VR for News: The New Reality?
In the past three years, virtual reality (VR) journalism has emerged from its early experimental phase to become a more integrated part of many newsrooms. At the same time, technological advances have made the medium available to consumers, especially in the form of 360 videos watched on smartphones, sometimes supplemented by a cheap cardboard headset. VR has been compelling both for journalists and for news brands, though some organisations – especially publicly funded broadcasters – have held off on making large investments. Key motivations for those that have invested, for example by launching VR apps to audiences, have been brand innovation credentials and positioning for the future.
The proliferation of content created through experimentation is solving some of the challenges involved in VR/360 storytelling. Journalists and news organisations are devoting more time to thinking about what works in VR, and as a result news VR is expanding beyond its early documentary focus. However, most news organisations admit that there is still not enough ‘good content’ to drive an audience. Most news VR is still actually 360 video rather than fully immersive VR, and is most likely to be viewed on a mobile device used as a ‘magic window’ or in a browser by current audiences. This has made it more accessible to consumers but does not give them the immersive experience delivered by a high-end (and more expensive) headset.
News organisations using VR tend to have a central, often multidisciplinary team to provide editorial leadership and to commission, edit, and publish content, but train journalists across the organisation to film 360 footage. Many news organisations have used partnerships with tech companies such as Google and Samsung to expand their VR operations. But monetisation remains a central challenge for news VR: no one has yet cracked either ad- or subscription-based models for making the technology pay. Major technological challenges remain, particularly around the cost and consumer take-up of headsets. Production costs are still high, though technological developments and cheaper cameras have already lowered the entry point. VR news still has a poor understanding of its audience both in terms of content, content discovery, and attitudes to the technology and hardware.
To deliver the promise of VR for its audiences, the news industry now needs to work together. To ensure the frictionless user experience needed to make VR an appealing mass-market media proposition, the industry must present a united front when lobbying the tech platforms.