In just a brief time, major media outlets have unrolled virtual reality (VR) stories that plunge readers into the middle of presidential campaign rallies, bring remote conflict zones into focus, take us as far as the distant reaches of our solar system or even let us shrink down to ride the ups and downs in the abstract world of our financial markets.
As many news organizations are diving head-first (pun intended) into exploring VR as a potential storytelling medium, so too are journalism schools. The Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse and the City University of New York are just a few of the many schools offering workshops, courses or collaborations to see what’s possible in this new medium. If VR is a challenge for content producers, it’s even more so for educators, who are already balancing a full plate of core coursework and new tools.
The challenges of VR as a new storytelling vehicle and curricular elective have also been a focus of recent professional and academic conferences, panels and discussions. At one such symposium this past spring that I co-chaired with Aashish Kumar, hosted by the Herbert School of Communication at Hofstra University, we engaged VR leaders from a variety of organizations, including Frontline, the AP, Emblematic Group, Empathetic Media and the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism. More questions than answers surfaced, as is the case with most forums, but what follows are four key takeaways from the Hofstra event, drawn from the panelists’ presentations, subsequent discussions and observations from student explorations of the new technology.
A directorless shot means more direction, not less
One the most vexing challenges for VR directors is how to develop a narrative when the traditional techniques from film are no longer available. Without a frame or conventional edits, and with more agency endowed to the viewer, we asked our panelists how the absence of the omniscient director’s hand forces a redefinition of their traditional role. Carla Borras, a producer for Frontline, asserted that the assumption that VR removes the director’s hand is false, and in fact, VR demands more directorial influence, not less.
Moreover, VR direction must be informed not from film or video, but from other media, such as theatre or gaming. Viewers, unable to rely on cuts and framing, will depend more on movement, lighting and auditory cues. Borras gave an example of a plane flying overhead, which provides a natural cue for the reader to instinctively follow across the sky. As the plane departs in the distance, directors have a point in space to transition to a new scene or add textual information because they know where the viewer is likely looking.
Interactive cues will become more important, as well. Dan Archer of Empathetic Media elaborated on clever uses of interactive (and time-based) cues to ensure that viewers look where you want them to look. He cites the direction in Story Studio’s “Lost” as a good example of interactive cuing. If a viewer gazes too long in the “wrong” direction, a computer-generated firefly will buzz into the viewer’s field of view to urge them to follow and to turn their head in another direction.
Other VR storytellers have likened the new director’s role as an “influencer,” much like a matador who delicately guides the movements of a bull, or even a dungeon master, who weaves a story in tandem with the players in the role-playing game Dungeons and Dragons. But whatever the new role, it’s clear that the VR director is someone who will be drawing upon approaches from a multitude of interdisciplinary media and communication forms.
The future of VR is potentially in abstract, new experiences
Many of our experiences in VR comes to us from one of two approaches. VR can be computer-generated, recreating scenes like Nonny de La Pena’s groundbreaking VR project “Hunger in Los Angeles,” which allows us to empathize with someone having a diabetic seizure while in line at a food bank, or like Dan Archer’s reconstruction of the crime scene of Michael Brown’s death in Ferguson based on eyewitness accounts.
We can also experience VR with 360-degree video, which, as VR cinematographer Evan Wexler told ArsTechnica, makes place as important as character. As he puts it, “the place is the story.” But both approaches struggle with existing storytelling techniques from traditional documentary filmmaking and gaming. We have yet to see new content, unique to VR, unbound by the legacies of our current visual vocabulary. Nathan Griffiths at the Associated Press argued that the future of VR is in abstract experiences not necessarily grounded in reality. “As soon as we break from reality-based VR … I think that’s where we may see, in the long term, we will see the form really, really start to take off,” he said.
VR documentarian Marcelle Hopkins underscored the idea, saying at one point, “I think and I hope actually that we haven’t figured out yet what VR is capable of because I think in 5 years it’s going to look very different from the way that we’re making it now.”
Partnerships are essential
Since VR is such a multidisciplinary effort, partnerships are critical, which is an important lesson for teaching virtual reality. Media outlets are partnering to extend their reach in this particularly technical realm. For example, the Associated Press teamed up with Ryot, a Los Angeles-based media company, and Vrse.works has been distributing content with the New York Times. Organizations represented by panelists at the Hofstra event, Frontline and the Emblematic Group, will join together to create best practices for VR production with a grant from the Knight Foundation.
In academia, while it’s not unusual to collaborate across departments or schools, it’s often the exception rather than the norm. But bureaucratic hurdles like sharing teaching loads have to give way to foster easier cooperation between departments that should have natural interests in VR storytelling such as journalism, media studies, film and video, engineering, computer science, or art and design. We’ve already seen how the rise of data journalism has led schools to integrate computer sciences into journalism curricula, and enabling cross-departmental efforts to teach virtual reality storytelling should be no different.
Widespread adoption of VR depends on friction-free playback
During the time between panel discussions at the Hofstra event, students and faculty mingled freely with a variety of VR headsets and viewers. Students had access to several Google Cardboard viewers, a Samsung Gear VR, an HTC Vive and other desktop computers demonstrating 360 video in the browser. While the students were awestruck at the immersion and interactivity, I was struck at their general lack of facility with the technology.
We often talk of the newer generation as digital natives, but with VR they may have well been your grandmother on Facebook. Many didn’t know how or where to access VR content or even understand how a Cardboard viewer worked. The confusion speaks to the challenges of multiple, competing players in the runtime environment. While innovative content may be available, widespread adoption depends on a more seamless way for the audience to access it. Facebook recognizes this and is already embedding 360 content right inside the news feed, but its “magic window” is only a partial, and unsatisfying, VR experience.
We gave away free Cardboard viewers, in part to encourage attendance at the event, but also to provide greater access, just as the New York Times had to do for their subscribers. But the question remains whether these students, and the public in general, will use the viewers regularly. Participants in a 2015 usability study conducted by Gannett noted that the VR experience is isolating and all-absorbing, which doesn’t align with modern news consumption habits and our multitasking daily activities.
Nobody knows if VR, in the long run, will become a staple story form and an integral part of journalism education. But because we’re still at the very early stages of VR, the exciting reality of virtual reality is that the current flourishing of immersive experiments will continue to grow and diversify.
Russell Chun is an assistant professor of journalism at Hofstra University School of Communication, where he teaches multimedia storytelling and data journalism. Twitter @russellchun.