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Virtual Reality Journalism on the cusp of mainstream adoption?

Is 2017 the year Virtual Reality (VR) journalism will take off? At a recent event two Norwegian publishers shared their insights and exeriences from working with VR-journalism.

«The most exciting thing about VR is to be able to share the entire experience, not just elements of it,» said Eirik Helland Urke, Head of VR at Norwegian publisher Teknisk Ukeblad (TU), Norway's leading engineering magazine, during his talk on TU, VR- and 360° video at a recent event organised by The Norwegian Online News Association (NONA).

TU has been using VR- and 360° video as part of its journalistic tool box for a few years, and launched a separate VR-section in the summer of 2015 with content adjusted to being viewed with VR-goggles/headsets (though by TU's own account, since so few have this type of equipment yet, the content can also be viewed in a web browser).

Innovation funding from Google’s Digital News Initiative, totalling 300,000 Euros, in 2016 enabled TU to focus on producing more of this type of content, both for editorial and commercial products. All of its journalists have also received training in VR- and 360° video and all have access to equipment for producing it.  

Being a popular engineering magazine, TU finds that some of its most popular VR- and 360° videos are ones that enable the viewer to explore and experience great engineering, be it impressive cruise ships, robots, cars, bridges or seeing the world from amazing airplanes.

«VR requires a whole different mindset,” said Urke, one of Norway’s most innovative multimedia producers and an experienced press photographer. As an example he mentioned how with 360° video you can’t just zoom in, you have to be where it happens, and you can certainly not position yourself at the back of the concert hall. Urke has worked with the 360-format for more that ten years, but it was not until 2015 he felt VR-technology as such was starting to become mature enough for a wider audience.

During his talk, he explained that Samsung Gear View is the camera TU uses the most for VR- and 360° video, while Hero4 is the most advanced such camera the newsroom uses. In addition, he said Nikon is just out with a camera that theoretically is supposed to work for iPhone, but he has found it to be a bit “buggy” - and the fact that it automatically stitches images together can be both an advantage and a disadvantage. 

Urke said VR-journalism is no obvious money making machine in Norway today: “These are still very early days both in terms of audience and production, but the fact that we received funding from Google has allowed us to use more resources to experiment with 360° video and VR.” He explained that TU’s main source of revenue from VR today comes from content marketing.

At The Norwegian Broadcasting Corporation (NRK) they have used VR- and 360 video° in a number of different productions and news settings, which includes such diverse cases as:

  • Using it to explain how the maelstrom worked when introducing a slow-tv production from Saltstraumen, the world's strongest maelstrom (“Saltstraumen minutt for minutt”). An blog post on how NRK worked to produce the documentary can be found here (in Norwegian)
  • Equipping NRK’s foreign correspondent Morten Jentoft with a 360° video camera in Ukraine, where among other things he used it when visiting a woman at the frontline in Makijivka in Ukraine.
  • Using it to convey the feelings of getting back to school on your first school day after a break in a promo for TV-series “Jenter” (“Girls”)

Still “…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 the acting editor of the Norwegian Broadcasting Corporation’s R&D-lab, NRKbeta, concluded in a recent piece for Nieman Journalism Lab, published after his talk on NRK and VR-journalism at the mentioned NONA-meeting (the examples of cases where NRK has used VR and /or 360° video is taken from his NONA-talk).

“…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…”, he wrote. He said that in his opinion, the BBC is far ahead of others here, and highly recommended BBC’s eight tips on producing VR before setting out to do it yourself .

Read Grut’s full piece for Nieman Journalism Lab here.

NONAVRMeetup

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