Imagine you are reading an article on Antarctica. Sure you can imagine what it’s like but you’ve never actually been there. Now imagine you put on a headset and all of a sudden you are standing on an iceberg, looking at the Antarctic glaciers. This is the very real capability of virtual reality.
Virtual reality (VR) is an artificial environment that is created with software and presented to the user in such a way that the user suspends belief and accepts it as a real environment. On a computer, virtual reality is primarily experienced through two of the five senses: sight and sound.
Although seeming like something from the future, devices like the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive have made VR technology accessible to mainstream consumers. While big in the gaming world, VR technology has also opened a world of possibilities for a variety of industries, including journalism.
Considered the next phase of video journalism, VR has established a new form of audience engagement and encourages a deeper connection between viewers and the content. Through VR technology, viewers can be physically immersed in a story, expanding on traditional, narrative journalism.
Immersiv.ly is a London based company established in 2014, which creates and sells editorial content in virtual reality. They specialise in immersive, interactive narratives, which offer users a special feeling of personal agency and involvement where media is less mediated.
When the 2014 pro-democracy protests broke out in Hong Kong, Immersiv.ly used VR technology to capture the events demonstrating how VR can be a powerful news platform. Hong Kong Unrest gives viewers the opportunity to be physically connected to the events and have a better understanding of what it was like in Hong Kong at the time.
The film editor and interactive video specialist Edward Miller said, “Platforms like Twitter and Facebook can offer instant news far quicker than larger media organisations can react. So I see news organisations moving towards the role of the analyst.”
“It’s this progression towards ‘slow news’ and long form, which I think will make content such as virtual reality a compelling way to provide extra value that users couldn’t get anywhere else.”
“Watching [Hong Kong Unrest] in a virtual reality headset gives the user a sense of what it was like to have been at the protests alongside police clashes, capturing small details that simply would have been missed with traditional fixed perspective cameras.”
Discussing and analysing the immersive experience of VR journalism for the first-person experience of news, researchers found that being in the specific place, believing events to be real and having a physical experience of a first-person participant in the particular events to be three major factors in virtual reality that could contribute to journalism that may potentially lead to greater audience involvement.
Many journalists are hoping to utilise these assets of VR technology to create a greater sense of empathy between audiences and stories. Particularly those in warzones and places that are not easily accessible.
Journalist Nonny de la Peña collaborated with the USC School of Cinematic Arts in 2014 to create Project Syria for the World Economic Forum. Project Syria is a full-body experience that places viewers at the scene of a bombing in Syria and allows them to explore a refugee camp. The aim of the project was to create a realistic representation of the Syrian war from the perspective of everyday civilians. Conducting extensive research, the team pulled stills and frames from real video footage of explosions in Syria to create the VR setting. They also travelled to a Syrian refugee camp to capture footage and audio, which was used in the project to create authenticity in the scenarios.
Commenting on VR journalism, Peña stated, “Journalists will realize really fast that VR has a unique power to place viewers on the scene of an event—instead of watching it from outside—and that that’s a really powerful way to engage them emotionally. It’s also particularly suited to certain kinds of stories, where one significant event takes place in a defined space. People will learn fast that, ‘Oh, this is a story that should be told in VR”.
Virtual reality has given a new meaning to story telling by transforming journalism, not only for journalists but for everyone. We are no longer limited to only hearing stories and now have the ability to truly immerse ourselves in other forms of life. VR journalism will take us beyond our imagination and will change the way we see the world.