In September, Frontline took its viewers into the heart of the Ebola crisis with its first virtual reality documentary. Just this weekend, The New York Times shipped Google Cardboards to its million Sunday print subscribers, whom The Times hopes will download its free app and watch the Times Magazine’s film about three displaced children from South Sudan, eastern Ukraine, and Syria. The Associated Press is partnering with a Los Angeles-based production company to put out a series of VR films in the coming months. And ahead of the curve more than year ago, Gannett’s Des Moines Register built an interactive about Iowa farm families for Oculus Rift.
Add to that list The Wall Street Journal, which recently released a 360-degree video experience following American Ballet Theatre soloist Sarah Lane as she rehearses for the title role in “The Sleeping Beauty” at Lincoln Center. The Journal hopes to make VR (as well as 360-degree video) a more frequent platform for its stories.
“There are obviously a lot of things we need to overcome for VR to become mainstream, but I definitely see this as a big form of storytelling in the future,” Jessica Yu, global head of visuals at The Wall Street Journal, told me. “I’m not going to pretend I know that this is the future of journalism, but it offers another new dimension to storytelling and presenting information, and people should be as excited about it as when, say, video first arrived.”
To play (and play around with) the Sarah Lane video, Journal readers can access the 360-degree video player within the Journal’s main apps for iOS and Android without any extra equipment. As Lane speaks on her experience preparing for her show, viewers can move their phones left and right or up and down to see the complete environment of Lane’s practice studio, the makeup room, and even the Lincoln stage. The same player is available on the main Journal website without special equipment required.
Those with access to virtual reality viewers like an Oculus or Samsung Gear headset have the option to go deeper into the piece’s VR features.
VR still has a sci-fi ring to it, a luxury best enjoyed with expensive equipment, and it’s hard to imagine most Journal readers champing at the bit for this type of immersive experience.
The New York Times is trying to lower the barrier of entry by shipping the low-cost VR viewer Google Cardboard to its subscribers. The Journal wanted to make its videos more accessible by building out a 360-degree player in-house and embedding the video directly into its main app. (The ballet piece is also not behind its paywall.) For the launch of this particular piece, the Journal also went with streaming the video (wifi required; a slow connection is a limiting factor), as opposed to requiring an upfront download.
The 360-degree mobile player used in the Sarah Lane piece took about two months to develop. The Journal had experimented with virtual reality and mobile 360 before back in April with its NASDAQ “rollercoaster” interactive, though that was a slightly simpler project than rendering a video with a huge file size. (Roger Kenny, an interactive designer at the Journal, wrote a complete guide for Storybench on how to build this type of VR visualization.)
“We had gone through all the options that other news organizations probably also went through — should we partner with someone to do this, or should we not?” Yu said. “Ultimately, we decided we wanted to put something in our flagship app so that our readers would have an easier time.”VR is an emerging technology, and figuring out the best use of it in journalism has been a work in progress. Last month, CNN broadcast the Democratic debate in virtual reality, but many of those lucky enough to try it out with their Samsung Gear VR headsets found the experience physically uncomfortable and more than a little boring.
“There were definitely a lot of challenges,” Yu told me, laughing a little, when I asked her what the Journal learned from its first foray into full-blown VR. “I would advise anyone who is going into this to not try to bite off more than you can chew. For this piece, we chose a subject who was already in New York, who was still a captivating figure, without going too far afield when testing this new technology.” (The “far afield” is on its way soon though, Yu assured me.)
The Sarah Lane piece was filmed over several visits this summer and put together almost entirely by a single video journalist, Jarrard Cole, using a bunch of GoPro cameras. In addition to practical issues (where to charge camera batteries?), shooting video for a 360-degree experience presented a whole new set of questions, since the video had to be stitched together.
“Not only do you have to figure out how best to tell the story, whether that’s cutting from person to person, how to set up a scene, how to express different transitions — you also had to figure out how to handle things like voiceover, text, the storytelling language, everything,” Yu said.
Can VR become more than a gimmick or a chance to make a big-but-short-lived splash? The Journal believes so, and is planning to open source its in-app VR technology by the end of the year in hopes that other developers will improve upon it.
“Beyond aficionados, VR and videospheres are pretty new and unknown for most people,” the Journal’s executive editor for mobile David Ho said. “I believe what we’re doing will change that. Our open source approach to the native app VR tech that our team built will make it much easier for other news organizations to experiment with this.”
Ho also has faith that the widespread use of smartphones will speed adoption of VR along.
“Smartphones make it possible to bring these special experiences to people on devices they already have,” he said. “The experiences will get better and more commonplace as networks speed up and phones get more powerful.”
Both Ho and Yu believe VR can deliver an added “sense of wonder” and a “physical, visceral reaction” to viewers. (There are studies, Yu pointed out to me, that explore how VR might help people develop greater empathy.)
“What you’re seeing right now from everyone, including us, is a lot of experimentation,” Yu said. “I think what every news organization wants at the end of the day is for a story to arrive in an email inbox or somewhere, and the reader can click on it and it will play immediately and easily in brilliant high definition with all the functionality one would want, regardless of whether that person is on Android, iOS, desktop, or using [Google] Cardboard. We’re not quite there yet, but that’s where we want to go.”
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