Home: A VR Spacewalk was produced by the BBC
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As soon as virtual reality headsets became accessible, newspapers and broadcasters dived eagerly into it, determined not to be left behind as they were with digital. Three years on and they have produced some of the best work in the new medium. But as VR struggles to generate popular interest, the question remains: is it worth the effort?
A new report by BBC Research and Development editor Zillah Watson for The Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism provides some initial answers. Based on interviews with more than 20 VR practitioners in the USA and Europe, including the New York Times, USA Today, Die Welt, ARTE, the Guardian and Sky, the report shows an industry moving tentatively forward – but experiencing doubts about the long-term benefits.
The report, which is released this week, has lessons not only for journalists but also anyone interested in VR. Here are seven things I learned:
There’s great work out there
The New York Times wins praise for its “pioneering work,” as do The Guardian and public broadcaster ARTE, which created the multi-award-winning Notes on Blindness.
One reason for this: the enthusiasm among journalists for VR. Part of this is simple curiosity – but there’s also a difference between VR and other technologies. As Paul Cheung, former director of interactives and digital news production at Associated Press told Watson: “For automation and AI [journalists] just think the robot is going to replace them. Whereas 360 is about creative energy – we’ll be able to cover stories that we probably found quite dull, differently.”
But lots of bad work too, which is a problem
If content is, as the cliché goes, king, then in VR the royal line is much diluted. Many of Watson’s interviewees worried that bad content – in particular the reams of cheap 360 video dumped onto YouTube – would put people off VR.
As Max Boenke, Head of Video at Berliner Morgenpost put it: “I’m afraid that more and more people in news organisations use 360 for stories that are not interesting. Bad content will keep people away from watching it.”
Most “VR”... isn’t
“Most news VR,” the report notes, “is still actually 360 video rather than fully immersive VR, and is most likely to be viewed on a mobile device used as a ‘magic window’ or in a browser.”
Although some pedants in the industry insist 360 video isn’t VR at all, this isn’t necessarily a problem. But Watson notes that the reason given for making VR in this way – that it’s a “gateway to VR” – isn’t always true.
“It is a gateway to VR production because it is easier to create,” she writes, adding that “Poor experiences could put consumers off VR.”
Making VR? Forget about empathy
Storytelling in VR has been profoundly shaped by Chris Milk’s description of it as “the ultimate empathy machine.” But that idea found little purchase amongst the people Watson spoke to: “not one of the subjects I interviewed mentioned empathy,” she writes.
Jason Farkas, VP for premium content video at CNN, argued that empathy had been over-emphasised, to the detriment of VR: “VR for a while was becoming the medium for showing the horrors of war, and showing struggle – a very dark medium. I think that it’s incredibly powerful on that level, but I also think that VR can be delightful and fun.”
Watson – who produced the first 360 BBC report from the Calais migrant camp in June 2015 – adds: “A wise content strategy for any news organisation wanting to draw early audiences to VR should aim to bring delight as well as harrowing reports from war zones. And for those exploring early monetisation models, this must be an important consideration.”
VR can make money – sort of
Some news organisations have found a way to make VR pay, although there is no steady source of revenue. “Everyone is trying to figure out how to monetise VR through ads, but no one has the answers yet’, admits Jessica Lauretti of Huffpost’s immersive media branch RYOT. “I think right now everyone is doing a pretty standard branded content model.”
Tech firms are another source of funding. Samsung partnered with the New York Times and Euronews to develop 360 news content. Google funded content for the launch of Daydream VR. But Watson doesn’t feel confident these partnerships will last: “News organisations need to find ways to make the technology pay.”
Put simply: there just aren’t enough people out there willing to pay for VR. For anyone working in the medium, this is by far the biggest challenge.
It’s good branding
One non-monetary benefit of VR: it can do wonders for your brand, by associating it with the wonders of technology. “Being seen as the industry leader was a driving factor for the New York Times,” Watson notes. “This was reflected by many others.”
With effective marketing, readers don’t even need to see the work to be impressed. At the Guardian, Watson writes, “The aim is that, even if they haven’t watched it, Guardian readers and the wider industry are made aware that the Guardian is embracing the future.” (Of course, if VR grows, this effect won’t last.)
It’s too early to tell
Ads or sponsorship? Vive or Oculus? Mobile or standalone headsets? Right now, nothing in VR is certain – and that means it’s still a space of experimentation. So expect lots of new formats, and most likely lots of failures.
One thing is clear: the promised land of mainstream adoption doesn’t seem to be getting closer. “When we look to a mass audience, it’s more 2020 or 2022 or 2025,” says Martin Heller of Die Welt. In technology, that’s dog years. As Watson admits, in that time, “it might be subsumed into another technology.”
There’s still lots of excitement around VR, but the need to find a paying audience is becoming increasingly urgent. Of course: that’s true of journalism across the board. In that sense, you could say, VR is fitting in perfectly.