By John Ainger
The perpetuation of virtual reality may well have negative consequences for spotty teenagers who haven’t left their room in days, but the development of this technology holds many exciting prospects for immersing the audience in journalism.
My ears were pounding with the cacophony of rapturous applause and the rabid screams of 80,000 adoring fans. I spun my head from right to left trying to soak in the heavy atmosphere and pick out the most minute details. I could feel my heartbeat thudding against my tiny ribcage as I took guard ready to face the first ball of my international cricket career. The bowler ran up – I could see the menace in his eyes – before sending a bouncer searing past my eyebrows. It was an experience I have never forgotten.
My first encounter with virtual reality took place over ten years ago while attending a cricket match with my old man. An extremely heavy headset, in the shape of cricket helmet, was plonked on my head, and a cricket bat, exuding numerous wires, was placed forcefully into my clutching hands. It was an incredibly stimulating experience for a young boy, but the volume of equipment required as well as its sheer unwieldiness suggested that virtual reality would just be a gimmick limited to sporting grounds and the playrooms of Russian billionaires.
Much to the delight of my younger self, 2015 has seen the comeback of ‘VR’ with brain busting products becoming a reality (ahem!). Naturally, the gaming community has been the predominant target with top-end tech-heavy products such as Facebook’s Oculus Rift, Sony’s Project Morpheus and HTC’s Vive hitting the market in 2016, while Google’s comparatively archaic ‘Cardboard’ is tailored for a simpler Smartphone-based entertainment experience. Slowly however, it is becoming not just the play thing of gaming nerds, but journalism too is being swept up in the simulated wave of VR hysteria.
Virtual Reality, as is implicit in the name, places the user within a recreated reality removed from the current context in which they are situated. VR in journalism does this through the use of 360-degree cameras allowing the user to experience news ‘from the inside’ according to their own narrative.
Coinciding with their release of their VR news app, the New York Times recently sent out Google Cardboard headsets to their 1 million subscribers, so that their readers could immerse themselves within the story of The Displaced – the NYT’s inaugural VR feature on the plight of European refugees. They are not the first to attempt to break into this new reality. They have been joined at the digital forefront by the Associated Press who in association with RYOT have entered the VR news market through a series of films due to be released over the coming months:
In an interview with Charlie Rose, Dean Banquet, the executive editor of the NYT, succinctly described why there is so much hype surrounding VR in journalism. He said, ‘It’s a different way of telling a story… it’s a dramatic visual form of story-telling that makes you feel as if you’re in the middle of the field’.
This marks a new epoch in news consumption. Old-school mediums such as newspapers and television simply required the consumer to absorb information from the confines of their armchair in their own living room in their own house – far removed from where the ‘real action’ of news takes place. Even the advent of smartphones, and the new ease of information, has done little to change this relationship. And that’s why VR has so much potential – it has the ability to make the viewer feel as though they are part of the story, removing the passivity of the one-way relationship between the news outlet and the consumer. Banquet used the example of the NYT’s refugee story to highlight this point, “in the case of the three migrant children, it makes you feel like you’re walking among them – like you could actually reach out and touch them”.
But herein lies the very danger of adopting VR as a medium to broadcast the news: it ironically lacks reality. The techniques required to create such an immersive experience have the potential to distort the story and misinform the public. As Robert Kaiser, former managing editor of The Washington Post, stressed, the process of creating a VR news product is vulnerable to the ‘tricks and deceptions of photographers/cameramen’ for the purposes of creating a coherent narrative. In essence, this argument proposes that creating a VR news product could be tantamount to outright lying to the audience.
At present, virtual reality in journalism has largely been confined to the telling of human interest ‘stories’, such as those of migrants, or fictional sponsored advertisements featuring the latest mini. But as the idea of turning the pages of a newspaper falls further into our distant memories and as we enter an era of ever-greater media abundance and competitiveness, it surely will not be long until VR blurs the lines between hard news and entertainment in the quest for ‘clicks’. Can you imagine walking through a recreation of the Paris terror attacks? Or fighting alongside the Free Syrian Army? Or frantically trying to escape from a tsunami?
One commentator also noted how in particularly controversial and complex news stories, such as the killing of Michael Brown, VR could easily distort the way people feel on a given issue. In the implementation of this new and exciting technology, journalism must therefore not abandon its ethics and it must endeavour to reach higher levels of transparency than ever before.
Virtual Reality is just one of the myriad ways in which journalism is trying to stay relevant in an increasingly competitive and information-thirsty world. Yet in a world still carved out along borders and with national populations largely ill-informed about those things ‘foreign’, the ability to drop consumers in ‘another world’ is perhaps the most exciting news development since the town crier. Indeed I can feel my pulse quickening at the very thought.
Note: For a cool new VR product check out this kickstarter campaign: https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/quantumbakery/figment-vr-virtual-reality-in-your-pocket
John Ainger is a British journalist specialising in the interesting and the global. Find more work at planetmundus.com,firstname.lastname@example.org or his twitter handle @johnainger. Also find him on linkedin at https://nl.linkedin.com/in/john-ainger-a89a8691