#SXSW: The State of Immersive Journalism

It’s been two years since media companies jumped in the pool. Let’s see how we can create effective immersive stories.

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The Oxygen team was at SXSW 2018! We helped our friends from Qwant MUSIC meeting with journalists and key business partners.

Immersive technologies such as virtual reality (VR), augmented reality and mixed reality (MR) are demonstrating opportunities and challenges for the media industry. Here are some key insights from two panel sessions discussing immersive content in journalism that took place at SXSW 2018. 

What technology are we talking about?  

First and foremost, immersive technologies refer to a broad spectrum of technologies ranging from VR, AR to MR, 360° video, photogrammetry and videogrammetry. They all involve different production costs and various types of content features. Here below is a chart intended to clarify these differences.

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According to Gartner, the adoption of a new technology follows a pattern that can be divided into 5 cycles. Regarding VR, Gartner estimates that the tech is already entering stage 4, also known as the “slope of enlightenment”. However, while “the technology is there, the adoption of headsets by consumers so far remains weak”, said Jeremy Gilbert, Director of Strategic Initiative at the Washington Post, continuing “It might take another generation to make the VR experience really common”. Beyond that, more VR content needs to be created to encourage mainstream VR adoption. Nevertheless, AR – which Gartner arguably places in the 3rd cycle - is gaining traction as users can easily access it on mobile.

Media companies have already started making immersive content available for their readers. In 2016, the Guardian entered the space by letting you experiment with the daily life of inmates in 6x9, a virtual experience of solitary confinement. Around the same time, the New York Times began pushing 360° content within a dedicated app called nytvr, which offered users the ability to spend time on the Iraqi battlefield or to walk on a planet located three billion miles away from the sun. Through a partnership with Google in 2016, USA Today generated about 72 videos in 360° within one year for its audience. But how are the audiences engaging with the available content?

A fresh perspective on storytelling

“Great journalism is immersive, making issues more resonant and accessible by bringing audiences to the center of the action”, writes Erica Anderson from the Google News Lab. When technologies such as AR and VR meet journalism and transform traditional linear storytelling, individuals are given even “more control over how and when they consume stories,” Jeremy Gilbert explained. According to research conducted by Google News Lab, immersive content was able to intensify the connection between the reader and the story itself. Moreover, it was reportedly conveying an “emotional authenticity” to the storytelling.  

Can all types of content be a potential candidate for VR & AR?

Not every single news is necessarily intended to be told in VR or AR. Content such as breaking news or news that is particularly time sensitive aren’t good fits for immersive technologies. “The further from the news, the better for VR we could say,” argued Steve Raymond, CEO of 8i. Conversely, perfect candidates for immersive storytelling are educational and instructional content, historical and civic information. “The ability to take people to places that are hardly or even not accessible in real life”, as Erica Anderson explained works very well with these disruptive technologies.  

Beyond that, dealing with immersive storytelling doesn’t mean your entire story has to be told in VR or AR. It could only represent a small portion of it. Indeed, Jeremy Gilbert advised the journalist crowd to identify the details and any truly compelling moments that can most beneficial with immersive technologies inside a written story. “Not all stories belong to AR, some parts can still remain just text and you have to focus on the details that suit the tech”.  Inside The Washington Post’s main app, they have featured traditional text-based stories that include a portion of AR content. Gilbert recalled providing immersive content within a piece on the Elbphilharmonie in Hamburg, well-known for its special architecture and interior acoustic design. Indeed, the walls of the concert space are entirely covered with about 10,000 gypsum-fiber panels designed to disperse sound in a unique way. The Washington Post shared a piece about the Elbphilharmonie that contained an AR interaction that focused on the technical aspects of the building. As the user points their phone camera on whatever room’s ceiling he or she is located in, he or she can see how the sound flows and can receive some explanations about the acoustic process.

Finally, the development of immersive content takes time. “Ideally find a story that you don’t have to publish instantly. It took us 6 to 8 weeks to work on the Hamburger Philharmony project,” Gilbert outlined.

AR content generated by the Washington Post to tell you all about the Elbphilharmonie in Hamburg. (Source:  Washington Post )

AR content generated by the Washington Post to tell you all about the Elbphilharmonie in Hamburg. (Source: Washington Post)

3 years from now, what to expect

Within the space, the pace of innovation is going to speed up. Phones will be better armed to handle AR and VR capabilities. Beyond that, VR supporting devices – starting with the head mounted display -  will become cheaper and smaller. What’s more, “live streaming in 360 should be available to consumers three years from now”, said Ray Soto, Director of Emerging Trends at USA Today Network. Joey Marburger, Director of Product at The Washington Post also sees AR eyewear emerging in the same timeframe (Google reportedly published a patent for AR contact lenses).

According to Sarah Hill, CEO of StoryUP, displays with embedded sensors measuring biometrics could also emerge in order to monitor physical and emotional reactions to immersive content for the sake of improved user recommendations. On a similar note, Steven King, former Editor for The Washington Post and now Assistant Professor at the University of California’s School of Media and Journalism, expects products combining artificial intelligence and immersive technologies to hit the market within the coming years.

“Information is experiential”, said Erica Anderson, who advocates for VR and AR use among journalists.

Offering the right tools to journalists to play around and to report stories in a way that we can build more immersive experiences for readers are two goals that her work at Google News Lab is pursuing.  

Overall, non-linear and interactive storytelling will be more and more present as technologies are improving. Education efforts on both sides of the value chain - training journalists on the one end and familiarizing the audience with immersive content – will be necessary to drive mass adoption.

 

Links to SXSW sessions:

Reality But Better: Augmenting the World with News

Bringing VR/AR to People Through Immersive News