Allan V. Cook, Managing Director, Deloitte, Digital Reality
The 2018 PULITZER PRIZE for explanatory reporting wasn’t awarded for a 5,000-word longform article. Instead, it was given for a new type of journalistic endeavor: a virtual reality (VR) experience. The piece allows users to see firsthand what the wall along the U.S.–Mexico border looks like today, and what it might look like in the future: an intimate view of a massive expanse, the impact of which words alone can’t explain, allowing viewers to make their own decisions about an often-polarizing topic.
In an era of layoffs and cutbacks, VR, augmented reality (AR) and mixed reality are changing the game for traditional journalism—opening the door to new forms of storytelling, and making media more relevant in the digital age. And while VR may seem like the buzzword du jour, the technology is creating new business models that could turn around years of financial losses for the industry.
“Publications and networks are getting the first seeds of VR and AR into the marketplace now,” says Allan V. Cook, managing director of Deloitte’s Digital Reality practice. “Some of those seeds will land on stony ground, and some will land on fertile ground, and this is the year we’re going to see the best of those ideas taking root. The challenge for the industry is to nurture these ideas over the next 12 to 24 months in order to figure out the best way to take advantage of this technology.”
The Rise of Digital Reality in Media
In recent years, virtual and augmented reality have begun to make inroads in the media industry: drones and AR/VR technology are used to cover major news events, giving viewers a front-row seat to happenings around the world. And some publications are already releasing VR content daily.
This slow trickle will soon become a torrent, according to Cook, who sees the adoption of VR and AR across all industries as something akin to the way we viewed cellphones just 10 years ago.
“Every 10 to 15 years we have a seismic shift in how we interact with one another, as well as the level of that interaction,” says Cook. “If I told you 10 years ago you’d use your phone 100 times a day, you’d have said I was crazy. Now the average person interacts with their phone 2,600 times a day. Ten years ago, we couldn’t perceive how impactful that single device would be.”
Cook believes that this is where we stand today with regard to VR. We may see the goggles, ancillary wands, and gadgetry as silly now, but as the technology advances, it’s possible that the barrier to entry for a VR experience will be lessened—in fact, we’ve already seen scenarios where our phones become the vehicle through which the medium is delivered. Just as everyone who has an internet connection today has access to news, so, too, will they have access to news in digital reality—which some argue could encourage empathy and even quell the growing threat of fake news.
Saleem Khan, Journalist and Consultant
VR and the Fight Against Fake News
In the media world, VR solves a legitimate problem: how to present complex information in a way that is comprehensible, interactive and engaging. VR—which has been around for decades in various forms—has long presented a theoretical answer to all of these dilemmas, “but in the mid-1990s it was impractical for journalism,” says Saleem Khan, a Toronto-based journalist and consultant who advises publishers and broadcasters on how to implement VR programs. Khan says that now that the barrier to entry to access the technology has lessened, it’s time for journalism to dive into VR headfirst. And Khan believes it is imperative for journalists to use the medium now—at a time when there is so much misinformation—as a way for consumers to digest the information differently.
“Misinformation and propaganda are already present concerns,” says Khan. “But with immersive technology like virtual reality there’s a fundamental difference: When you’re immersed in an experience, the brain registers it differently than if you’re reading an article or watching a video. A different part of the brain is active; what you see or hear here in the VR experience is recorded as a real memory.”
According to Khan, digital reality consumers are registering memories and forming their own opinions based on what they choose to see (not simply on what’s being presented to them). Khan is adamant that publishers and media outlets work to get ahead of the VR game in order to ensure a neutral and non-partisan voice becomes dominant. This is especially important because, as the technology advances, false (but real-looking) VR/AR experiences will inevitably enter the market. It’s a challenge that’s critical for media outlets to face, says Khan, because without VR, journalism—and society—could wither.
Despite the potential threats to digital reality in the media world, the good certainly outweighs the bad. And users are catching on to the power that digital reality experiences afford them, enjoying the ability to decide for themselves what’s important about a story that a publication or network is presenting.
“I don’t want to be limited by the 4-by-2-inch frame you think is important,” Deloitte’s Cook says of the traditional article view on a mobile device. “I want to be able to have a broader, more experiential perspective from which to decide what I think is important.”
That freedom to choose is the important work of the future of journalism—a freedom that digital reality can help provide.