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SXSW: Sucked Into the Story: Virtual Reality and News

(Originally published on Blogcritics.org)

Can news reporters use virtual reality? This is the question that participants at “Sucked Into the Story: Virtual Reality and News”, a panel at South by Southwest (SXSW), an annual film, technology and music festival in Austin, Texas, tried to answer. Part of the VR/AR track of presentations, participants included Hayley Pappas, Head of Films at RYOT; Adnaan Wasey, Executive Producer at the Tow-Knight Center for Entrepreneurial Journalism; Nathan Griffiths, Interactive Editor at Associated Press; and Thomas Kent, Standards Editor at Associated Press.

VR News

One of a series exploring VR/AR at SXSW

The panelists discussed their experiences, what they learned and future possibilities. Listening to them, I had the feeling that somewhere around 1950, a group of people sat around discussing what the impact of “this television thing” would be on radio news. We may be at a similar place with VR news.

An Earthquake

Hayley Pappas shared her experience first. “We are an immersive media company and we thought that VR was an incredibly exciting story telling tool,” she said. “It wasn’t until last year, however, that the tech became accessible and durable enough to take into the field. When the earthquake hit Nepal, we jumped into the plane almost immediately. We filmed in VR and were able to make this available just two or three weeks after the event.”

Pappas admitted that “two or three weeks” wasn’t exactly “breaking news.”

“This was the very first piece of VR journalism from a disaster zone,” she continued, “and you could see the situation there in a way you couldn’t with other media.”

Next, RYOT sent out iPhone rigs and beta cameras to citizen journalists all over the world. A year later they have developed over 100 stories in VR format. RYOT has a free VR app on their site.

Make it Accessible

Adnaan Wasey’s emphasis is on making VR technology accessible. He produces for the long-running PBS series POV. He explained that when they started to get interested in VR, they hired someone with a background in Second Life.

Second Life is a virtual world online game that was launched in 2003 and created a media storm of interest. I had no idea it was still around.

VR News

Variations on VR camera rigs

Waysey said, “We are aiming to create something so that all you need is a high school library computer to work with it. We want it so that teen girls can create with it.”

To support this goal, POV developed an open source VR toolkit.

“Our biggest targets are educators,” Waysey explained. “We want everyone in the schools to be able to use it. You can use this in your browser or google cardboard. You don’t need an Oculus Rift.”

An Oculus Rift costs $599, while Google Cardboard costs $15 and uses your cellphone. POV’s free VR toolkit can be accesses at pov.org/vrtoolkit.

Trade Offs

Nathan Griffiths at AP has taken the “just do it” approach.

“We dove into VR about 10 months ago,” he said. “We wanted to do this at no or minimal cost, exploring the tools that were available and using a collaborative model. We’ve been very successful.”

There are two models that he has explored.

“For documentary style VR,” Griffiths explained, “there is a lot of overhead in setting up cameras and post-production is complicated. As we move ahead it will get easier.”

VR News

Nathan Griffiths, Interactive Editor at Associated Press, discusses VR and reporting

Griffiths produced a story on the world’s largest package distribution facility, the UPS hub in Louisville. “We took our big 360 degree camera,” he said, “but to get the experience of riding through the sorting machines we used some small cameras. They self-stitch, but there are some issues with the quality of the stitching.”

Stitching is the combining of images from multiple cameras into one VR view.

Griffiths explained that this type of documentary production does not turn around in 24 hours. At the other end of the spectrum is fast breaking news.

“We send simple cameras out with photographers in the field,” he said, “so that if you go to a breaking news event you can give one of these cameras to staffers who don’t have a lot of training. The trade-off is that you get a much faster turnaround time with one of these as opposed to a rig full of Go-Pros. You can trade image quality for immediacy, if you have good content.”

Is It Ethical

Thomas Kent oversees Associated Press’ standards of fairness and accuracy across the organization. He has concerns over how VR will be used and how it will be viewed by the public.

Kent admitted that this technology is in its first years of use for news and it is pretty experimental. “It’s hard to come up with a sole ethical concept when you’re just trying to get the headsets to work,” he said. “But finally, consumers are getting affordable headsets, they’re discovering VR news and they’ll be asking questions. Is it real news or is it just a cool bit a tech? Will they rely on it or will they see it as propaganda?”

Kent said that there were questions journalists had to ask themselves. “What do you do when there are strongly competing narratives of the same incident, as in the Michael Brown story?” he asked. “What if views are missing? Do you fill them in?”

Kent emphasized: “Image integrity is sacred at AP. We should want that view to be that VR documentaries are transparent and credible.”


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