Publishers discover Virtual Reality as a journalistic tool

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Numerous publishers and broadcasters are working on virtual reality or augmented reality platforms. While most are still only in an experimental phase and are trying to understand what virtual reality could mean for their business, The New York Times has already put substantial resources on this topic. And with the acquisition of Oculus in 2014, Facebook has put itself in the center of the reality of virtual reality.

The New York Times is creating a precedent

The New York Times has built the world’s largest platform for journalistic virtual reality. In an initiative last November, the Times handed out Google Cardboard virtual reality headsets to its 1.3 million Sunday print edition subscribers. More than 600,000 downloads of the corresponding app made this the Times’ most successful app launch. Without the barrier of expensive headsets, this feature is designed to be more accessible to those who haven’t experienced VR, opening it up to a broader audience. In the Times VR app viewers can experience stories as an immersive 360-degree video. For example, you can follow battles Iraqi forces endured to retake Falluja from ISIS or discover the planet Pluto.

While early VR videos were made in conjunction with VRSE, a production company specialized in VR, new videos are created entirely by the Times and its graphic desk. Seeking Pluto’s Frigid Heart is the first production to use computer-generated images instead of live-action video. It is designed to evoke the feeling of actually visiting a new place.

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Virtual reality is still in its early stages according to Sam Dolnick, a virtual reality editor at the Times. But even in this early stage, VR is a powerful journalistic tool.

“A lot of people have referred to virtual reality as an empathy machine. It’s capable of triggering a sense of connection between you as a viewer and the people or the events that are in the film, because you feel as if you’re present.”, says Jake Silverstein, editor of The New York Times Magazine.

Broadcasters and Publishers are trying to understand VR

Fox Sports is giving fans the opportunity to experience college football as if they were actually there. Viewers can watch the entire game in VR through the Fox Sports mobile app. For this immersive sports experience Fox Sports partners up with the VR tech company LiveLike and NextVR. According to Michael Davies, svp of field tech and operations at Fox Sports, VR doesn’t add significantly to costs of a production. This is partly because VR, unlike 3D, doesn’t require operators to be standing by the cameras.

“There are some economies that you can count on with VR. I won’t say it’s cheap, but it makes for a fairly cost-effective production,” said Davies.

The BBC has been experimenting with virtual reality and 360-degree video for over a year. Zillah Watson, editor of the BBC research and development lab has called this a period of “rapid prototyping” to figure out how to deal with storytelling and distribution while the market is still young and developing.

Magazine publisher Condé Nast has created a six-episode VR series called “Invisible”. Condé Nast is betting on virtual reality in the belief that advertisers will follow and get on board; distributing those videos wherever users may see them.

Facebook is eying the dominance in VR

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Earlier in October Mark Zuckerberg did a demo of Facebook’s idea of virtual reality. With the acquisition of Oculus in 2014, Facebook is in a good position to claim a spot in the forefront of VR. There is also a clear business reason behind that purchase. Facebook wants to own VR the way Apple and Google own mobile devices. That means taking control of the technology; hardware and software.

In an interview with Bloomberg Businessweek Zuckerberg pictures future operating systems on the basis of VR and thinks that virtual reality could become the next major computing platform. He wants VR be used for watching sports, making movies, joining conversations around the world, or things no one’s imagined so far.