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Grappling with Virtual Reality

Posted by on July 5, 2017 | Gear, Media

 In the past few years, VR has rapidly become an accessible medium to work with. No longer an experience tethered only to gaming, VR is being explored by a variety of industries, ranging from healthcare and architecture to crime reconstruction and military training, as well as storytelling by major media outlets.

In November 2015, The New York Times Magazine, in collaboration with Within, published its first VR story, “The Displaced,” about three children displaced by war. The multimedia piece featured photographs by photojournalist Lynsey Addario in the print cover story, and each issue came with a Google Cardboard viewer that placed the viewers in the three young subjects’ lives. The release of Cardboard, the first cheap VR headset to hit the market, made widespread distribution of the story possible; up until then, only more expensive VR headsets like the prototype Oculus Rift were available, greatly limiting the accessibility of VR to the masses.


A still from “The Displaced” / Photo © Imraan Ismail and Ben C. Solomon

A still from “The Displaced” / Photo © Imraan Ismail and Ben C. Solomon

Looking to build on the creative storytelling this medium offers, The New York Times has published more than 20 360-degree films since then, such as the highly successful “The Fight for Falluja.” Describing the story as a “a leap forward for VR journalism,” Jenna Pirog, VR editor at the Times, says the story “takes viewers to the frontlines to experience the war in Iraq firsthand.” Created by Pulitzer Prize-winning video journalist Ben C. Solomon, viewers watch Solomon navigate the war-torn area while listening to his voiceover narration. “[It feels] like viewers are inside his head hearing his innermost thoughts,” Pirog says.


Also looking to connect with audiences in innovative, emotional ways, VICE Media began producing virtual reality stories in 2016. The medium allows the media brand to use its “known style of storytelling,” says VICE design director Adam Mignanelli, “and turn it on its head.”

Though VICE has covered various topics such as the visionaries of VR technology and Olympic sports, Mignanelli sees the power of VR in journalism to foster empathy in a way that traditional media cannot. “[VR allows us to] feel a deeper understanding of the moments we are physically farther away from,” Mignanelli says. “Like many storytellers, we are still experimenting with the possibilities of VR, but if anything, it’s making us even more excited about how we can get our viewers closer to the subjects we care about most and, as always, stay on the right side of history, telling stories that matter.”


Photo © VICE Media

Photo © VICE Media

What stories are most effectively expressed in VR? “The first part of my answer to this question is always: We are still trying to figure that out,” says the Times’ Pirog. But what she has gleaned about the medium is that “a good VR story is one where viewers are present to witness some action that allows their mind to forget where they are, so that they use their intuition and instinct to understand what is going on around them.”

“The worst thing you can do,” says Trent Rohner, one of VICE’s top VR creatives, “is make VR just for the sake of making VR.” VR technology “begs a number of different questions for how we should or could tell a story,” Rohner adds. “What does ‘framing’ a story mean when there literally is no frame and the viewer can see in every direction? Do we need a reporter as our proxy for the event when VR is so immersive it feels like we are actually there?”

These are the kinds of open-ended questions that media outlets like VICE and The New York Times are excitedly lookin    g to answer. As a result, when it comes to assigning VR stories to photographers and filmmakers, “it takes many more conversations about goals for the story” than with traditional storytelling mediums, says Pirog. “It takes research time, as we ask each filmmaker to watch a number of VR films before they even agree to the assignment. And it takes time to allow them to experiment with the camera before they go into the field. A new medium like this requires all new training and new techniques.” Techniques, she notes, for which there is not yet a set of guidelines.

What does the future hold for VR? “The future is wide open,” Pirog says. “We are still waiting to see how and when and why people will watch VR.” Or, as Rohner succinctly puts it: “I’ll let you know when I find out.” 

–Amy Touchette

This article has been excerpted from PDNedu Spring 2017. Read The Innovation Issue in full at digitalmag.pdnedu.com.