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Virtual Reality Journalism
Living the news

Empathetic Media: VR screen cast demo in FARC guerilla camp
Empathetic Media: VR screen cast demo in FARC guerilla camp | Photo: Youtube

We may experience journalism in an entirely new way in future. 360-degree videos and virtual reality reports allow the audience to dive right into a news story and experience events up close. These new formats are also making inroads in Germany.

The bumpy ride through the jungle comes to an abrupt end when heavily armed soldiers stop the bus and demand to see passengers’ IDs. The Oculus Rift virtual reality glasses catapult viewers right into the middle of the Colombian Civil War. They experience the everyday violence in Colombia in 3D through a virtual reality report created by US-based Empathetic Media. The audience is caught between the two fronts, the military and the guerrillas, goes through military patrols, and sees the lives of poor Colombians forced to turn over their food to the guerrillas.

Through the walk-in pixel world of virtual reality (VR) and 360-degree videos, immersive journalism could revolutionize reporting. It draws the audience right into the action, allowing them to walk through a story.  Viewers adopt different perspectives, sometimes even becoming protagonists who can interact with people and examine objects inside the virtual report.
But how far has VR journalism progressed in Germany? Complex VR reports are time-consuming and expensive, so even fewer dot the German media landscape than in the USA. Still, almost all the large German media houses are now experimenting with 360-degree videos, the entry-level format for immersive journalism. And with good cause, since the public is already way ahead of them: studies estimate that one in three Germans will own VR glasses by 2018.

Stasi interrogation room and deep-sea diving

“Users often experience a ‘wow effect’,” Linda Rath-Wiggins, co-founder and CEO of the Berlin-based Vragments VR start-up, says. “The possibility of enabling people to experience history in a completely different way fascinates me.”  On one recent project, Vragments worked with Deutschlandradio Kultur to design a virtual Stasi (the German Democratic Republic’s secret service and police) interrogation room in which original audio recordings give viewers an almost visceral understanding of psychological torture. Although Rath-Wiggins heard the recordings over and over during production, her experience of the final product was very different: “Entering the virtual space and listening to them there was much more compelling.”

360-degree can also have a big impact on the viewer, and they are less complex and expensive to create than a complete virtual world. 3D video cameras are just a few hundred euros and free tools like Vragments’ Fader software make it easier for journalists to structure stories and integrate them into websites.  Using Fader, they can upload 360-degree videos and photos, add text, and allow the audience to navigate through the story via interactive hotspots. “The medium is available to anyone, even someone with limited resources, time or money,” Rath-Wiggins says. She adds that there has been a lot of interest, especially from students, self-employed photographers and local editors. Broadcasters such as ARTE added immersive journalism to their format portfolio some time ago, and the TV station regularly releases 360-degree videos. Using the ARTE360 app, viewers can explore the underwater world with free divers, for example. Broadcasters ZDF and ARTE are planning a joint project on the Nuba in Sudan for 2018.

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While budgets for virtual reality projects are more generous in the USA, according to ARTE 360/VR project manager Kay Meseberg, Germany is very receptive to immersive reporting. “I am seeing a great deal of enthusiasm. People are excited to start exploring this new technology,” Meseberg says. “The things I see being produced here in Germany, whether by broadcasters like ZDF and ARD, or by newspapers like Die Welt and Süddeutsche Zeitung, can really hold their own.”
VR reporting is much more than just a technical transition. It also requires new narrative forms. Journalists need to engage an audience and direct their gaze in a different way when they are embedded in the story. “Working with this medium means you have to rethink the creative process. A VR screenplay is not at all like a conventional screenplay for a traditional production,” Kay Meseberg says. “You have to be willing to make the shift.” But the VR expert is confident that the new medium is making inroads into German media and will be more prevalent in the near future. “It has spread so quickly in less than three years; it is going to be fascinating to watch it develop,” he says.

A fine line between an empathy machine and voyeurism

Anyone who hopes that virtual reality might function like a kind of “empathy machine” is destined for disappointment though.  Some media experts anticipated that virtually touring the aftermath of an earthquake or experiencing the Colombian Civil War first-hand might give viewers a more compassionate take on the events and even change their attitudes. But VR has its limits. “Being there does not automatically generate empathy, and emotion is not the same thing as empathy,” Ainsley Sutherland, a BuzzFeed Open Lab fellow who has looked into virtual reality and ethics, explains. When Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg used the Facebook Spaces VR application to cheerfully stroll through hurricane-devastated Puerto Rico, there was a huge outcry in the media, because most only saw it as callow voyeurism certainly not empathy.
Still, Linda Rath-Wiggins of Vragments encourages journalists not pass rash judgement on the possible applications of virtual reality. She suggests continuing to explore the limits, formats and narrative styles. “We have to be careful not to burden ourselves with too many rules before we’ve emerged from the experimental phase,” she says. Naturally journalistic ethics and principles of good practice should continue to hold in the VR era. Rath-Wiggins is confident viewers’ relationship to virtual reality will change as they become accustomed to this new form of representation and immersion in at times very dramatic scenarios.