VR is still complicated and expensive to produce. However, immersive reports are becoming increasingly common, creating a new form of engagement in news information. Makery investigated.
In 2012, Nonny de la Peña, former correspondent for Newsweek, collaborated with MxR, a pilot laboratory for mixed reality at the University of Southern California. The journalist studied the potential of virtual reality (VR) to tackle the topic of hunger in American cities. Palmer Luckey, her 19-year-old intern, taped together a prototype—Oculus Rift, the VR headset that would later make Palmer a millionaire.
VR journalism dates back to less than a decade. It all started with Hunger in LA, an experience that takes place in the waiting line of a food distribution center in Los Angeles. Standing among the people waiting, the VR observer witnesses a man fall to the ground, the victim of diabetic seizures. De la Peña noticed that people experiencing the scene in VR tried to intervene, took care to avoid stepping on the body, and came away shook up. Hunger in LA was subsequently presented at the Sundance film festival in 2012.
“Hunger in LA”, first immersive journalism experience, 2012:
Journalism or not?
In a TED talk, Nonny de la Peña says that her colleagues find the approach to be too subjective. She prefers to talk about appropriated interaction. “We experience the world through our bodies as much as we do through our mind, and there’s no reason we shouldn’t experience the story in the same way,” she explains. Her point of view echoes that of Jaron Lanier, the American computer scientist who coined the term virtual reality in the 1990s and who wanted to create “a post-symbolic communication that passes through the body.”
De la Peña believes that journalism is based on accurate re-enactment and factual clarity. In 2015, she exhumed the events of 2012 that led to the death of African-American teenager Trayvon Martin in Sandford, Florida, a drama that polarized America. One Dark Night, based on witness statements from the trial of the defendant George Zimmerman, also integrates archived elements, such as the voice of the victim’s mother, recorded by the emergency responders.
“One Dark Night” replays the Trayvon Martin incident, directed by Nonny de la Peña, 2015:
Conditions of presence
It’s no coincidence that De la Peña’s VR experiences are emotionally contagious. The journalist, who risks evoking empathy, collaborated with Mel Slater, the researcher who contributed to defining the conditions of presence, or the sensation of actually being there, which is specific to virtual reality. These conditions require 3D imaging and position tracking in order to move around and facilitate proprioception (perception through the position of the body), which adds to the senses of sight and hearing.
Does the audience make the media?
But 3D, VR and its headsets are synonymous with a limited audience. In a 2015 report by the Knight Foundation, Cory Key, vice-president of the Discovery Channel, explains that “until there is live VR reporting from the front lines that can be accessed easily on a device while on the go, VR has a long way to go to replace what is there.” In this same report, Niko Chauls, director of emerging technology at USA Today, who in 2014 produced Harvest Of Change, the virtual visit of a farm in Iowa, states: “We have learned that the current metrics used for video are not applicable—and that a new range of reporting will be needed.” A measure of empathy?
From immersive 3D to immersive video
Between 2014 and 2015, the release of Google Carboard and Samsung Gear VR, both made for mobile devices, constituted a first response. But it was the application VRSE, now With.in, by American filmmaker Chris Milk, that arose the interest of news media. Milk blurred the boundaries between 3D immersive experiences and 360° videos on hot topics—The Millions March against police violence in Ferguson filmed by Spike Jonze in 2014, or Clouds over Sidra in 2015, which depicts life in a refugee camp through the eyes of a child, made in collaboration with the UN.
These subjects experienced in the first person are unprecedented. In an interview for Consumer Reports, Jake Silverstein, chief editor of the New York Times Magazine, cites the commentary of a journalist on Clouds over Sidra: “I’ve edited hundreds of stories about refugees, and I’ve never had an experience like this one.” In November 2015, the New York Times distributed 1.3 million Google Cardboards to promote The Displaced, a 360° report on childhood in wartime.
“This is the type of irresponsible, crazy exercise that we as a company should do more of.”
Mark Thompson, president of the “New York Times”
Due to the poor monetization of VR content, editorial boards can’t quite fund a dedicated 360° team, according to the Washington Post in the Knight Foundation’s report. Adrien Duquesnel, a French photographer who specializes in 360° video, estimates his own investment to be around €15,000 ($15,937): “I started out with six Gopros. But parallax errors led me to use wide-angle lenses.” Also, he confirms, editorial teams hesitate to outsource for “structural reasons and poorly digested digital culture”.
In 2016, the Huffington Post group acquired Ryot, a California start-up specialized in 360° video. The merger didn’t surprise Raphaël Beaugrand, senior reporter at Okio, a Paris-based VR studio, which has sold a number of 360° reports, including to daily newspaper Le Parisien. Both the New York Times and France Info have invested in “all-in-one” cameras, such as Samsung Gear 360. “It’s good enough for Youtube or Facebook, but I prefer shooting with several cameras so that the content doesn’t become obsolete too soon,” says Beaugrand. Also to be able to distribute the footage in high-definition headsets.
Nepal after the earthquake, directed by Ryot, 2015:
Journalists who remain in control of their subject
“Choice of subject, angle, storytelling, camera movement, post-production.” Beaugrand lists the dashboard controls of a VR journalist. In his report on the Foreign Legion in Guyana, he shows that he can also line up the shots, “as long as they remain consistent with the course of action,” he explains. A bad choice could make the viewer feel nauseous. He prefers still shots, as “tracking shots require heavy equipment to stabilize the image, as well as in post-production, to erase the rolling object.”
The Foreign Legion in Guyana, directed by Raphaël Beaugrand, 2016:
Cost relative to reporting ambition
“It all depends on how ambitious your reporting is,” Beaugrand warns. And this ambition has a price: “The best example is The Enemy,” he says, referring to an experience directed by war reporter Karim Ben Khelifa, who offered a direct confrontation with both sides of the Israeli-Palestine conflict, which required a budget of €1.2 million ($1.27 million). So far, the 360° journalism market has a hard time setting its prices. The benefit for the host is calculated not in terms of audience “but in terms of image”, says Beaugrand. Adrien Duquesnel mentioned an offer of €3,000 ($3,186) from Le Parisien to sell a report shot on the site of Chernobyl, which was finally aborted for scheduling reasons. “Some media emphasize visibility as a form of renumeration, which I think is the case of the New York Times,” Beaugrand adds.
“Syria, battle for the North” directed by Okio-Report (600,000 views), 2015:
Television, the good fairy of 360° reporting
Television media support the market. French TV France 5 even has a dedicated program, 360@, presented by Vincent Nguyen. Arte has co-produced Urgence au Sud-Soudan (“Urgency in South Sudan”) with the renowned U.S. reporting agency Frontline. Beaugrand himself is preparing a three-part series with Forum des images TV5 Monde, which will revisit exceptional places to spotlight professions. The first opus features the organist of the Saint-Eustache church in Paris.
Furthermore, at the next GEN Summit, which will bring together more than 750 news editors from 70 countries on June 21-23 in Vienna, Austria, the 2017 theme is: “From post-truth to virtual reality: navigating media’s future.” Meanwhile, journalism schools will offer training courses dedicated to 360° reporting.
The resistance of 3D images
Without interaction, however, 360° video is destined to remain innocuous. Beaugrand avoids the word empathy, preferring to speak of emotion. “Empathy is not the role of the journalist, it varies too much according to people and subjects. Where is the empathy when you’re watching a training session with Lebron James?” On the contrary, Nonny de la Peña sees the immersive shock as a way of provoking engagement, VR at the service of activist journalism.
“I began to realize that part of good journalism, of being a civic partner to my audience, is to offer them ways to act.”
Nonny de la Peña, VR journalist
In 2016, the Guardian produced 6X9, a 3D-rendered experience of solitary confinement supported by the nonprofit organization Solitary Watch. The choice of using CGI was due to the difficulty of getting authorization to film inside prisons. But CGI also allowed the filmmakers to integrate the hallucinations described by the inmates. Frontline contributed to the realism by providing sound footage from a previous prison report. But developing the project took almost nine months, whereas De la Peña sometimes takes only a few weeks, using 3D model and animation libraries. The cost of 3D rendering remains prohibitive for processing information on a weekly basis. While USA Today revealed that it paid $50,000 for Harvest Of Change, De la Peña talked about a maximum cost of $35,000.
New media, new ethics
Prices could drop with the development of ready-to-use 3D platforms, virtual worlds such as Sansar and High Fidelity. Psychologists who treat phobia with VR have proven that interaction is more important than realism in terms of impact, by obtaining excellent results in GTA-like worlds.
“Project Syria”, experiencing a bombing, directed by Nonny de la Peña, 2014:
This psycho-active nature of virtual reality could lead to new journalistic responsibilities, according to Michael Madary and Thomas Metzinger, researchers at the University of Mainz, Germany. They have already drafted a code of ethical conduct for the use of virtual reality in science and among consumers.