Virtual reality journalism has arrived. After years of speculation about how the technology could be harnessed for filmmaking, let alone distributed to the masses, the moment of reckoning has come. With YouTube, Facebook and the New York Times launching 360° video streaming capabilities, immersive video is officially journalism’s new frontier.
An estimated 25 million virtual reality headsets will be sold by 2018.
Virtual reality “has the ability to put you on scene at an event like no other medium can, and the sense of presence it generates is really powerful,” says Nonny de la Pena, a former Newsweek reporter who’s become known as the “Godmother of VR”. “It will undoubtedly become an essential component of mainstream journalism, with its own specific role to play.”
“It has the ability to put you on scene at an event like no other medium can, and the sense of presence it generates is really powerful,” — Nonny de la Pena
Interested in trying it out?
The extra work in VR comes in when you need to “stitch” the different camera angles into one piece, which means taking the different angles filmed by the various cameras and turning them into a continuous sphere. The two most popular options for stitching are Kolor and VideoStitch. Chainon recommends Kolor (around $800), which is a suite of softwares that process a video from raw footage into a completed piece.
Now it’s up to filmmakers to figure out how to tell a story when you can’t even control where the viewer is looking. That means a new kind of filmmaking: no close-ups, no pans, no voice over.
“You have to really lose the idea of a camera,” says Pena, who creates 3D reconstructions of scenes from controversial news stories such as the killing of Trayvon Martin. With VR, filmmakers need “to throw all the established tools and language of making films and videos out the window.”
This may seem daunting, but a good first step before moving into VR is 360° video, or spherical video. It’s not rocket science. With the right tools and training, anyone with a passion for storytelling can begin testing it out.
Filmmaker Jean-Yves Chainon started learning about 360° filmmaking in 2013. Besides the obvious distribution problem, he says there was a learning curve to adopt a post-production workflow, along with having to be so passive when filming (in 360° video, all you do is set the rig down and let the cameras roll).
But for many, the most exciting part of VR is the emotional impact the experience can have on the viewer. “I have never seen my parents cry before. Never, “ says Molly Swenson, COO of RYOT News, at a recent virtual reality event at Columbia University’s Journalism School. “But I showed them the [VR] video we had made about the aftermath of the Nepalese earthquake. They took those headsets off and the tears were streaming down their cheeks.”
“I have never seen my parents cry before. Never. But I showed them the [VR] video we had made about the aftermath of the Nepalese earthquake. They took those headsets off and the tears were streaming down their cheeks.” — Molly Swenson, COO of RYOT News
For RYOT, which tells stories for the purpose of humanitarian impact, VR receives exponentially higher engagement than traditional video, she says.
Now VR isn’t just for gamers. In March, Youtube launched 360° video and began selling Google Cardboard headsets for $20, where you can watch 360° video on your mobile phone (the most popular is currently Avicii’s music video for “Waiting For Love”, with over 14 million views).
In November, Facebook announced its answer to 360° distribution that doesn’t need a headset. Viewers can watch the videos from any browser, navigating the angle with a mouse. In a publicity stunt to launch the New York Times VR app, the newspaper distributed 1.1 million Google Cardboards with their Sunday edition. (Check out its coverage of a vigil during the Paris attacks).
In early 2016, Oculus has announced it will be launching its first-ever consumer version of the Oculus Rift headset for a reported $200 to $400 (official specs and prices have yet to be announced).
Although similar, virtual reality and 360° video, are not the same. Virtual reality is more interactive: you can move inside the virtual reality space, but with 360° video you stand still and can move your head to look around. However, both are being referred to as “immersive journalism”.
Filmmaker Benedict Moran took his first foray into immersive journalism this year. Since he had to film in South Sudan, he chose a more more durable rig, the Freedom360 rugged mount with six Hero3 cameras. He bought a Hero3 instead of the Hero4 because of the Hero4’s tendency to overheat — already a problem given the close proximity of the cameras in the mount. Moran admits that if he had to do it over, he would have bought the GoPro Black. His project, called Recipe for Famine, will premiere in early 2016 on PBS’s Frontline. He and his colleagues are also planning on releasing a guide to making virtual reality documentaries in January; follow their site for updates.
In the end, virtual reality seems to be a natural fit for non-fiction storytelling. “The promise of VR is presence,” said University of British Columbia professor Taylor Owen at a recent panel at Columbia University’s Journalism School. “It’s placing someone where they otherwise wouldn’t be — in the end, it’s the same as journalism itself.”
Check out Jean Yves Chainon’s (@jychainon) site OOA World. Benedict Moran (@benmoran) and his colleagues Evan Wexler and Marcelle Hopkins are releasing VR 101 guide early next year — keep an eye out for it! Also, the Storyhunter platform just announced that it now offers 360° video as a service on its marketplace. That means professionals who provide these services can now get hired by production companies, brands and media companies through the Storyhunter platform.