Abstract: An introduction
In July, the Google News Lab first coined the term “storyliving” in their ethnographic study on how audiences experience virtual reality (VR), defining it as a medium that “conveys the senses that the viewer is ‘living’ the story as opposed to being told it.” But most news outlets today do the exact opposite: journalists inform the public about how to think instead of presenting information in a way that allows readers to interpret it for themselves, swaying from traditional norms of reporting. In the wake of the internet and social media, it has become increasingly commonplace for breaking news briefings to function more like opinion columns, making it that much more difficult for the public to discern fake news. And as websites masquerade as reputable sources, taking on names that mimic newspapers such as “Daily” or “Tribune,” more and more Americans no longer say they trust journalists, according to a 2016 Gallup poll. And in today’s digital age, plain text articles are no longer interesting enough to capture the general public’s attention, especially when studies have shown that people are reading less and less — either the news or for pleasure — with each passing generation (Ingraham, 2016). Thus, in order for the public to not only regain confidence in journalists to do their jobs well, but to also spark interest in consuming the news again, publications and media companies need to seriously consider exploring new, innovative ways to tell stories. One solution? 360 video. Due to the medium’s intrinsically transparent qualities, it can be argued that 360 video has the ability to combat fake news. As such, this paper will aim to present the case for the permanency of immersive media, specifically 360 video, by examining the characteristics that make it possible for viewers to step into an active participant role of a story and, in a way, become a journalist themselves.
Part I: Where does 360 video fit in?
At the Smithsonian Institution’s National Air and Space Museum, visitors can pay 12 dollars a piece to travel to outerspace — virtually. The first floor of the museum has dedicated a significant amount of room to host a series of interactive motion simulators in a former exhibition hall. Throughout the day, the large mechanics jerk attendees back and forth like a rollercoaster, emulating either a rocketship taking off from the ground or a World War I triplane encountering an enemy pilot in the sky. Flight simulators have long been used to train upcoming pilots and are an example of an early, successful use of virtual reality (VR) technology. The museum’s latest investment, the VR Transporter, transforms museumgoers into astronauts by providing a first-person perspective of what a space walk feels like. Created by Pulseworks, an immersive production company based in Atlanta, the simulator “connects users directly with content inside a three-dimensional space” so that “rather than simply watching a movie, users can change their perspective, explore and have their own unique experience,” according to a press release (Paulson, 2017). Guests, with goggle-like headsets strapped to their heads, have often been spotted “ooo-ing” and “aww-ing,” and have even attempted to “try to reach out and touch objects as they pass by” (Paulson, 2017). This interactivity is one of the many examples as to why VR is in such high-demand right now across all industries ranging from education to entertainment to journalism: it’s an intimate, immersive experience that feels real.
Rides aren’t the Smithsonian’s only use of VR, however. Jim Walker, the museum’s part-time panoramic photographer, has spent months capturing the National Air and Space Museum’s objects in 360 degrees with one DSLR camera, a Canon 6D paired with a Sigma 35mm lens, mounted on top a Gigapan robot. The Gigapan is a device that moves Walker’s camera automatically, taking three different shots at different exposure levels to imitate high dynamic range (HDR) photography. What took hours of time to produce has resulted in an interactive map similar to that of Google street views. Those hundreds of photos as a result are then uploaded into Autopano Giga — a software by Kolor that stitches photos and videos into panoramas by combining “multiple images with overlapping fields of view” (Jenny, 2017) — where Walker has reproduced the entire museum in a static, virtual environment. With their mobile devices alone, viewers will soon have the ability to look around the museum’s rooms, similar to that of the VR Transporter. And much like being in the physical museum itself, viewers can navigate on their own by pausing their view on red dots set by Walker. Once a user hovers on a red dot long enough, the map is triggered to change locations, providing viewers with the opportunity to decide how they want to travel through the exhibits. And as the museum continues to further its educational mission, Walker’s project provides one solution to the institution’s increased demand of providing experiences beyond the museum walls. “We want to give enough detail for people to answer their own questions,” Walker explained, adding that his files are converted from RAW to DNG in order to retain a resolution higher than most 360 experiences, which are frequently shot in 2K and compressed when uploaded online, according to 360Rize (Kitner, 2017). Other museums are doing and have done similar projects, though, too. Currently, the Smithsonian boasts a large collection of virtual tours, including the Renwick Gallery, the National Portrait Gallery, the National Museum of Natural History, the Museum of the American Indian, the National Postal Museum and the National Museum of American History. People no longer have to travel to Washington, D.C., in order to explore these historical spaces, they can simply click and drag with a mouse on their computer screen from at home instead.
But that’s the core purpose of 360 video — to bring viewers to places they physically cannot go to otherwise. Although most popularly utilized for games and entertainment — think Sony’s PlayStation VR or the 27 films that premiered at Sundance this year — the use of immersive storytelling has also piqued the interest of journalists. Over the past couple of years, since the The New York Times distributed over a million Google Cardboard headsets to showcase their documentary “The Displaced” in 2015 (Doyle, Gelman and Gill, 2016), the technology’s steady development has made it easier to integrate into the newsroom. For example, just this past March CNN became the latest outlet to fully adopt the medium by establishing CNNVR, a department within the cable news network dedicated to providing “live streams of major events” and “weekly virtual reality experience[s]” in 360-degrees (Fogel, 2017). In just a few months, CNN has produced and published 32 different pieces, describing the content as a way to bring their audience “inside the news” as opposed to just telling it. CNNVR’s creation is a part of a larger trend that follows suit with USA Today’s show “Vrtually There”; the Economist’s VR app; The Huffington Posts’ acquisition of RYOT; The New York Times’ NYTVR app and The Daily 360 partnership with Samsung; and Euronews’ use of funding from Google through the Digital News Initiative “to fully integrate 360 into their production workflows” (Watson, 2017). Immersive media, however, isn’t limited to large organizations alone. The McClatchy and E. W. Scripps Companies have been training reporters at their smaller, localized news teams with equipment such as the Ricoh Theta S and Samsung Gear cameras (Socrates, 2017), which are also used by Syracuse University students.
At the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications, students have the opportunity to take hands-on courses in VR and drone journalism workshops that incorporate 360 video through the school’s Innovation Lab (Loughlin, 2017). Professor Ken Harper, who taught 360 journalism last year, often refers to the technology as the “wild, wild west.” At the beginning of his course in the fall of 2016, for example, students were learning how to film with six GoPros held together by a 3D-printed rig, a tool that often fell victim to overheating and syncing disruptions. By the semester’s end, however, Newhouse had acquired more Samsung Gear, Kodak Insta360 and Nikon KeyMission 360 cameras, and even an Omni GoPro rig, that completely altered the class learning objectives. “I think everyone sees this as part of the future,” contended Harper in regards to the medium’s stability, “but we’re still experimenting on the best way to use it” — especially considering both the hardware and software are constantly being updated.
It’s a sentiment that extends beyond the classroom and into the newsroom. Most reporters have yet to establish a concrete way to integrate the technology into their daily workflow, or even follow a consistent format to shoot. At the Daily Freeman, a small newspaper in New York state’s Hudson Valley area, Life Editor Ivan Lajara simply asks his reporters to bring a Ricoh Theta along with them when covering a potentially visual event. “Just set it up, press record and let it go,” he tells them. At the Daily Freeman, reporters wear “multiple hats,” including Lajara. Although a writer for the lifestyle section of the paper, Lajara is also responsible for the website’s content management system in addition to assisting other journalists on how to use innovative storytelling techniques like 360 video through their larger company, Digital First Media. “Our most popular video is me just walking through the snow,” Lajara laughed when explaining the publication’s content creation choices. One of the first 360 videos the Daily Freeman published was of a snowstorm that hit the small town late this winter. The video shows Lajara walking through the streets around the paper’s office and commenting on the weather, holding the camera above his head while doing so.
On YouTube, the series has a total of 844 views. Lajara explained everything they make is for mobile viewing, such as through Facebook, because that’s where their audience is. “I think for our purposes it certainly keep us current,” Lajara ruminated on the reason as to why they continue to publish 360 content. “Everything I’m doing for VR, and anything really, is for the mobile app.” Their Facebook account has published 22 videos since the storm, with the most recent one being on August, 14, attracting over 12,000 views. But the problem isn’t that they need more eyes on their content, it’s that the videos are all as Lajara described: placed in one location, turned on and left alone.
Therein lies the problem — the 360 video journalism market is currently saturated with work like the ones the Daily Freeman produces. It’s beneficial for that specific publication on how the technology is being used, but it’s hindering the medium overall from being utilized to its fullest potential. As the novelty factor begins to wear off, most viewers are no longer interested in what McClatchy videographer Brittany Peterson describes as a “one scene” shot, or the presentation of a single perspective in an environment. “If you can’t provide different perspectives from the one event or if the different perspectives aren’t valuable, then there’s no reason to shoot in 360,” argues Peterson. “We have to be sure to give [viewers] different shots.” Previously, people were excited by these videos simply because it was spherical and something new, Peterson countered. But as the longevity of that type of content begins to die, the ability of 360 video to depict multiple, first person perspectives is beginning to be leveraged as the staunch difference between it and standard video. Newhouse professor Dr. Tamara Makana Chock believes the ability to place someone in another “spatial space” is what makes the medium special. Chock is specifically studying the psychological impact perceived reality can have on a viewer’s attitudes and beliefs, as well as their brain. “We’re hoping that it can increase empathy, you’re literally in someone else’s moccasins and you’re in their perspective,” said Chock. “The more real we find something to be, the more influential it is.” Empathy has long been up for debate in journalism, but good storytelling elicits emotions and is often something documentaries strive for, Chock continued. In the Knight Foundation’s VR report, The New York Times Magazine editor-in-chief Jake Silverstein spoke on this point, citing the powerful emotional response VR elicits as a reason enough to pursue the medium in their newsroom:
We first got interested in virtual reality when we saw a refugee camp film made for the UN. We showed it to some people around the newsroom, and they were just blown away. Hardened editors on the international desk would take off the headset and say, ‘Listen, I’ve edited hundreds of stories about refugees, and I’ve never had an experience like this one’ (Doyle, Gelman and Gill, 2016).
That film was most likely “Clouds Over Sidra,” which was made by the immersive powerhouse Here Be Dragons (formerly Vrse.works) in collaboration with Samsung and commissioned by the United Nations to bring the general public to the frontlines of the Syrian refugee crisis.
Senior advisor Gabo Arora is quoted on Here Be Dragons’ website’s project page saying the film was a way to “to bring citizens’ perspectives into the decision making process” with the goal being to “generate greater empathy and new perspectives on people living in conditions of great vulnerability.” The film features a 12 year old girl who walks viewers through her camp, showing them where she lives, learns and plays. The documentary was so impactful that it generated $3.8 billion at one conference showing: “A UNICEF fundraising program found that one in six people pledged donations after watching the video, twice the normal rate” (Robertson, 2016). And as Chock indicates, the more viewers understand and accept their virtual surroundings, the more real that feels, and the more believable it becomes. In other words, 360 video is more impactful than standard video or text because it tricks your brain into feeling as though you are there.
Furthermore, unlike broadcast, 2D television or online media, 360 video does not have the editing liberties such as cropping out unwanted segments, to pan to another scene, or take detailed and wide angle shots. It doesn’t just capture one moment, it captures a multitude of moments. For example, in standard video you might want to zoom in on a person’s hand holding a melting ice cream cone to emphasize what’s happening, perhaps a particularly hot summer. But in 360 video, anything too close to the camera lens becomes distorted and elongated. Additionally, it will show viewers the consumer’s face, the other people there, where they purchased the ice cream and what the weather is really like that day. Peter Young, manager of the 360/VR News Storytelling Standards Project at San Jose State University, refers to the above phenomena as a journalistic opportunity rather than a problem:
Now all of a sudden the 360 video allows the person to see the focus and the whole environment around the focus. If you’re covering a story about a fight in a middle school playground today, for example … I [will also] see a burnt building, a dilapidated neighborhood, a fire station with the door open. I think it says a lot, right? The trees are kind of flimsy and brown and I’m thinking oh, wow, the story is the kids fighting in the playground, I got that part, but does any of this other stuff add value to or to take away from the story?
To explicate, 360 video cannot lie or hide anything. Although it can certainly introduce questions, it can also lend itself to combating the current fake news climate by capturing all the stories instead of framing it as just one: “I think the biggest thing… that I see with standard video is you have the video creator or editor crafting the entire experience that they want the user to see and hear,” said Peterson about the differences. “Then with 360 video, the user chooses his or her experience,” preventing videographers from relying on old tricks to make a story. When editing and processing 360 video, the technology has yet to fully develop a way to edit in sequences or effects. Instead, creators have to “rely strictly on the amount of natural action that is happening around the camera,” as stated by CNN’s Jason Farkas (Wilkas, 2017). Thus, viewers no longer have to be told by journalists directly what’s happening in the world or in their hometown, but they can feel as though they are investigating stories of their volution, bereft of the media’s influence, which can potentially restore the field’s loss credibility.
And credibility should be a serious concern because journalists are no longer viewed as upholders of the truth by most Americans. A 2016 Gallup poll revealed that the general public’s “trust and confidence in the mass media… has dropped to its lowest level in Gallup polling history” at just 32 percent (Swift, 2016). Starting in 2007, more than half of the country’s population said they no longer had faith in journalists (Swift, 2016). Although that faith has been on a steady decline ever since, 2016 was special in the sense that it witnessed the phrase “fake news” become popularized by social media during the election. “Clickbait” articles, such as “Pizzagate,” “the Pope endorses a presidential candidate,” and “Florida imposes Sharia law,” quickly went viral (Baker, 2017). The internet became a breeding ground of misinformation and fraudulent websites that paraded themselves as verified sources by “follow[ing] design conventions of online news media, with anodyne titles such as ‘Civic Tribune’ and ‘Life Event Web’ to give the semblance of legitimacy” (Hunt, 2016). On a 60 Minutes episode curated by Scott Pelley, one fake reporter, Jestin Coler, admitted in an interview that he purposefully wrote “headlines … to make blood boil” by pushing “people’s buttons on issues such as abortion and Obamacare” in order to make “real money on fake news” (60 Minutes, 2017). The more invasive, aggressive and debatable topics are, the more likely they are to be shared on social media, convoluting feeds: “Analysis by Buzzfeed found that fake news stories drew more shares and engagement during the final three months of the campaign than reports from (for example) The New York Times, the Washington Post and CNN” (Hunt, 2016). But that’s not the only reason as to why fake news dominates the internet, it’s also because of slip-ups made by the aforementioned reputable sources, a factor then president-elect Donald Trump touted during his campaign.
After the media wrongly projected a Hillary Clinton win over Trump in November, fuel was added to the fire, and people jumped to highlight the media’s tendencies to have liberal biases (Franklin and Mullin, 2016). Following the election, Poynter listed out responses from interviews with reporters and media observers about the election miscalculation:
Founder of AllDigitocracy.org said that “too few journalists actually report these days. It’s all about parroting and aggregating what someone else has said or reported. Much of everything now is a rewrite.”
Visiting professor at Ohio University’s E.W. Scripps School of Journalism indicated that “in this election, there were a stunning number of fabricated stories masquerading as legitimate journalism. They constituted a massive volume of civic misinformation that tended to be believed by many who do not understand the importance of news literacy.”
The founding dean of the college of media, communication and information at the University of Colorado Lori Bergen said “citizens who can’t count on government, business, media, science or education aren’t about to trust a pollster or a journalist with the truth of their frustration” (Franklin and Mullin, 2016).
360 video, however, can address all of theses concerns because of its inherent ability to be transparent. For one, 360 video cannot be easily reproduced and requires a substantial amount of editing knowledge to stitch together. Secondly, 360 video — if simply being used for reporting purposes — cannot stage a scene or edit out a message because, as Young said, “with a 360 story you can’t edit in a section without it glaringly showing up in the final version, you can’t sew together two parts and expect them to match up,” largely in part due to stitching lines. Lastly, 360 video is all about perspective and situates the news gatherer in the the shoes of the journalist while simultaneously turning them into the eye-witness of an event. Due to these observations, this paper will provide an in-depth look into how the characteristics of 360 video have a place in the field of journalism as a resource to restore the profession’s credibility. If used correctly and responsibly, 360 video’s user-experience oriented presentation can be capitalized by journalists to provide legitimate accounts where the technique is applicable.
Steve Johnson, creator of the communications production company Boundless, makes a good point on why 360 video needs be taken seriously as the future of the field:
Journalism missed the boat on the internet, journalism missed the boat on classified ads online with cragislist — even though they had the opportunity to buy craigslist — journalism missed the boat on mobile app [and] missed out on payment of digital subscriptions; and journalism missed the boat when it came to capitalizing on social networks…. I put every penny that my company had into investing in 360 video and it’s paid off tenfold.
Although journalism is often described as a dying field from those who don’t reside within it, 360 video could revitalize it to the point that it thrives instead of flounders. Part of getting there, however, is simply recognizing the fact that people no longer enjoy reading, especially younger generations. A Pew Research Center poll discovered “people age 18–34 are consistently less knowledgeable about current events than their elders” (Rogers, 2017) and the National Endowment for the Arts reported less than half of US adults read literary works for pleasure (Ingraham, 2016). Thus, instead of falling behind again by refusing or delaying to adopt new technologies, journalism should listen this time about what the public wants — Business Insider reported “63 percent of US consumers who’ve tried an immersive experience say it’s the next big thing, according to a YuMe study” (Mortensen, 2017). There’s already proof that 360 video makes a difference to people’s imagination and opinions, getting them to act. Visualise, a London-based VR and 360 video production studio, reported on their wesbite that their project “Try Before You Fly” — a 360 video depicting “the perfect day for a tourist in New York, including a helicopter ride over Manhattan” — generated a 190 percent increase in sales (Stuart, 2017). In that same vein, their video for The British Army resulted in a 66 percent increase in recruits after providing a first person, immersive experience of “climbing, tank diving, parachuting and even combat training” with Samsung Gears (Stuart, 2017). Furthermore, the Knight Foundation’s 2016 report on VR journalism states “early tests of experiences have yielded deeper, more immersive stories that people enjoy and stay with longer than a traditional video or article” (Doyle, Gelman and Gill, 2016). Therefore, it can be safely assumed that the fascination and impact of a 360 video can be just as interesting as a clickbait headline, a forged video, or a fabricated fact guised as truth.
Part II: What is immersive media?
Unlike standard video, however, 360 lacks a well-defined and extensive vocabulary to not only describe its shooting and editing techniques, but as a medium overall. For example, in the summer of 2016, Vrse.works announced their rebranding to Here Be Dragons. Co-founder of the studio, Patrick Milling Smith, explained the reasoning behind the name change as a result of every other company also including VR in their title. “Who knows if that’s even what we will call this medium in a few years?” Smith posed. “We found a name that felt like it encapsulated the spirit and the nature of exploration within the company” (Heule, 2016). Chris Milk, the studio’s other founder, explained further that Here Be Dragons was a phrase that denoted “for the first time in nearly a century, we now face a similar uncharted territory at the birth of a new medium; a completely unexplored frontier for storytelling, communication and human connection” (Heule, 2016). And Blake Montgomery, a freelance 360 videographer based in the greater Los Angeles area, is already experiencing the confusion surrounding the language’s permeability. A specialist in what he prefers to call immersive media, Montgomery often has to differentiate between VR and 360 with his clients. “I don’t like either term and I think the term that should be used is just immersive media,” contended Montgomery. “360 implies there’s no interactivity… and VR is not in terms of just [CGI] either. I definitely use them interchangeably and a lot of people use them interchangeably.” But referring to 360 video as a subset of VR can create an issue of miscommunication. Simeon Moses, a 360 and VR producer at Wormhole VR, notes there are still plenty of discrepancies among the community about how to best define each method, but in his opinion: “360 videos are filmed with 360 cameras, VR is an experience offering at least 3 degrees of freedom… which is looking around and moving around in [a] space… and usually VR allows for interactive engagement with [an] immersive environment.” Most 360 videos currently, however, are working towards going beyond a visual experience. Strong, high quality audio is becoming just as important as high resolution and some studios are even experimenting with other senses, such as taste, smell and touch. Sensiks, a startup based in the Netherlands, is currently creating and selling what they refer to as sensory reality (SR) pods. Founder Fred Galstaun was quoted in a Wareable article discussing the intentions behind the invention:
Real life… is always full sensory and 360. Even a small cool breeze on the skin sets off the brain in ways you cannot even imagine. Within a closed controlled environment where all the senses, including audio-visual, are made 360, there is no difference for the brain anymore between real and fake. It has become reality.… (May, 2017).
In this way, anything that evokes one of the senses in an environment portrayed through a screen could be referred to as immersive, which is already defined on dictionary.com as an adjective “noting or relating to digital technology or images that actively engage one’s senses and may create an altered mental state,” where as being immersed in something is simply defined as “to involve deeply” or “to absorb.” This is an aspect that professor at the University of North Carolina’s School of Media and Journalism, Steven King, is researching.
King has worked on multiple 360 video projects but is now looking beyond narrative storytelling and into the future. One of the experiences King is developing is an interview that will allow the viewer to pose their questions and receive answers immediately in real time. “I’m trying to solve new problems, so right now I’m working on interactive 360 video, such as how do we let people choose the questions they want to ask?” said King. “We can’t just give someone this wide view and think they’re going to get what they need from it. We have to find ways to direct them…. I have to find a way to communicate to you what to see when it’s in 360 video.” In other words, King is trying to even further personalise a viewer’s experience, which will make it that much more immersive.
Will Cherry, an operations production assistant at Here Be Dragons, says it’s hard to define a technology that’s “constantly changing” and is “amorphous on its own.” To make sense of it, Cherry places immersive media at the end a timeline outlining all forms of visual representation. Cherry says humans have mastered painting, photography, and digital film, so immersive media is the next chapter to tackle:
So right now, as a medium on its own,  is using the work of previous mediums together — sound, picture, interactivity — as the base model to form something new in the way that TV was a combination of picture and radio…. We use the word ‘experiences’ more than anything else (Cherry, 2017).
In fact, Here Be Dragons now refers to itself as “an experience studio,” rather than a VR or 360 one. And just this past June, YouTube made the decision to redefine that experience by providing 180 degree video formats as an upload option in addition to 360 after Google’s research disclosed findings that the majority of people spend 75 percent of their time looking at only the front 90 degrees of a video (Cherry, 2017). But Cherry argues this isn’t because people don’t like the technology, it’s simply that they aren’t used to it yet. For example, the public has only ever known how to consume media through a flat screen, whereas spherical video is unfamiliar and confusing. “I usually have to tell people to turn around,” said Cherry, when talking about hosting an experience. He also disputed how flat videos have a tendency to be boring and that the more viewers ingest 360, the more willing they will be to explore it fully:
Television also baffled people when it first came out. The idea that at the movies you’d go and see a giant screen that’s projected through film, people sort of got that, but then when it comes through a small box with electronics, that’s like microwave level of creepy.
And headsets are now even creepier than that, apparently, because it echoes the general opinion people have about immersive experiences today.
But the concept of VR is anything but new. It first materialized in the 1960s and later again in the 1980s in correlation with the personal computer’s growth in popularity (Schnipper, 2016). Throughout the 1960s, varying forms of VR with varying purposes were produced, laying the foundational groundwork of the medium: filmmaker Mort Heilig patented the “Sensorama, an arcade-style cabinet with a 3D display, vibrating seat, and scent producer;” military engineer Thomas Furness designed “a new generation of flight simulators;” and artist Myron Krueger coined the term artificial reality (AR) by creating immersive art experiences where people could interact with computers (Schnipper, 2014). By the 1990s, however, VR found its niche with the military and fell completely under the radar until 2012 when Nonny de la Peña premiered her immersive documentary “Hunger in LA” at Sundance (Knoepp, 2017). Her intern, Palmer Luckey, created a headset prototype to watch the story in and, soonafter, released it as the Oculus Rift (Knoepp, 2017). Two years later, when Facebook acquired the technology, immersive stories began popping up everywhere. In fact, the Columbia Journal Review (CJR) predicted what it called “full-body journalism” as the way of the future (Polgreen, 2014). And, in a way, 360 video was a result of this series of events that catalyzed VR’s rebirth and it found its place in journalistic documentaries. This was most likely because the images were real as opposed to computer-generated, and as CJR later points out in that article, creating 3D characters or 3D environments wasn’t as impactful when “telling a realistic story” (Polgreen, 2014).
360 video, then, isn’t exactly VR. It’s just a “flat ultra-fisheye video” that, projected onto a flat surface such as a headset or phone, enables viewers to swivel left and right and up and down from one position (Coyne, 2016). Unlike VR, you can’t move through a 360 degree video, such as forward and backward, you can only move in a stationary circle. Still, as 360 video continues to evolve beyond a visual experience and incorporates other sensory experiences, Montgomery believes it becomes more immersive than anything else on the market for journalism. In which case, both 360 video and VR fit under the larger umbrella category of immersive media, which would also hold AR and SR.
Part III: How is immersive media being used in journalism?
If journalists have been experimenting with 360 video since 2012 to tell documentary-driven stories, why has it yet to catch on and be a part of every newsroom? For most reporters, it’s because filming and editing takes time, money, and a lot of computer memory — and how to do all of the above is constantly changing. As Lajara mentioned, if the Daily Freeman were to invest in GoPros, or other higher-end cameras, they would also have to have to invest in a new computer system capable of storing those files and housing the software in which to edit, render and create videos. As such, most 360 content that has been produced over the past year by journalists have been evergreen or complementary to a written story. Even the award-winning documentary “The Displaced” was published in conjunction with an article. To this day, most videos don’t have a narrative at all. The Daily 360, for example — which over the course of a year has published a 360 video everyday — is normally just a scene or a single moment of something visually stimulating. “We’re looking at an experience that we jokingly call ‘meditative VR,’” editor Sam Dolnick said in a Nieman Lab article describing the project. “These are single-shot, no-cuts videos of some beautiful place… you’re just there. And you look around. There’s no story, there’s nothing happening” (Bilton, 2016). Nonetheless, the majority of journalists interviewed for this paper cited The Daily 360 as a source of inspiration and awe due to the sheer volume of content they created so quickly.
In comparison, The Washington Post outsourced a 360 video for a travel piece about the Galapagos Islands last summer through UNC that took roughly four months from start to finish (Callahan, 2017). The article, “Out of the blue,” was a mixed reality experience that incorporated text, stills, maps and video into a single web page meant to be viewed either on a mobile phone or desktop, not a headset. King was brought on to produce the project along with videographers Jay Heinz and Patrick Davison. The team worked with The Washington Post’s writer, Andrea Sachs, before going to shoot. They went into the project knowing how they wanted it to appear to the audience first. “We weren’t trying to do a traditional, six minute narrative piece,” explained King. “We decided to let the article carry you from piece to piece. So that was a conscious decision from the beginning to not fake the narrative from one piece to the next.” In a sense, standard video frequently pushes a forced narrative in order to jump from scene to scene. Instead of doing that, the team chose to have the visual components of 360 video and panoramas adorn Sachs’ story, fleshing it out and making it complete.
Although the project utilized a variety of media, there was a heightened importance on the story most of all. Matt Callahan, a travel section designer at the time and now a part of the presentation team at The Washington Post, was in charge of developing a format to house the 360 degree experience. The goal, which was figuring out how to “make [it] into a cohesive project,” was to design the best way to “tell a compelling narrative all the while marrying these incredible stills and 360 video,” said Callahan. The most challenging part, however, was deciding which type of format for the web page would work best for showing off the video, especially with the technical limitations it presented. Although The Washington Post made a last minute decision to use YouTube instead of create their own video player for consistency and reliability, Callahan emphasized that the most critical part of the experience was the story component. “As you’re trying new things or technologies, one of the most important things is to strip it down to the basics and having a reason to do every single piece,” said Callahan. “I think that to me is what helps enhance and make a better, more compelling story.” Technology performance, however, was still a big part of that — if the video player wasn’t going to work, then there was no reason to incorporate the immersive component in the first place because, as Callahan reasons, “the experience is then broken for that user” and will ruin every experience that occurs after it. Similarly, one bad 360 experience may turn people off to trying another. But the videos wouldn’t have been able to stand alone without the article, they wouldn’t have made sense because they would have been “meditative VR,” which isn’t exactly journalism.
As of August, 2017, having videos like the ones featured in “Out of the blue” no longer seem to hold weight. Since its initial publication, The Washington Post only used the format one other time to cover The Olympics in Rio. In fact, The Washington Post has yet to fully commit resources for their reporters to join the immersive media bandwagon. Dalton Bennett, a videographer for The Washington Post, had a stint doing 360 video. “In a newsroom there were some issues with it,” Bennet explained, although he also emphasized being an advocate for innovative storytelling. “I think it was mostly just the turnaround… the Orlando piece I did, that took six days to produce because there were so many technological problems. It’s not terribly useful for a breaking news environment, it’s better for a longer form piece.” And as of right now, most 360 videos are doing just that — they’re focusing on more in-depth reporting rather than trying to keep up with the daily news cycle simply because it’s too fast.
As one example on how to deal with the issue of quick turnarounds, USA Today opted to establish a television show. “Vrtually There” is a weekly series that is published “three different segments each week for a 12 week period” on their app and YouTube page, as described by assistant digital video producer Daryl Bjoraas. Bjoraas works on the both the show’s production and post-production side, recalling the season as a collection of “amazing adventures, extreme nature, sport fantasies and the world’s most fascinating people.” For Bjoraas, this is loosely compressed into the theme of “action and adventure,” which translates into stories covering topics such as surfing, paragliding and skydiving. “360 video is suited for all kinds of stories — longform, depth, investigative — but we mostly focus on fun,” Bjoraas informed. However, Bjoraas argues this doesn’t mean that USA Today’s content is inferior to other news outlets, but rather that they’re still looking into which videos work and which don’t:
I’m working on one about MMA right now and yeah, it’s good footage to watch people beat the crap out of each other and move around real fast, but there still has to be a character, so we’re focused on one character, one fighter, [and] he’s telling his story. So there still has to be a strong story component to , it all isn’t just waterfalls and rainbows.
The second season expanded on the first season’s use of text on the screen to narrate. “Vrtually There” is now focusing on audio, making it that much more immersive. Thus, although USA Today’s work may not be as hard hitting or emotionally gripping like the mini documentaries produced by VR and 360 production studios, it is just as important to note that the company is still generating attention and engagement with users. “It’s not growing as fast as those of us in the space would like,” Bjoraas admitted. “But there have been bits of progress. Like last month, three of the top ten social videos that USA Today had [in June] were VR…. they click well, they click very well, and I think there’s some staying power based on that data.” Despite this support, Bjoraas is still waiting for the answer to the question as to whether or not the medium is really going to catch up and become mainstream.
For Boundless, Johnson has already answered that question: 360 video very much so is here to stay. Boundless is one example as to how the medium can progress from just showcasing interesting environments to generating provocative journalism. “It’s kind’ve my personal quest to scream at people who basically just say this is a gimmick or a fad,” said Johnson, his tone equally humorous as it was serious. “It’s not going to replace someone with a camera filming every single day, you can’t cover a city commission meeting with 360 video, it’s just not interesting, it’s boring.” In fact, Johnson’s company is creating just as much flat video as they are immersive content. “Do you actually want to hold your audience member by the hand and take them to a place and have them sit there?” Johnson asks his clients. “And sometimes the answer is no, sometimes we can do it much better with traditional cinematography and film work.” And that’s the difference — being able to recognize what medium a story is best suited for instead of making 360 video for the sake of looking tech savvy. For example, most people come to Johnson without a good enough reason to bring the viewer into a scene or place, which is a phenomenon Johnson sees happening across the industry. Boundless has brought people inside of glaciers and were the first to cover breaking news on wildfires, all while being careful not to turn the experiences into PR pieces. For the team at Boundless, 360 video is different because “all of these thing that we’ve done with traditional filmmaking over the past 100 years goes away with 360…. We saw a big opportunity for basically rewriting the books on narrative storytelling and so we dove in.” And Johnson has been perfecting his craft ever since.
Johnson has partnered with multiple universities, has lead ten workshops, and is currently working on three different research studies analyzing the way audiences interact with different narrative techniques presented in 360 video. Two years ago Johnson filmed a video for the Weather Channel travelling through the Florida Everglades on an airboat, but there was no narrative, no story. Johnson’s no longer doing videos like that, “I’m actually doing less projects now, [but] they’re larger projects. So instead of doing 30 videos for the Weather Channel, I’m now doing six, but those six are much larger: they have a narrative, there’s an experience built on.” And that experience is what makes 360 video different and is an opportunity for journalists to engage more with their audience.
Johnson believes 360 video can aid journalists in reconnecting with their surrounding communities. As of right now, the majority of interactions people have with journalists is “when something bad happens,” such as when a tornado rips through their town, and oftentimes spectators are left feeling as though they were misquoted. “But when you’re doing something like 360 video you can’t really lie with your pictures,” says Johnson. He adds that people have been altering content in their favor forever, mentioning that even cavemen painted the animals they hunted larger than they really were to more or less show off or, as Johnson puts it, craft the story in their favor. This same mentality leaks into journalism — there is such tremendous pressure to find a story or keep up with the news cycle by having to constantly churn out content, that the quality is abandoned, leaving the majority of narratives either forced to be newsworthy or aggregated. But with 360 video, the perspective cannot fully be controlled. “We can lie with pictures, you can use different lenses, different focal lengths, focus on different things — I can make you look 300 pounds or 150 pounds depending on how I photograph you…. You can’t alter the content with 360 video, it is what it is, you’re just standing there.” The only way editors can make viewers look around is through sensory cues, such as audio — which can indicate which direction to look in directly or have the sound of something happen outside of the first 90 degrees — and visual indicators such as when someone runs by, the viewer follows where they go, where the action goes. And those are the kinds of things, though, that prevent an experience from being boring, from simply standing in a room in 360 degrees. It shows that crafting a narrative or an experience becomes imperative to an interesting 360 video.
Part IV: How can immersive media increase credibility?
To reiterate, the argument being made isn’t that 360 video will replace standard video reporting, but rather that it will serve as a viable option due to its ability to both engage and provide the audience with the most visceral experience… a longstanding testament of good journalism. Currently, there are already a few news outlets experimenting with the transparency of 360 video as a way to reinforce their compelling narratives. Ethan Hyman, a photojournalist at the News & Observer in Raleigh, North Carolina, introduced the medium to his newsroom two months ago, but is already recognising the benefits of the medium feeling real to viewers. “One of the best things of 360 more than any other form of reporting is that the journalist is not in there, it’s a first person perspective with the camera,” said Hyman, which “brings you into a story better than other ways of publishing could.” Although just having a 360 video isn’t enough — Hyman realizes that “the technology doesn’t make an interesting story” and that “the ability to be in a situation doesn’t automatically make [a viewer] appreciate it,” but the fact that the publication now has the ability to transport people to places steps up their storytelling game. For Hyman, being able to report with a 360 camera provides him with one more tool in his toolbox and he believes “journalists should have lots of tools” because journalists should always be striving “to connect the viewer with the experience that is happening” in the best way possible. Presently, when a filming 360 video, it is generally accepted as good practice for the videographer or reporter to remove themselves from the composition. Doing so, as Hyman said, creates a feeling of not only being present in the experience, but in a way becoming the journalist themselves — suddenly, the viewer feels as though they are not only a part of the story, but are finding and reporting on that story, an experience that could address an issue raised by Johnson that most people in the US don’t even know how a journalistic piece gets created. It also connects the viewer even more as to what is happening in that virtual environment or, at least, is encouraging them to best understand the scene unfolding and having an easier time of verifying it as true.
Including the journalist in the shot, however, may also offer a sense of authority and integrity. Although it has almost become taboo for the videographer or journalist to be present (if a viewer looks around in the full 360 degrees, they’ll see the reporter just standing there), Ole Krogsgaard, formerly a reporter at Euronews and currently a Google fellow at Eskra Bladet in Copenhagen, makes the case that sometimes the journalist should remain in the scene.