Screenshot from a video about Gannett's experiment with virtual reality journalism in the Des Moines Register's story Harvest of Change.
Screenshot from a video about Gannett's experiment with virtual reality journalism in the Des Moines Register's story Harvest of Change.

One of America’s largest media companies is hoping that young readers want to get their news the same way that video gamers play World of Warcraft and Doom.

Gannett Company this week previewed its first project that allows readers to experience a news story in virtual reality. The project – produced by Gannett’s digital division and the Des Moines Register -- requires users to wear a futuristic headset called the Oculus Rift, a small goggles-style video device that responds to the wearer’s head movements.

While the Rift is primarily marketed for gaming – allowing users to flee blood-thirsty aliens or control a 250-story fighting robot, Gannett’s project is significantly less harrowing. Part of a Register special report on Iowa agriculture, the company’s first virtual reality presentation is a 3-D immersive walking tour of a southwest Iowa family farm. Headset-clad users can watch a tractor being repaired, tag along as a child walks a baby calf, and see a variety of other farm activities depicted in computer animation, videos, and photographs.

“This is the way we, as journalists, are going to need to communicate to the Minecraft generation,” said Gannett Digital Vice President/Product Mitch Gelman, explaining that the project is targeted at 12- to 29-year-olds “who essentially are not picking up a newspaper from their front porch or sitting down in front of Brian Williams.”

Gelman says Gannett spent less than $50,000 on the project, which included recording 360-degree video at the farm, preparing editorial content, and rendering the presentation in a software engine called Unity. The finished product borrows heavily from the aesthetic of games, with spinning icons that users can click to reveal new items to explore.

“The Minecraft generation likes to find things, build things, discover things, and have fun,” Gelman said by phone from Gannett’s Northern Virginia headquarters. “Instead of building fictional representations in this type of game play, we should be able to build factual non-fiction.”

New opportunities and new ethical issues

The Register is promoting the project as a “cutting edge journalistic experience,” but few readers will be able to experience it fully. The Rift headset is still in its developmental stage, and manufacturer Oculus VR doesn’t expect to market it to the public before 2015. For now, the audience will be confined mainly to the 125,000 or so developers and hard-core gamers who own Rift prototypes. (A simpler 2-D version of the farm tour is available on the Register’s web site.)

Still, supporters of virtual reality see it as a technology that’s on the verge of bursting into the mainstream. Facebook acquired Oculus VR earlier this year for about $2 billion, and Sony, Samsung, and Google are among the other companies readying virtual reality headsets.

“All the pieces are there for virtual reality to go over the tipping point from a niche gaming application to mainstream entertainment,” said Geoffrey Long, the Technical Director and a Research Fellow at USC’s Annenberg Innovation Lab.

Long and his colleagues are exploring ways that virtual reality could enhance various types of content, including horror movies, TV shows, and documentary films. A former Annenberg Fellow, filmmaker Nonny de la Peña, employs the technology to create “immersive journalism” that allows users to experience such things as a rocket attack in Syria and a long wait for a meal at a Los Angeles food bank.

“Virtual reality offers people the opportunity to put on a headset and look beyond the classic news journalism framing of a shot,” Long said, noting that the technology creates both new narrative possibilities -- and new ethical issues -- for non-fiction storytellers.

Because virtual reality uses animation to depict real-life scenes, creators can choose what parts of a complicated story to represent and whose field of vision the viewer sees and empathizes with. For example, Long says an immersive re-creation of the Ferguson, Missouri unrest could portray the violence from the point of view of a protester, or create a virtual reality where “you’re a riot cop, and you’re surrounded by people who are screaming at you.”

It also could portray a distorted version of reality that intentionally or unintentionally misleads viewers.

“Imagine if the government were trying to convince the world that Ferguson was just fine,” Long said in a phone interview. “There’s potential for abuse of ‘virtual propaganda.’”


Transformative technology or curiosity?

Not surprisingly, Long predicts that initially, a lot of virtual reality journalism is likely to center around the kind of news topics that also make good video game fodder – such as immersions into war zones.

But Syracuse University Professor Dan Pacheco, who worked as a consultant on the Gannett farm presentation, eventually sees a variety of other uses. He says virtual reality can transform travel reporting, allow journalists to recreate historic events, help science reporters illustrate potential sea level rise, and enable sports fans to “virtually attend” the World Cup or other marquee events.

“This is an area of growth for anybody who’s into storytelling,” Pacheco said in a phone interview. “This is an opportunity to move from storytelling to story experiences.”

Pacheco also sees revenue opportunities in the technology through product placements and other kinds of new virtual ads. That’s not a small consideration for a company like Gannett, which has seen a steady drop in print advertising revenue, recently completed another round of newsroom layoffs, and plans to split its digital and broadcasting divisions from its financially troubled newspaper business next year.

Not all industry observers, though, share Pacheco’s optimism about virtual reality journalism.

“I applaud the forward thinking,” said University of Minnesota Journalism Professor Nora Paul, “but I think this is the kind of thing that’s going to be a curiosity.”

Paul, a former Poynter faculty member, has studied the use of computer games in journalism and says it’s hard to predict whether virtual reality will become an effective way to tell stories. She says previous attempts to marry gaming technology and news storytelling had mixed results.

“Most people felt like putting a game skin on serious news content was a distraction,” Paul said, “and gamers weren’t interested in doing it because it invariably wasn’t a very sophisticated game.”

For now, Gannett says the Des Moines project is a one-time experiment, and the company hasn’t decided whether to do further virtual reality work.

To help gauge reader reaction, Gelman said the Register may hold town hall meetings or other events where Des Moinesers will be able to pass around headsets and experience the farm tour. He said he’s especially interested in hearing feedback on the presentation from the target demographic.

“I learned a lot watching my 10-year-old go through it,” Gelman said.


Note: If you are going to ONA, they will have a session on virtual reality storytelling.