The year virtual reality becomes reality

“Role up your sleeves, journo industry, because you need to start preparing to lead the next disruption. When it actually hits is nearly irrelevant, because there’s no doubt it will hit.”

Whether you dismiss it as hype or not, the truth is virtual reality technology is coming — and faster than you think. So the biggest challenge the journalism industry faces in 2016 is how can they invest and innovate on an emerging technology that hasn’t gone mainstream yet.

robert-hernandezDo news orgs get in early and risk the tech not working out? Or should they wait and let others define VR journalism and risk being left behind, again? (Think mobile, think social, think blogs, think everything on the Internet…our track record is pretty bad.)

The solution? Why not both?

Role up your sleeves, journo industry, because you need to start preparing to lead the next disruption. When it actually hits is nearly irrelevant, because there’s no doubt it will hit.

Whether you call it virtual, augmented, or mixed reality, this tech is real and it’s coming. So start experimenting what journalism could be on platforms like the Oculus Rift, Samsung Gear VR, Google Cardboard, and many others. And, you don’t have to do it alone. Partner up with institutions like the University of Southern California and other schools that are poised to lead the charge.

My students and I aren’t going to wait for you to be “convinced.” We’re preparing the first drafts of VR/AR/MR journalism today and would love to collaborate. My class has gotten solid experience with 360º video, which is the low-hanging fruit of VR. I went this route because we have the skillset needed to produce these experiences in our newsrooms now, but need time to experiment and find best practices.

Using one of many, many different 360-rig configurations can get any newsroom up and proactively exploring what this type of storytelling can be. Add some stitching software, After Effects, and, of course, basic video editing skills and you’re pretty much at the industry level.

Distribution is still fragmented (cue reference to early days of Internet here), but you can get your projects seen on platforms like YouTube and Facebook, but I recommend checking out newcomers like Vrideo, Kolor Eyes, and more.

That gets you started. And hopefully that gets newsroom leaders to see the potential of true VR, which is a skillset outside of most newsrooms.

Think gaming. 3-D models through Maya or Cinema 4D, ported into Unreal or Unity, are the core requirements. Storytelling through immersive interactivity at this level is new for us, so it makes complete sense to partner up with game designers. There’s a lot of work to be done with this collaboration where new forms of storytelling are yet to be developed, including immersive data visualizations.

A lot of the early projects are going to fail. Some will be gimmicks; others will feel forced. But through these iterations and drafts, we will get close to understanding what journalism will be when it is wearable and immersive.

And we’ll be better prepared for when this technology really does go mainstream. We’ll also be prepared when it goes mobile.

I wrote this last year and I will say it again this year: Magic Leap. They’ve hired some of the best minds across many industries and they know that compelling content is what will make this technology viable.

In fact, most tech companies know that journalism makes for compelling content, so that’s why you’re seeing such a shift into the news game.

We — industry and academia — both have a vested interest in shaping journalism in these emerging spaces, ensuring its ethics and relevancy. While I won’t predict that virtual reality will be in every household, 2016 is the year virtual reality becomes reality. And it’s our year to lead.

Robert Hernandez is an associate professor of professional practice at the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism at the University of Southern California.