The possibilities of virtual reality (VR) could change journalism. German media are already experimenting with the new technology.
St Peter’s Square in Rome is still deserted. The rising sun makes the Basilica glow in a golden yellow light. As the view sweeps from right to left, square and arcades fill up; two nuns clad in white stroll past. The report by the Second German Television Service (ZDF) tells at a leisurely pace of one of the most famous places in the world; the makers rely entirely on the radiance of the centuries-old architecture. Not without reason, for the report is being shot with a 360 degree camera. If you download the related app and put on VR glasses, you can not only see the video in 3D but also move your head in every direction and see the corresponding section.
This feeling of being in the midst of things is what makes virtual reality so attractive. Thanks to such videos the viewer can even see places or events that he would probably never visit – steep mountain slopes or dense jungle. The intense sound and overwhelming surround view unfold a much stronger emotional effect than a traditional TV report. It is called immersive journalism – journalism comprising all the senses. The viewer is intended to immerse himself and take part in a 360 degree experience.
“No longer superficial hype”
As early as the 1990s, VR glasses, which cover the entire field of vision, were regarded as the next big trend. But then they never really caught on. Now, with powerful smartphones and mobile internet, their time seems finally to have come. Many German companies are banking on virtual reality and see in it interesting possibilities of application in the areas of entertainment, advertising and advanced training. It was therefore no accident that in September 2016 the fair Digility took place in Cologne, the first trade fair for virtual reality, boasting 70 speakers and more than a thousand visitors. “Virtual reality is no longer superficial hype”, says Arne Ludwig, Chairman of the First German Professional Association for Virtual Reality, which was founded in 2014. “It’s now mainstream.”
There are two reasons why the technology has finally reached the end users. First, there are now videos available for every taste and every interest. Football fans, for instance, can experience the stadium of their favourite club up close in 360 degree films. Travel enthusiasts can be transported to Brazil or India. The German-French cultural channel arte is also experimenting with 360 degree reporting, as is the Süddeutsche Zeitung
Complex screenplays with dozens of variants
But immersion alone by no means exhausts the possibilities of VR. In a 360 degree video, the viewer can turn his head and enjoy the live feeling, but otherwise he remains passive. It is different with “real” VR formats: here the viewer becomes an actor. He moves independently through virtual spaces and can interact with other persons or with objects. This requires both VR glasses and a so-called controller, that is, a control element, which is held in the hand.
Sounds complicated – and it is. Not only the required hardware constitutes a high hurdle; VR journalism that wants to be immersive and interactive at the same time also faces big dramaturgic challenges. To begin with, it demands complex screenplays containing dozens of variants, for every intervention of the viewer in the virtual scenario exerts influence on the further course of the narrative.
Newscast on fictional Mars landing
The Berlin start-up business Trotzkind has already produced such a format. In collaboration with ZDF, Trotzkind developed an interactive newscast for the occasion of the (fictional) Mars landing in 2042. The viewer first sees a futuristic 3D television studio, through which a small spaceship is flying. Then we purportedly switch live to the cockpit. The viewer becomes the co-pilot and in the end must even help the spacecraft to land safely. The VR experiment, which 14 people honed for several months, lasts ten minutes.
So far Mission Mars
has been shown only at events and conferences. It will still be years, perhaps decades, before such formats really change the media landscape. “At the moment it’s still technically very complicated and hardly possible for news stations to construct up-to-the-minute, walk-in, interactive worlds”, explains Trotzkind founder Sven Haeberlein. Nevertheless, he firmly believes in the potential of virtual reality. “The development is far from having reached an end with 360 degree videos.”