Long a figment of technophile imagination, a confluence of technological advances has finally placed in-home virtual reality on the cusp of mainstream adoption. Media attention and developer interest have surged, powered by the release of the Oculus Rift to developers, the anticipated launch of Samsung’s Gear VR, rumored headsets from Sony and Apple, and a cheeky intervention from Google called Cardboard; a simple VR player made of cardboard, Velcro, magnets, a rubber band, two biconvex lenses and a smartphone.
We now have the computational power, screen resolution and refresh rate to play VR in a small and inexpensive headset. And within a year, VR will be a commercial reality. We know that users will be able to play video games, sit court-side 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?
Virtual reality is, of course, not new. A generation of media and tech researchers used both cumbersome headsets or VR ‘caves’ to experiment with virtual environments. Research focused mostly on how humans engage with virtual environments when the mind tricked them into thinking they are real. Do we learn, care, empathize and fear as we do in real life? Do we feel more? This research is tremendously important as we enter a new VR age; out of the lab and into peoples’ homes.
In addition to the headsets, a second technology is set to transform the VR experience. While initial uses of the Oculus Rift and similar devices have focused on computer generated imagery (gaming) and static 360° images (such as Google Street View), new experimental cameras are able to capture live motion 360° and 3D virtual reality footage.
The kit is made from 12-16 cameras mounted to a 3D printed brace, and then stitched onto a virtual sphere to form a 360 degree virtual environment. While 360 cameras have been around for years, these new kits are also stereoscopic, adding depth of field. They are not yet commercially available, but several are in production, including one by startup Jaunt and another by NextVR that uses six extremely high resolution Red Epic Dragon cameras. We are working with the media production company Secret Location who have also built a prototype, pictured below.
This new camera technology opens up a tremendous opportunity for journalists to immerse audiences in their story and for audiences to experience and connect to journalism in powerful new ways. And this is the focus of a new Tow Center Research project studying and prototyping live motion virtual reality journalism
The project is a partnership between Frontline, The Secret Location, and the Tow Center. James Milward, the CEO of the Secret Location is leading the production, Raney Aronson, the Deputy Executive Editor of Frontline is leading the field experiment and shoot, Dan Edge is taking the camera into the field, and I am leading the research. Together, along with Pietro Galliano, Sarah Moughty and Fergus Pitt, we will be running the demo project and authoring a Tow Brief to be published in partnership with MIT documenting the process and lessons learned.
The project recently won a Knight Foundation Prototype Grant.
In short, this project explores the extension of factual film making onto this new platform. Unlike other journalistic VR work, such as the pioneering project by Nonny de la Pena, which has relied on computer-generated graphics, this project will be centered on live video, delivering an experience that feels more like documentary and photo journalism than a console game. There are few examples of this type of journalism. The one that comes closest would Gannett’s recent project for the Oculus Rift called Harvest of Change.
The first phase of the Tow Center VR project has several components.
First, we are testing the equipment needed to capture live motion virtual reality footage. This includes a prototype 360/3D camera and surround sound audio recording. We recently held a training session for the camera at the Secret Location Toronto office.
Second, we are deploying this video and audio equipment to the field on a story about the Ebola outbreak being directed for Frontline by Dan Edge, a renowned documentary film-maker. This phase will test how the camera can be used in challenging environments. But crucially, it will also explore new journalistic conventions. How do you tell a story in VR? What does narrative look like? Dan is currently in Guinea with the camera and he will be traveling to Liberia and Sierra Leon in early 2015.
Third we will then be testing new post-production VR processes, including the addition of interactivity and multimedia into the VR environment.
The demo will be launched in the spring alongside the release of the feature Frontline documentary and with an accompanying report documenting the experiment and what we have learned. We will also be hosting a panel on VR journalism and this year’s SXSW featuring James Milward, Nonny de la Pena, and head of Vice News, Jason Mojica.
We are all acutely aware that this emerging practice, while exciting, presents some challenging questions.
For the practice of journalism virtual reality presents a new technical and narrative form. It requires new cameras, new editing and shooting processes, new viewing infrastructure, new levels of interactivity, and can leverage distributed networks in new ways. In addition to these technical innovations, an emerging scholarly discourse is exploring how virtual reality also challenges traditional notions of narrative form. Virtual reality, combined with the ability to add interactive elements, changes the positionality of the journalists, breaking down the fourth wall of journalism. Storytelling is pulled from its bound linear form, and moved to a far more fluid space where the audience has new (though still limited) agency in the experience of the story. This changes how journalists must construct their story and their place in it, and challenges core journalistic assumptions of objectivity and observation. It also changes how audiences engage with journalism, bringing them into stories in a visceral experiential manner not possible in other mediums.
CBC Interview on Virtual Reality Journalism with Taylor Owen and Nonny de la Pena
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 then social media each brought us closer to being immersed in the experience of others, virtual reality has the potential to further break down this distance. A core question is whether virtual reality can provide similar feelings of empathy and compassion to real life experiences. Recent work has shown that virtual reality can create a feeling of ‘social presence,’ the feeling that a user is really there, which can create far great 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 or better understand conflict.
It is our hope that this initial project, as well as a planned larger multiyear research project, will begin to shed light on some of these questions.