This was the first time I had stepped foot in a refugee camp. I was in Zaatari, waiting for Sidra, a 12-year-old girl who has spent the last 18 months in Jordan, to lead me around the settlement. We met her family, walked to school, and visited the nearby bakery. We saw men working out and boys playing on computers. She told me about her classmates and life at the camp in general. Before I knew it, I was in the middle of a friendly game of soccer, with children running at me from all directions.
No, I wasn’t actually in Jordan. But it sure felt like it, thanks to the power of virtual reality. The film, “Clouds Over Sidra,” was the brainchild of award-winning director and Vrse founder Chris Milk in collaboration with Gabo Arora and the United Nations for the World Economic Forum in Davos. Shot with a 360-degree camera, this film allows the viewer to experience life within a refugee camp. It, along with other recent virtual reality projects, reimagines the medium as a new form of immersive journalism where viewers are brought to places they wouldn’t otherwise be able to access. By fully immersing the viewer in a 360-degree, three-dimensional environment, virtual reality has the power to expand what can be done in the field of narrative journalism.
The Empathy Machine
In a recent TED Talk, Milk explains how virtual reality creates the ultimate “empathy machine” by fully immersing the viewer in ways traditional film fails to do. Unlike other forms of media, he says, 360-degree virtual reality builds a profound human-to-human connection never before seen, or felt, for that matter.
Launched earlier this year, Vrse is the virtual reality platform of Milk’s new virtual reality production company, Vrse.works. Award-winning director Zach Richter said the Vrse team understands the power of this medium to transport people into stories. It’s really the only way to experience what it’s like being in these places, he says, whether that’s exploring post-Ebola conditions in Liberia or experiencing life in a Syrian refugee camp.
Vice News, which constantly experiments with new techniques in storytelling, worked with Vrse and director Spike Jonze on a 360-degree virtual reality news broadcast, “Vice News VR: Millions March,” which places viewers in a crowd of 60,000 protestors on the streets of New York City for the December 13th rally demanding greater police accountability. Viewers follow Vice News correspondent Alice Speri as she follows marchers descending on Washington Square Park, equipped with signs and banners, where traffic comes to a halt as they enact a “die-in” demonstration on the streets.
Jason Mojica, editor-in-chief of Vice News, initially thought virtual reality sounded gimmicky or hokey. However, he quickly changed his mind when he understood the power of what it could do. Immediately, he viewed it as an opportunity to truly immerse people in situations they would never get to experience first-hand. For him, virtual reality is not just about new technology; it’s about new ways of telling stories.
“In documentary films, we often try to imagine ourselves in someone else’s shoes. In virtual reality, we are placing people in someone else’s shoes,” he said. “For most people, its’ the first time they’ll actually imagine themselves in that place or situation.”
Dubbed the “godmother of virtual reality,” Nonny de la Peña agrees. The documentarian and former Newsweek correspondent started experimenting with Immersive Journalism 8 years ago, and uses computer graphics to create stories that give people first-hand experience of the news . In 2012, she made her first virtual reality piece, “Hunger in Los Angeles,” the true story of a diabetic’s collapse in line at a Los Angeles food bank. For the piece, De la Peña recreated the event using real-life audio and computer graphics, allowing users to experience the sights, sounds, and feelings of their surroundings. Earlier this year, De la Peña unveiled a 3D reconstruction of the Trayvon Martin story, and, before that, her company Emblematic Group released “Project Syria,” which transported viewers to Aleppo using a combination of real footage and computer graphics. Compared with other platforms, virtual reality makes viewers eyewitnesses to real-life events, she says.
“It’s difficult to describe how present you become in the scene, tricking your mind and making you feel like you’re there,” she said. “It’s really an extraordinarily powerful medium to work in.”
The Next Frontier?
Vrse and the New York Times Magazine recently collaborated on a behind-the-scenes virtual reality experience documenting the installation of a large-scale street art project in New York City. Called “Walking New York,” it follows renowned French artist JR as he visually attempts to communicate the city’s celebrated history as a place of immigrants. For the magazine’s cover, JR created and wheatpasted a 150-foot-tall portrait of a recent immigrant to New York City in the Flatiron Pedestrian Plaza which he then photographed from above in a helicopter. Co-directed by Milk, JR, and Richter, the experience captured the entire process from preparation in the studio to the production of the cover.
Compared with traditional filmmaking, virtual reality experiences, like Walking New York, involve a different mindset. With 360-degree virtual reality films, you have to think about stories in entirely new ways. For Richter, this means throwing traditional filmmaking techniques out the window.
“You have to think of things in highly spherical ways,” he said.
With 360-degree filmmaking, Richter thinks about where the viewer would want to be and what the viewer would want to experience. He observed JR’s process and worked with him to create the most natural story possible. And so he tagged along with the artist as the installation unfolded, putting himself and the camera in places he thought viewers would best experience the moment. As a ‘fly on the wall,’ he could take viewers on an out-of-body adventure, observing JR’s preparation in the studio, traversing the city streets by scooter, and reaching great heights in a helicopter.
“The way I think about it is that the camera is truly a human being,” he said. “It’s the eyes and ears of the people watching it.”
At Vice News, Mojica and his team experiment with different tools, techniques, and platforms for gathering stories. They’re open to telling stories in a variety of ways, but find virtual reality to be a unique platform for journalism. As an immersive rather than passive experience, virtual reality makes journalists think in a whole new way.
“It really kind of throws you into situation and is not guided like in documentaries where every soundbite edit is a decision made by a producer,” he said. “[With virtual reality] everyone is going to get a different experience out of it.”
With emerging tools and technology, news organizations can (and should) start embracing and experimenting with virtual reality journalism. As Richter says, it’s a great investment for people’s time if they feel the need to tell these stories. Vrse has already started exploring the world of virtual reality technologies with Vrse.Tools. To bring their own projects to life, the Vrse team required tools that didn’t actually exist yet. So, they decided to solve their own problem by creating and designing equipment for the virtual world, making it easier for them and others to experiment with the medium. Think: 360-degree camera rigs and directional sound apparatuses. Vrse also reimagined editorial workflows of virtual reality projects, including finding and training quality virtual reality stitchers.
“It’s about opening up the medium for people to tell their own stories and share their own content,” Richter said.
In the future, Richter imagines a platform emerging that will give people the tools to create their own 360 videos. For now, those interested in experimenting have options, including the new GoPro 360-degree camera designed specifically for Google’s new “Jump” virtual reality ecosytem. For the first six months, it’s only available to Google’s content creators, but will eventually be made available to the public.
For viewers, the development of the Oculus Rift headset brought virtual reality technology into the mainstream. Without an Oculus, Google Cardboard, or other generic headset, however, it’s tricky for the viewer to get the full virtual reality experience. For now, the average person can download an app, like the one that Vrse created, and use the phone as a “magic window,” which gives people an approximate 360-degree virtual reality experience from their smartphones.
With virtual reality, cost, time, and technical ability can prove challenging to bootstrapped news organizations. But the real challenge lies in the content itself, Richter says. From a technical perspective, it involves a real learning curve; you have to figure out where is the best place to stand. From a content perspective, it’s about telling stories with substance. Right now, many people use virtual reality technology to simply show what 360-degree images look like, without delving into telling stories behind those images. The power of virtual reality journalism transcends the technical. We need journalists, he argues, who know how to tell a story.
“What’s going to make virtual reality into a huge market is finding the core of storytelling and really trying to tell great stories that are truly captivating,” Richter said.
Like other aspects of journalism, funding can also pose a challenge to virtual reality projects. Though she has made some pieces, like the Trayvon Martin story, with a small budget, De la Peña has experienced first-hand the consequences of inadequate funding. “Hunger,” which was made for $700, features a diabetic man falls into and out of a coma. The project, however, didn’t have enough money to motion capture him reemerging from the coma and it wasn’t included in the final piece. Though the film mentioned this fact, viewers thought he had died and “freaked out,” De la Peña said. Moving forward, she wants to be more cautious when making these visceral pieces.
Much of journalism doesn’t operate at the mercy of technology. Virtual reality, however, does, at least right now. De la Peña and Mojica both recognize the technical limitations of 360-degree filmmaking, specifically when it comes to what you can and cannot do with the camera. It’s important to figure out how people react to things, like motion, they say. Otherwise, your viewers could experience motion sickness. Once journalists know what’s technically possible, they can think more about the stories they can tell given the constraints of the medium.
Virtual reality is about trial and error, Richter says. As a new and emerging medium, there’s a lot of room for experimentation. Right now, there are two ways to create a virtual reality experience in the newsroom: 360-degree video, employed by Richter and the Vrse team, and computer graphics (CG), employed by De la Peña. In the future, De la Peña envisions a marriage of these two virtual reality techniques.
When getting started with 360-degree filmmaking, Richter suggests learning as much as possible by talking to virtual reality filmmakers, attending conferences about the medium, and, most important, experimenting on your own, especially if your newsroom has a post-production team. Though it may not be polished or perfect, it will be watchable and a good way to test the waters.
De la Peña uses CG virtual reality to look at stories that have already happened or are currently unfolding. It takes a lot of time and energy to make a virtual reality piece, De la Peña said. But quick turnaround is possible. With one full-time and one part-time employee, she was able to produce her Trayvon Martin piece in two weeks. A virtual reality project doesn’t have to be as difficult as people make it out to be.
“It’s really about the ability of newsmakers to be flexible and recognize its power,” she said. “It’s a matter of whether or not people can devote the time to make it happen.”
Compared with 360-video, CG is fairly inexpensive. To get started with CG, De la Peña recommends finding someone who can handle the technical side, including working with gaming platforms, such as Unity, Maya, or AUTOcad, and editing on stitching software. Then, she says, you need to decide how to approach the story. There’s real power in good CG virtual reality, she argues, and cautions against choosing 360-video over CG just because “it’s closer to what people are used to.”
Is virtual reality the future of journalism? Only time will tell. There are so many applications for virtual reality, and people are just starting to scratch the surface. As more journalists recognize it as a viable platform, virtual reality will become common practice as a storytelling medium. As for those already experimenting with virtual reality? The future may be in their hands.
“There are no rules right now,” Richter said. “We’re writing the rules for future.”
Meg Dalton (@megdalts) is the associate editor of PBS MediaShift and Idea Lab.