I watched as one of my new media professors at UC Berkeley's Graduate School of Journalism held up his phone and spun around in a circle to take in the full scenery. He was watching the 360-degree video experience of The New York Times’ Nov. 5 story about children forced from their homes by war, "The Displaced."
I peered at the video over my professor's shoulder. He stopped for a moment, realizing he could use his finger to navigate through the experience. Oh, the excitement of new technology!
In the video, a food drop came and we were both wowed. The sounds of the planes prompt the viewer to look up, an experience neither of us have access to in real life. You can see the bags of food falling from the sky, and watch them land on the ground. It felt as though we witnessed the scene, with people running around us.
We continued watching for a few more minutes. Beautifully shot. Nice transitions. "What do you think?" I said.
The Beginning of Immersive Journalism
When did this whole virtual reality (VR) train start chugging? In the early '90s, video games tried to use it, but the interest in immersive journalism started when Nonny de la Peña and then-intern Palmer Luckey (who later founded Oculus Rift) debuted Hunger in Los Angeles at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival.
Fast-forward to today: Gannett published The State of Virtual Reality in Journalism in October, detailing how media companies from the BBC to The Washington Post are exploring uses of VR. Virtual reality-specific outlets such as RYOT, Vrse and Emblematic Group are creating their own stories or partnering with others for interactive experiences.
The New York Times: Exploring the Medium
Three years after Nonny de la Peña debuted her work at Sundance, and a year after Facebook invested in Oculus Rift, The New York Times jumped into the mix. On Nov. 8, subscribers received a Google Cardboard along with their Sunday magazine.
“It’s kind of ironic when you think about it,” one of my professors mentioned offhand when I asked him about his opinion. He elaborated: Based on age demographics, people who receive a paper copy of the New York Times Magazine are perhaps the least likely people to use Google Cardboard.
I wanted to be more impressed. After seeing speakers on VR at the Online News Association conference in September and attending an immersive journalism-focused hackathon for women at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism in October, I've followed VR train closely. I half-expected the train to turn into a rocket with the backing of The New York Times. But we are not yet all moving to Mars, though you can experience Mars as brought to you by The Los Angeles Times.
Perhaps most importantly, The New York Times made an effort. As one of my professors, Richard Koci Hernandez says, "The thing they did well was that they did it." Barely a week after it premiered on the NYT VR app, Hernandez has watched "The Displaced" three times. "You can’t be afraid of new technology," he says.
The New York Times did a beautiful job with their overall package (the written words in addition to the immersive experience). "The Displaced" is a powerful exploration of the refugee experience. But the 360-degree video, by itself, doesn't feel like a story.
Reading the subtitles, I had to squint to see what was being said. I wondered if the VR team considered a voiceover for a smoother user experience. And yet, the images take us to places we might never encounter on our own.
Where could they have improved? "The scenes of each child never gave me a reason to look around," Hernandez says. They didn't take full advantage of the format. "When I did look around, there wasn’t anything going on," he added.
The viewer is lead to believe that since the project is coming from The New York Times, "The Displaced" is an objective (as objective can be) and true journalistic experience. Yet what role did camera placement and directed movement play in the video?
I spoke with Dan Archer, founder of Empathetic Media, a technology agency that focuses more on the virtual side of immersive journalism, including recreating events like Michael Brown's death in Ferguson. He says of "The Displaced": "To get those shots, I would assume you have to ask those children to act in a scripted way ahead of time... and plan the shot accordingly." For him, the project is closer to theater than journalism.
I’ve met with a number of people working in the emerging field of immersive journalism to figure out what makes most sense in this new form, as well as how to actually do it. If all goes as planned, I’ll be working on a team from UC Berkeley’s School of Journalism to do our own 360-degree video project. Perhaps the most exciting thing about immersive journalism is its accessibility. It's not just for large media companies who can afford the technology.
Amidst my excitement, Hernandez posits we may be at "the peak of inflated expectations." Overall, he believes the technology is here to stay, in part as a result of the money being invested into it, and the fact that folks like Mark Zuckerberg have made a commitment to the form.
Hernandez, like others, predicts an evolution of the clunky headset to something more like the sunglasses look of Microsoft HoloLens, a more normal, fashionable experience. “It’s definitely here to stay,” he says.