VR not alone

Attending different conferences (e.g. SXSW in Austin, Texas, Re:Publica in Berlin) over the past few months, we've seen many hints that journalism is entering a new reality: Virtual Reality (VR)!

So what is the current state of this development? When talking about potentially utilizing VR for journalistic purposes, allow me to begin with a rather disillusioned aspect: As always, when somebody (read: me) tries to "sell" you something as revolutionary, the concept actually has a long history and is not new in several research fields.

A little history of VR

Especially in the entertainment industry, first VR examples date back to e.g. 1957 when Morton's now famous Sensorama Machine allowed users to watch 3-D motion pictures. But even before the 50s, science fiction authors already explored the subject of using goggles to enter a virtual world. In the 60s, VR technologies were introduced to the US Air Force (in the form of flight simulators) and in the 70s, the Aspen Movie Map was launched, a project at MIT, funded by the ARPA (now DARPA), which allowed users "to take a virtual tour through the city of Aspen, Colorado".

VR History in images: Technical drawing of the Sensorama Machine on the left and an example of the Aspen Movie Map on the right.left: “Sensorama patent fig5” by Morton Heilig – Figure 5 of U.S. Patent #3050870, right: “QADAS” by Walter.bender – Own work.

These are just a few examples of the long history of VR, not to mention philosophical approaches, e.g. touching the concept of reality in Plato's Cave, and the fact that the basic principle of successful storytelling (in any medium) aims at taking users "into a different world".

Taking Gartner's hype cycle into consideration, I guess VR should actually be viewed in a hype circle–starting over and over again. While reading Rheingold's brilliant book "Virtual Reality" from 1992 (!), I realized that all the ideas currently evolving around VR have already been there–for medical, educational, biological, and cultural purposes. So, why is everybody going crazy about it now? What has changed?

Before I'll try to explain, let's have a look at what VR actually means.

  1. A technology-based definition of VR looks like this:
    "Virtual Reality is an alternate world filled with computer-generated images that respond to human movements. These simulated environments are usually visited with the aid of an expensive data suit which features stereophonic video goggles and fiber-optic data gloves".
  2. Others prefer a rather user-based approach, regarding VR as
    "a mediated perception of an environment".

These definitions underline that a VR experience depends on high quality both from the mediated perception of an environment as well as of the computer-generated images or 360 degree panorama shots.

Trinity in VR

This is exactly what's happening right now: the quality of devices, interfaces and the implementation has increased so drastically that this time VR could be more than just a trendy hype with cubic world views. Currently, big companies set the pace. Their investments and R&D activities hint at exciting times that promise ground-breaking VR devices and VR content beyond the gaming industry: Facebook's acquisition of Oculus, Microsoft's Hololens, Samsung's Gear VR, Sony's Project Morpheus and Google's Jump VR ecosystem are proof that there is movement–this time 4real4real.

All of this is happening in a matter of a trinity approach: Three different parallel developments can be observed:

  1. Software is becoming more sophisticated.
  2. Devices are easily accessible.
  3. Storytelling examples expand beyond the gaming industry.

Regarding the software, I guess Unity is currently the number one platform for creating virtual experiences, at least when it comes to computer generated images (CGI). The game engine is primarily used for video game development and now, we can see more and more examples of VR experiences, especially developed for the Oculus Rift. In addition to that, if you want to watch a VR example in a mobile browser, chances are high that it might have been developed in three.js. No matter which software or platform the programmers might pick, in the end, the sheer amount of platforms and asset stores available on the market show the increase in demand and we can expect to see more output in the upcoming months.

The second point is obvious every day: More and more devices have become accessible to end-users. The most prominent (and cheapest) example is the smartphone and Google Cardboard combination. Other prominent goggles right now include Samsung's Galaxy Gear VR, Sony's Project Morpheus, or Durovis' Dive. Another development we can see includes gadgets evolving in combination with goggles, such as the Oculus Touch or Leap Motion. We can only imagine what that means for the next generation of human-computer interfaces.

Examples for VR-Goggles: Google’s simple but effective cardboard version at the top vs. Samsung’s Gear VR at the bottom.

Last but not least, storytelling aspects are also part of the trinity approach, especially in journalism and entertainment. In VR, new ways of storytelling are possible. You can not only watch the news, you can feel the news, according to some. According to the "Godmother of VR", Nonny de la Pena, the technological side is not something we need to be worried about. Rather, the content should be the focus of upcoming discussions.

Early Examples of VR Journalism

Before we all now dive into a discussion on what content probably works best and what to avoid, I encourage you to check out some examples that have been published over the last few months to get an impression on what's being done:

Many open questions

While "Will VR be the next big thing in Journalism?" is probably the biggest question of all, there are many more to ask:

  • What are the benefits of VR?
  • Where does VR add value to journalism?
  • What works and what doesn't work?
  • Where are the limits?

If you know other great examples, want to share your opinion with us (or know some of the answers), let us know via Twitter.

Update: 14/10/2016

Deutsche Welle has been involved in various VR activities since 2015.

360° productions can take viewers to places in Germany they might not have access to. offers 360 videos of well-known places in Germany. Users can visit the Oktoberfest, they can come to Berlin and either check out some architecture, or see where they can go take a walk in the capital.

Deutsche Welle AKADEMIE teamed up with Berlin start-up Vragments, Mediadesign Hochschule and The Center of Investigative Reporting to bring Europe's first VR Journalism Hackathon to Berlin. The participants came up with different prototypes for potential VR stories.

Also, the DW Innovation team has experimented with VR. In cooperation with rbb and Berlin-based companies Lokaler and Vragments, the new Berlin airport BER was created in 3D.

The experiment offered insights into visual interaction concepts in VR. Trying out various camera positions within a VR story and using different visual triggers in a CGI environment allowed us to understand more about specific storytelling techniques in VR. We wanted to use BER as a walkable infographic in which we can navigate the user from one story point to the next. The user is somewhat free to pick when to move forward. However, the exact story points are pre-defined. Because of the complexity of the topic, we decided to use BER VR as an early experiment. It allowed us to see what skills are needed to create CGI stories, we now understand how the workflow of future CGI stories might look like and we view VR not only as a new technology but as a new medium for journalists to tell their stories in.

Also, DW Innovation is involved in testing and evaluating a new VR storytelling tool called Fader. It allows journalists with little or no programming skills to create VR experiences easily and fast.

Author: Linda Rath-Wiggins (@lynda420)

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