Enter the Rift: Taking journalism to VR

As I write, my voice is hoarse from three days showing Harvest of Change — a Des Moines Register/Gannett Digital series that used the Oculus Rift and 360-degree video — to hundreds of journalists at the Online News Association conference in Chicago.

The demos capped a two-week sprint that included a media day in New York City, publishing five versions of the software and then catching some media buzz, which alternately praised and scoffed at the effort. Such whirlwinds are fleeting, but highlights are milestones. So, while it’s fresh, here’s a recap.

First, a scene from the Midway at ONA:

That’s Rosental Alves, director of the Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas at the University of Texas at Austin, trying out the project. We set up three Oculus workstations, and for three days the chairs were rarely empty. On the last day, as we packed up, we figured between 400 and 500 people had tried it.

Most people came out of curiosity, or with skepticism, but left impressed. Some were compelled by Amy Webb, who said in a Saturday ONA session that our experience was a must-see. Apparently, we even made the unofficial ONA bingo card.

The story behind this story

The project came together over the summer. When I wasn’t coding backend data for an election forecast, I was heading a small team visiting the dusty back roads of Iowa, both in person and in the Oculus headset. Lots has been written about the Oculus Rift, especially since its acquisition for $2 billion by Facebook, but the focus so far has been on gaming. But after journalism innovation professor Dan Pacheco of Syracuse University introduced us to the Rift, Gannett Digital decided to build its first VR explanatory journalism project.

The truncated version of what happened next: A core team from Gannett Digital worked with The Des Moines Register on crafting story angles, scouting locations, and settling on a focus. With that in place, The Register team set out to report and shoot photos and video. Our team at Gannett Digital began assembling the game environment using Unity and incorporating 12 video segments shot by Total Cinema 360 into the 3D rendering of the farm.

We laid the story foundation in June, began development at the start of July, and finished right before ONA. Challenging, intense, and revelatory.

Here’s a finished screen showing an area of the farm where we included a data visualization:

Data Viz Oculus


It’s great; no, wait, it’s not

In person at ONA, we heard a lot of good things from journalists. Most of them were trying the Oculus Rift for the first time, so the novelty factor was fully in effect. We felt best when people were able to see past the environment and feed back that they understood we were telling the story of a farm family grappling with change.

Here’s a typical reaction:

Not everyone agreed. On Twitter, as soon as Poynter ran its story “News for the Minecraft generation”:

At the same time, the project ended up getting a bunch of media coverage. The mix of takes was interesting. A few that stuck out:

Fast Company’s Chris Gayomali really got what we were after, writing: “It feels like a documentary with a non-linear narrative. You are encouraged to explore. … It’s an attention-grabbing experiment, sure, but it hints at some potential future applications that newspapers on either coast might want to pay attention to.”

In a Washington Post story, Dominic Basulto wrote, “It’s easy to see how something like the Oculus Rift could transform the news-reading experience — not just for traditional news-gathering organizations like The Des Moines Register, but also for just about any Silicon Valley tech company that produces a newsfeed.”

Finally, a reporter at Forbes said the app was “awesome” but also “a flop” because it wasn’t shared that much on Twitter and Facebook but conceded that “VR will revolutionize journalism and many other industries.”

So, will VR save journalism?

No. I personally said that to every data-journalism type who stopped by our demo area at ONA. But, as I also said to most people who asked, “What’s the application of this?”:

  • 360-degree video can put viewers into an unbiased, immersive view of news events in a way conventional video cannot.
  • Immersive 3D environments can explain stories in new ways, taking viewers to places they may never otherwise experience.

So, if you think journalism can use every vitamin it can get in the next five years, pay attention to how it might make use of VR — which, like it or not, is coming soon to an electronics store near you.

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