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March 13, 2016, 3 p.m.
Reporting & Production
LINK:  ➚   |   Posted by: Joseph Lichterman   |   March 13, 2016

A report out Sunday from the Knight Foundation and the USA Today Network says 2016 is shaping up to be a significant year for virtual reality journalism as more outlets continue to experiment with VR as they recognize its enormous potential, even though there are concerns over the format’s longterm viability.

“While there is general optimism among current VR content creators that use of the medium in journalism will expand, many concerns and open questions remain,” the report says. “They are primarily focused on the burden of production, accessibility of headsets and quality of content. They also include whether people’s news consumption habits will embrace immersive behavior and how to track ad metrics.”

The study was written by writer Patrick Doyle, former Gannett VP of Product Mitch Gelman, and Knight’s VP of learning and impact Sam Gill. Last September, the authors surveyed 10 news organizations who have used VR about their impressions of the technology. Though the results provide some insights into how outlets are thinking about VR, the study cautions that “little to no rigorous audience testing has been conducted, immersive experiences are still nascent and the discussion points below are largely anecdotal and based on early impressions.

Many outlets produced VR stories in recent months. Last fall, The New York Times distributed 1 million Google Cardboard headsets with a Sunday edition of the newspaper, CNN broadcast a presidential debate in VR, and just last week The Washington Post released a 360º interactive that takes users to the surface of Mars. (And it even includes native advertising.)

And users have been blown away with those experiences. “Feedback is characterized by more visceral and emotional reactions,” the report says. “People say that VR brings them closer to the events and breaks down barriers inherently raised by a reporter or correspondent.”

But Niko Chauls, the USA Today Network’s director of applied technology, told the authors that they’re still trying to find the best way to get metrics about VR viewership.

“Anecdotally, people are amazed by the VR experiences we have produced, whether it is landing on a farm in a helicopter or walking the streets of Old Havana,” Chauls said. “But in terms of more empirical metrics, we have learned that the current metrics used for video are not applicable —and that a new range of reporting will be needed.”

Despite generally positive responses from audiences, outlets are still figuring out the best practices for presenting VR content. Many users who watched CNN’s debate coverage in VR found the Samsung Gear VR headsets needed to watch the videos too heavy for a lengthy broadcast. And even when news organizations figure out what works best, the technology is still so new that production process is lengthy, which can be difficult for cash-strapped outlets.

“The technology is not yet production-ready, and postproduction is too slow, but we can start to understand where this approach will offer value,” said Cyrus Saihan, BBC Future Media’s head of business development. “It is very early days for this type of technology.”

Though it’s still early days for VR, an analysis of the market by the data analytics firm Quid that was commissioned by Knight, found that investment in VR is growing. Though much of the investment is around hardware, such as the Oculus Rift, Quid said that “companies focusing on business applications are also receiving significant investment”:

Quid’s analysis found that investors across the board are increasingly active in the space, and much of the activity is trending toward hardware. While investment in many real-world applications of VR has increased in recent years, the most significant investments have followed companies investing in virtual reality hardware. In fact, hardware-related investments have jumped from 14 percent of investment on average in 2012-2014 to 68 percent on average in 2013-2015.

As part of its analysis, Quid found 454 companies that were involved in virtual and augmented reality. Among those companies, Quid “identified 11 major communities.” Generally, they broke down into three categories: “Real-world applications”, which accounted for 54 percent of the market, “Hardware” at 25.5 percent of the market, and “Education and gaming” with 20 percent:


The companies most related to journalism primarily fall into the “RealWorld Applications” theme, according to the
report, and concentrate on interactive content, 3-D content development and augmented photography.
The VR devices, technologies and content community is younger and more consistently funded than other areas, such as business applications, 3-D simulation and gaming, which provided the foundational ground that the new real-world use cases are built upon.

Though are still challenges with virtual reality, there’s plenty of room for continued growth for journalistic purposes as investment continues to flow into the space.

A full version of the report from Knight (Disclosure: Knight also funds Nieman Lab) and the USA Today Network is available here. The paper is being released today in conjunction with a panel at SXSW to discuss Knight-funded virtual reality projects.

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