VR: Making it a reality
March 17, 2017

Recent technological advancements have led to exciting new ways of telling stories. Among those, virtual reality (VR) has captured the attention of the news industry. It might not yet be mainstream, but it is increasingly clear that VR offers great potential to tell stories in a very different light, say Andrew Perkis and Deniz Ergurel

VR might not replace other forms of storytelling, but its relatively low entry barriers should encourage newsrooms to start experimenting. With mobile phones becoming the predominant means of news consumption and all projections indicating that millions of VR capture devices, headsets and applications will soon hit the market, we need to be prepared to serve those platforms.

“Once we’re able to engage with the most compelling thing in VR – which is one another – that’s what’s going to drive our adoption,” Justin Hendrix, executive director of NYC Media Lab, told the World Editors Forum.
International Data Corporation (IDC) predicts that shipments in both virtual and augmented reality markets will reach 110 million units in 2020. The report also signals that the virtual reality and augmented reality (AR) market will grow from US$ 5.2 billion (about 4.66 billion euros) in 2016 to more than $ 162 billion (about 145.1 billion euros) in 2020. Last year, YouTube and Facebook announced support for 360-degree videos.

Hamburg, 05.10.2015.  World Publishing Expo Day two © Dirk Eisermann

Finding a partner and getting started
In a constantly changing media landscape, even general journalism training is not a luxury – it’s a must. And with VR journalism it’s inevitable, particularly since VR is a brand-new medium for the industry. Film makers, game designers, marketers, teachers and others are proactively exploring the opportunities and challenges of VR by experimenting and learning how to work with it. News organisations should be doing that too.

“It’s a particularly good time for media companies to partner with universities around VR and 360-degree video, because there’s so much enthusiasm on the campuses, so much openness to try new things, experiment with new gear, new technology, and see what works,” said Hendrix. “The reality is that a lot of this equipment isn’t terribly expensive, but what it takes is time and the willingness to try something new. Sometimes, inside the companies we work with, there’s not that much latitude – but inside universities there is plenty of latitude for creativity.”
High-profile partnerships with technology providers include Reuters working with Samsung to bring VR and 360 video to all its platforms. Other publishers have acquired know-how, including the Huffington Post with RYOT.org and The New York Times with VR agency Fake Love. But as Hendrix said, publishers should definitely consider connecting with local universities, research institutes and associations, which is why WAN-IFRA’s Global Alliance for Media Innovation (GAMI) can be a natural partner, because of its connections as well as its microsite, workshops, events and consulting.

Investment can be modest
Depending on what a media company wants to achieve, costs can range from quite modest to rather substantial. A beginner-level 360 camera such as the Ricoh Theta S or Samsung Gear 360 can normally be purchased for about $ 400 (about 358 euros). The cameras can auto-stitch images and can fit into a pocket. The image results may not be impressive, but the cameras are good training platforms for newsrooms with low budgets. Journalists can easily carry them for use whenever needed.

If you are looking for higher-quality results, a 6 GoPro camera rig, which costs about 3500 euros, would be a good solution. Good stitching software will run you about 1000 euros; a testing device and head-mounted displays (HMD) cost between 10 and 400 euros. All in all, investment in equipment can be relatively modest; the real challenge lies in building competence and skills – and integrating VR into existing workflows.

Types of stories suitable for VR reporting
Remember that VR can take us to places we have never seen before and can help us experience things we’ve never experienced before. In that light, any story that brings a unique experience to viewers should work well.
Types of stories that seem to be a natural fit include conflicts or catastrophes, stories about nature and the environment that leave a lasting impression and even influence people’s future behaviour, and sports, particularly extreme sports.

While many efforts to date have focused on one-off feature reports of those types, a number of news organisations are already testing VR with their daily news reporting, and more major news companies will follow. For the time being, designing the computer-generated visuals associated with VR is too complex a task for daily news operations. But who knows what might happen in the next five years?

VR design tools
One of the most popular tools for creating VR content is Unity 3D. It is a game development ecosystem, with a set of intuitive tools to create interactive 3D and 2D content. Unity’s main advantage is its asset store, where developers can buy pre-designed content, such as 3D models, audio effects and scripts. The asset store helps reduce the time, cost and effort of creating a VR experience.

Another popular VR development tool is Unreal Engine, a comprehensive set of tools for game developers. Like its rival, Unreal Engine has an asset store where users can download game assets such as characters, props, sounds and effects. Used mostly for designing AAA console or PC games, Unreal is known for superior visuals.

VR headsets
Following the success story of the Oculus Rift headset, major tech brands such as Samsung, HTC and Sony are introducing their own VR headset systems.

Samsung Gear VR is compatible with certain Samsung smartphones, which act as the screen and processor of the headset. Playstation VR is the headset of Sony, designed to function with PS4 game console. HTC Vive is another popular VR headset with ‘room scale’ sensor technology that can turn a room into 3D space, enabling users to interact with virtual environments. Microsoft also is working on an augmented reality headset, which it calls HoloLens. In its latest developer forum, Intel has announced a new prototype called Project Alloy, a wireless VR headset that does not need to be connected to a computer or a smartphone.

Pocket-size 360 cameras
360 cameras either are used with a special rig or have dedicated multiple lenses on board. As mentioned, the Ricoh Theta S is a compact camera that can capture 360-degree images and videos. The Samsung Gear 360 offers superior image quality but is compatible only with the latest Samsung Galaxy smartphones. Costing only a few hundred dollars, those pocket-sized cameras are ideal tools with which today’s newsrooms can experiment and embrace the new technology on a modest budget.

Taking VR to the next storytelling level
The next step in VR is to progress beyond visual-only, incorporating the other senses and moving toward the concept of true virtual reality. The most obvious addition, of course, is audio. Incorporating spatial audio into a visual presentation greatly enhances the user’s quality of experience. The news upstart RYOT was the first to experiment, doing a simple 360-degree video of a prisoner’s cell with audio effects.

Indeed, interaction is the next step, be it haptic, gesture, or anything else. We have still not really started to use the most powerful VR concept of all in our stories – embodiment – creating immersive narratives. That makes the audience a participant rather than a viewer. These iNarratives exploit all the new and emerging technologies: multi-view, 360-degree, virtual and augmented reality.

Focused from the start on positive social action, RYOT (which, as mentioned, was bought by the Huffington Post) has pivoted to focus entirely on VR and immersive storytelling.

“But for some, 360 video is not true VR,” wrote WAN-IFRA’s Nick Tjaardstra in June 2016. “The Guardian had bigger plans for an interactive experience – actually building out a photo-realistic 3D space with the help of a special effects company and integrating audio stories from real inmates. It was not cheap, taking nine months to develop, but was supported by related organisations like Frontline and Solitary Watch, as well as the Google News Lab. Like RYOT’s project, it works much better on your mobile using Google Cardboard or similar.”

Ideally, of course, VR should consist of sensor-based digital storytelling with interactive and immersive content – without the need for goggles or other head-mounted displays. It should use the space, environment and context to provide the immersive experience. A key issue is standards, providing the industry with interoperability, such as the work that ISO recently started on JPEG Pleno.

Monetisation is still down the road
For now, the best revenue source for media organizations would be sponsorships. VR advertisements within the editorial content are still at a very early stage.

“The reality is that virtual reality is the Wild West right now,” said Hendrix. “There aren’t enough people who have the means to consume the content to create the sort of dynamic where advertisers are looking at whether to invest or not based on metrics – that’s not what’s driving them. It’s sort of like the early days of the web or any communications technology. If they are investing or spending money, they’re doing it because they believe it’s a worthwhile experiment and something they need to understand, not because they believe it’s necessarily going to have a defensible return on investment (ROI) and they’re going to be able to point to figures. For the near future, sponsorships are the main mechanism, but I do think that you’ll see opportunities in the not-too-distant future by selling content for download, in a model not unlike iTunes. There are already mechanisms for doing that, but I think it will become more common for documentary content, live streaming, and news.”

Is it possible in your newsroom? The answer to that question requires understanding the production tools and integration into workflow and content management systems in a seamless way. Even more important is to understand the path towards true VR production, not just 360 videos, and be in the forefront of development, not just a bystander.

(Andrew Perkis is a member of the GAMI Board and holds a chair in Media Technology at NTNU, the Norwegian University of Science and Technology. His current research focus is immersive media technology experiences, with a special focus on sensor-based digital storytelling. Deniz Ergurel is the founder and editor-in-chief of Haptical, a digital news and information service focused on the virtual reality industry. He is an entrepreneurial tech journalist and CUNY Tow-Knight fellow. This article was originally published in the September-October 2016 edition of World News Publishing Focus, the bi-monthly magazine published by WAN-IFRA.)

March 2017