The battle for high-quality VR

“It’s time to acknowledge that your audience does not need to see your every stumble on the way to virtual reality greatness.”

To VR or not to VR — is that the question? Thanks to cheap and accessible technology, almost everyone is planning their first 360° video shoot and VR project. But is it really for everyone — and everything — every time?

stale-grutOver the past few years, the story of journalistic innovation has repeated itself: a new medium, function, or technology appears, and we experiment willingly. VR and 360° video are no different. Google, Facebook and Samsung are all big technology companies pushing it as the next big thing; media companies are enticed to supply their technology with the needed content. The New York Times is now producing a new 360° video every single day in partnership with Samsung.

But just because technology allows your audience to feel like the drinking fountain that Ai Weiwei drinks from — as demonstrated in one of their latest videos — should you do it? Remember that having a 360° camera can give you 359 more ways of making mistakes.

As Mike Isaac points out, technological innovation is often low risk for the tech companies, but a huge risk for publishers. Yet we act as if our lives depend on it. Just replace the technology, and what David Carr famously said upon receiving the first iPad in 2010 is just as apt for VR as we enter 2017: “Is that our bridge to the future? Or, oh wait, it’s a gallows!”

Let’s be honest: VR and 360° video are delightfully tricky. And as we all try to master this new medium, some obvious weaknesses have been uncovered, both in the medium and in us. Is it a waste of our time? What does it really take to make good VR?

After spending countless hours of watching VR and 360° content the last years, it strikes me that too many journalistic endeavors lack the key ingredients of good stories and good storytelling — which is quite an amazing feat for a profession built around the two.

With VR, we need to abandon almost everything we know about traditional media production. This is like video games. Or theatre. You’re now an audio guide at a museum, or Gyro Gearloose’s little helper.

We should use VR and 360° video as an opportunity to return to the core of our business: telling stories that need to be told, and showing places where they unfold in meaningful ways for more people.

It was only last year, when I vicariously joined Alexander Marquardt of ABC News in Syria, that I was convinced this technology could be worthwhile as a tool for journalism.

Ever since, I’ve been chasing a high that seems almost impossible to obtain again. One of the few contenders this year was Ben Solomon and The New York Times’ experience from the front lines in Iraq. It gave me a similar feeling of presence and understanding of the situation.

That initial rush to dive into VR now verges on parody. As more low-quality experiments are created and distributed to the public, the medium loses its power and the media loses its credibility. The story is lost when technology has taken its place.

That is why I would encourage more journalists and media organizations to take a look at how the BBC is approaching VR and 360° experiences. There’s a lot to learn, not just from their final products, but also in their underlying thinking.

Experiencing the story has been at the core of the BBC’s use of VR. They stress presence as a key to success. If you are in a forest, it’s about the wind in the trees, the cracking branches, and the trickling water.

This is not something you watch on TV; it’s something you experience. Something you remember happening to you. As a tool for journalism, to explain situations, stories and places, it could be second to none.

In my opinion, the BBC is far ahead of others here, despite only having released a small number of VR experiences and 360° videos to the public.

One reason is that they started out scrapping two out of three projects. As they went through the steps of figuring out the strengths of the medium before they released anything, the audience only got to see the products that had the requisite quality. With the bar already set high, and the likes of Facebook having hundreds of developers working on raising it higher, it’s time to acknowledge that your audience does not need to see your every stumble on the way to virtual reality greatness.

Notice the basic environment when Sir David Attenborough (who else?) makes you acquainted with a giant dinosaur. But make no mistake: It’s a high quality production with a lot of preparation, RED cameras, and a big crew.

Be sure you read up on their eight tips on producing VR before setting out to do it yourself next year.

They will also let you join refugees aboard a liferaft trying to cross the Mediterranean, in a similar fashion to what Planned Parenthood did when they allowed you to experience a journey to one of its clinics. Experiences like this actually embody the emotional capabilities of the new medium. Another fine example from the cold north is a 360° film on bullying from the Swedish Educational Broadcasting Company.

Thanks to newly found audio tapes, the BBC built a historic VR documentary around a soldier’s recollection of the Easter rebellion in Ireland. You play his part; the essence is that you being present is amplifying your understanding of a subject or a situation — just as Nonny de la Peña has recreated nonfiction narratives in VR for years.

For what its worth: The push from the technology companies will not make 2017 the year of VR, either. VR and 360° video will only go mainstream when people are starting to have great experiences and start to talk to each other about them. That is where journalism should play a pivotal role.

Ståle Grut is the acting editor of the Norwegian Broadcasting Corporation’s R&D-lab, NRKbeta.

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