September 30, 2015

A story doesn’t POINT you there, it PUTS you there. In a sense, a story is a form of transportation. It lifts you from where you are reading and carries you to another time and another place.

Roy Peter Clark may not have been thinking about virtual reality when he wrote about the differences between a story and a report, but he might as well have been – as it virtually puts you there in the middle of the action.

ABC’s Inside Syria VR is one of the recent virtual reality journalism experiment in which viewers are transported to Damascus to see how “archaeologists are racing against time to protect historical antiquities menaced by war.” Another project, “Ebola Outbreak,” released by Frontline last week, puts viewers in the middle of several West African countries to document the spread of the deadly virus. And as virtual reality journalism gets cheaper, it will begin making its way into more and more newsrooms.

Readers, or viewers, can download apps on their smartphones and use a Google cardboard type viewer – that are priced between $20 – $30 – and experience stories as if they were actually there. Meanwhile, building VR experiences – sometimes referred to as ‘immersive’ or ‘experiential’ storytelling – is getting easier too (more on that later).

Virtual reality in news can be a lot of things – video or cinematic experiences, 3D modeling, interactive graphics and something VR works with best – gaming environments and simulated computer-generated imagery (CGI).

One of the big players in this space, Gannett, created several VR projects over the past year – most of which include 360-degree video. Working with the Des Moines Register, Gannett published the heralded – “Harvest of Change,” a feature on an Iowa state farm.

Since then, virtual-reality stories have been created at various Gannett properties. In addition, the organization also launched a VR Stories mobile app for Android and iOS devices in April 2015. Most recently, Des Moines Register streamed a Republican Soap Box, live in 360 degree video.

Screengrab of Chris Christie speaking on the Des Moines Register Presidential Soapbox.

Screengrab of Chris Christie speaking on the Des Moines Register Presidential Soapbox.

With multiple projects under their belt, at different publications, the group has made significant progress since last year. They did it by building a model and iterating on the process, several times.

When they did “Harvest of Change,” they partnered with a technology company for support and training. Since then, every time a Gannett property wants to do a project using virtual reality or forms of experiential storytelling, they pitch the idea to Mitch Gelmann, V.P. of product at Gannett.

Once Gelmann is convinced that it is a story best told through VR, they begin with the storyboarding process. Gannett’s strategy is simple – if the property hasn’t done a virtual reality project before, they bring in someone from another Gannett outlet with virtual reality experience to train them. The goal is to have someone at all properties with the skills to shoot and edit 360-degree video.

Once the video has been produced, the next step is to put it in an interactive interface fit for publication. For this particular step, Gannett has used developers to come up with templates. The local property chooses the template and pushes the story with variants for the web, VR headsets such as the Oculus Rift, for mobile on the VR Stories app and for desktop.

Gannett spends money on human and technical resources once and reaps the fruit over different projects, training more and more personnel in the storytelling process.

The Associated Press took the technology a step further with 3D modeling – a more cumbersome and elaborate process. They did this in partnership with technology company Matterport.

Screenshot of Associated Press' "A Suite Life."

Screenshot of Associated Press’ “A Suite Life.”

The suite life” offers viewers a 3-D modeled experience of luxurious places such as a $50,000/night Four Seasons Penthouse. According to Paul Cheung, interactive director at AP, the medium is the perfect match for the story.

“It is a virtual tour of a space that most people will not have access to. And for us we are looking at that to tell a story using VR,” said Cheung.

Instead of focusing on documentary-style projects, AP would like to use the technology to cover breaking news. For example, Cheung envisions being able to create a tour of El Chapo’s tunnel. “That would be a great opportunity … for us to look at what does the tunnel looks like and have the audience walk through the tunnel,” said Cheung.

One challenge is having the VR projects work across multiple platforms. Right now, most of these video-driven spatial narratives require users to download an app on mobile to get to a VR experience. For these projects, in-browser VR is a struggle on mobile.

While this is a barrier for video, interactive graphics can be deployed without those limitations. Wall Street Journal Developers Roger Kenny and Ana Asnes Becker created a 3D roller coaster of NASDAQ – one of the projects that led the WSJ graphics department to win an Online News Association (ONA) award for Excellence and Innovation in Visual Digital Storytelling last week.

“We could have done a flat chart of the NASDAQ. We have done that numerous times. But virtual reality lets you feel the change in your gut,” said Kenny.

Built with Javascript, the ride uses three.js, a 3D Javascript library powered by WebGL. They created an experience for desktop, mobile and Google cardboard. (Note: If you are a web developer with a desire to dive into interactive 3D graphics, Udacity has a free course.)

You belong to a newsroom with limited resources. Where do you start?

For a story on the Hajj, Basma Atassi of Al Jazeera English, spent 300 euros (about $338) on a 360-degree video camera by Ricoh Theta. On the trip she captured footage which she was able to edit and produce for a piece about the trip. Since YouTube supports 360-degree video, she published it on the platform and embedded the video on the site. She notes her lessons and observations from the experiment here. With Facebook announcing support for 360 video last week, publishers now have another platform to push out 360 video content.

360 video is a good place to start.

Typically, there are two approaches that you can take – use cameras with auto-stitching capabilities such as the Ricoh Theta, or invest in a slightly more expensive solution such as V360. With no requirement of a process that stitches the different video elements, these are better solutions for quick turnaround segments. In the process, you do compromise on quality.

If you want to create something with a higher resolution, GoPro arrays are the next step. A six camera rig can cost you $3,000 and the 16 camera Odyssey is priced at $15,000. However, since that requires stitching the video segments, after shooting, you need to put your footage through a software such as Kolor’s Autopano video.

Veterans suggest that as you experiment with the technology, try working with the language of the storytelling medium as well. The key bit is that you are handling video where you don’t control the direction a viewer is looking at.

At ONA 2015, Nonny de la Peña, CEO, Emblematic Group, spoke about how in the beginning, staying away from movement is a good strategy.

“Lock your camera to do shots. Because if you move your camera, our body thinks that we should move too. And that causes the nausea that people often talk about in VR,” said la Peña at one of the panels.

She is all for experimentation, but only after you have figured out the basics. “You can go up and you can go down – those are the things that your body can’t do,” she said. When it comes to movements where the footage is expected to move forward and the body can’t move forward, that can be confusing for some viewers.

Robert Padavick, videographer at Gannett made a transition from regular video to 360-degree video. He says that the shift isn’t that difficult. “Once you get a shoot or two under your belt, it’s pretty intuitive. If you are a good videographer or good photographer, you will get it pretty quickly and you can adapt,” he said.

Gannett Digital producer Anthony Fox mounts a 360-degree camera to the helmet of U.S. Ski Team skier Steve Nyman. (Submitted Photo)

Gannett Digital producer Anthony Fox mounts a 360-degree camera to the helmet of U.S. Ski Team skier Steve Nyman. (Submitted Photo)

According to Padavick, a lot of the same principles apply. The only addition would be to focus on choosing locations where there is actual visual variety in all directions. In addition, instead of moving the camera, place the camera in different locations where the viewer “feels immersed and wants to look around and take it all in.”

After shooting the video, the next step would be to edit the video. This can be done in a regular video editor like Final Cut Pro or Adobe Premiere – similar to editing everyday video.

The edited video can then be posted on YouTube or Facebook, or to take it a step further virtual reality capabilities can be added. That means putting it on a VR headset platform such as Oculus Rift and Samsung’s Gear VR, a mobile app that lets one experience the content using a Google cardboard like viewer, and putting it in a frame for people to access it on the web.

This is where some of the programming and developer needs come into play. Most news outlets at that level use Unity 3D to create these environments (which also has a free version.) Ask around in the newsroom, maybe there are existing developers who can pick up these skills.

To bridge this technical gap, a partnership between the journalism school and visualization laboratory at University of Texas at Austin is building an open-source tool designed to make the publishing process easier. The group that aims to build a “WordPress for virtual reality,” received a Knight Prototype Grant earlier this year.

In early October, CNN will stream the next Republican debate in live 360 video, available on VR headsets. Such a move has significant relevance – a news organization is putting the viewer in the middle of a Presidential debate, from their living room. Where it gets tricky is the access. Most news consumers don’t own an Oculus Rift or Gear VR headset. That might change a bit as per the latest announcement from Samsung, that states the new iteration of Gear VR can be expected this holiday season for $99. As the headset market grows, reporters would be wise to focus on mobile. Everyone owns a smartphone – and it is key that as you experiment with this emerging storytelling form, you make it accessible to as many people as possible.

Moreover, even if you cannot to invest in some of the resources needed to produce such content, start small and start tinkering with the storytelling methods early. With the technology evolving at a fast pace, most of the technical bits will eventually become easier and more accessible.

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I report, write and produce interactives for as the institute's 2015 Google Journalism Fellow. Tweet me @gurmanbhatia or email at
Gurman Bhatia

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