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June 28, 2017, 1 p.m.
Reporting & Production
LINK:  ➚   |   Posted by: Ricardo Bilton   |   June 28, 2017

The VR journalism of tomorrow won’t look much like the video and text-based journalism of today.

That’s clear, judging by a new ethnographic study (more on methodology at the bottom of this post) from the Google News Lab that examines how VR’s unique traits will affect how journalists tell stories in the medium. Of interest are how people experience stories in VR, what makes VR storytelling compelling, and how VR as a new medium is going to demand that journalists abandon some existing ways of telling stories. (Meanwhile, a Reuters Institute report from early this year focused on newsrooms’ challenges in integrating VR into storytelling.)

Here are a few highlights from the study (which you can find in full here):

— Effective VR experiences are designed around “storyliving,” not just storytelling. Rather than passive consumers, VR viewers should be active participants in the stories they’re watching. This changes the creation process in profound ways, emphasizing experiences over strict traditional narratives. Consider, for example, The Guardian’s VR project “6×9,” which focused on the experience of living in solitary confinement.

— VR is impressionistic. Viewers often struggle to remember exact details from VR experiences, and instead recall VR experiences as if they’ve lived them — which is to say, imperfectly. This means, says the report, that VR producers should focus on leaving an emotional impact rather than communicating specific pieces of information. This will have a major impact on the kinds of stories that journalists are able to tell in the medium (if they can even tell “stories” at all).

— What makes VR compelling for viewers? Participation, embodiment, and “a sense of total freedom.” In the 36 ethnographic interviews that Google conducted for the report, it found that people are attracted to VR in large part because it exposes them to a wide varsity of new experiences and emotions, letting them create their own experiences, and draw their own conclusions about what they see. “You can go in any direction you want. It’s extremely powerful. You are creating your own world,” said one participant.

— “Shapeshifting” in VR can be a more effective way to help people better understand complex issues. Climate change, despite being a topic unparalleled in its implications, is a hard topic for people to wrap their heads around. Sometimes hard facts are not enough. Research has shown that VR could help make these kinds of complex issues more tangible by, for example, letting viewers embody someone (or perhaps even something) affected by them. VR works best when it plays with perspective.

— Some journalists are going to have a hard time adjusting to VR. When it comes to VR, linear, curated storytelling is out, and the author, as we understand it, is dead. That will be a tough pill to swallow for reporters who have developed their storytelling skills for articles and video. Expect a long adjustment period as journalists (and the companies that employ them) adjust to this new storytelling culture as it develops.

For the study, Google conducted “36 ethnographic interviews” with individuals of different ages, genders, and ethnicities in New York City, Chicago, and the San Francisco Bay Area. Twenty-seven of the people were “‘early adopter consumers’: These interviews lasted between three to three and half hours and were designed to surface insights on consumers’ experiences of the new medium, as well as the desires that drove them to purchase VR technologies, headsets, and systems. In addition to the formal interviews, these consumers played their favorite VR pieces and discussed the benefits the experience provided them. Finally, they were given headsets with specific pieces of VR content to experience onsite (Clouds over Sidra, The New York Times’ Cubs World Series Victory Daily 360, Birdly).” The remaining nine interviews were with “established creators and critics in the fields of VR journalism and entertainment.”

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