the 360-degree field footage—on its own—was missing anything resembling characters, context, or elements of a plot. Journalists intending to use immersive, live-action video as a main part of their finished work will need to come back from the field with footage that can be authored into a compelling story in the VR form. It is very hard to imagine this task without the field crew’s understanding of the affordances, limitations, and characteristics of the medium.
More research, development, and theoretical work are necessary, specifically around how best to conceive of the roles of journalists and users—and how to communicate that relationship to users. Virtual reality allows the user to feel present in the scene. Although that is a constructed experience, it is not yet clear how journalists should portray the relationship between themselves, the user, and the subjects of their work. The findings section above lists many of the relevant questions and their implications. Journalists, theorists, and producers can and should review these ideas and start to develop answers.
Journalists should aim to use production equipment that simplifies the workflow. Simpler equipment is likely to reduce production and post-production efforts, bringing down costs and widening the swath for the number of people who can produce VR. This will often include tradeoffs: In some cases simpler equipment will have reduced capability, for example cameras which shoot basic 360-degree video instead of 360-degree, stereoscopic video. Here, journalists will need to balance simplicity against other desirable characteristics.
As VR production, authoring, and distribution technology is developed, the journalism industry must understand and articulate its requirements, and be prepared to act should it appear those needs aren’t being met. The virtual reality industry is quickly developing new technology, which is likely to rapidly reduce costs, give authors new capabilities, and reach users in new ways. However, unless the journalism industry articulates its distinct needs, and the value in meeting those needs, VR products will only properly serve other fields (such as gaming and productivity).
The industry should explore (and share knowledge about) many different journalistic applications of VR, beyond highly produced documentaries. This project explored VR documentary in depth. However, just as long-form documentary is not the only worthwhile form inside that medium, the journalism industry may find value in fast-turnaround VR, live VR, VR data visualization, game-like VR, and many other forms.
Choose teams that can work collaboratively. This remains a complex medium, with few standards or shared assumptions about how to produce good work. In its current environment, most projects will involve a number of people with disparate backgrounds who need to share knowledge, exchange ideas, make missteps and correct them. Without good communication and collaboration abilities, that will be difficult.