Terms like “XR” and “metaverse” are all the rage (again) and have made almost every tech trends list this year. Media producers expect a steady increase in immersive content consumption, business gurus even see a whole new computing platform on the horizon. Time for a quick recap of the medium, its relevance, and its potential – especially with regard to news media organizations.

Let’s start with the alphabet soup. XR is basically a hypernym for augmented reality (AR), mixed reality (MR), and virtual reality (VR), which in turn can be summarized as follows.

AR: Users perceive both their real environment and digital objects/infos projected on top of it. Theoretically, AR starts with a simple head-up display (HUD) and ends with technically sophisticated portal experiences. At the moment, it’s mostly accessed via modern smartphones/tablets, but also via MR glasses (s. below).

MR: Similar to AR, but with more and more complex, often extensively interactive objects that are anchored in the real world (early prime example: HoloAnatomy). MR is usually accessed via MR devices like the Hololens.

VR: Users are completely immersed in a virtual sphere and can no longer perceive their “real” environment. Depending on the definition, VR includes everything from simple 360 degree videos viewed in a headset to complex, technically superior 6DoF games like Half-Life: Alyx. One current, particularly successful VR headset is the Meta Quest 2.

In this context, “immersive” simply means that users fully plunge into another world. It should be noted that sophisticated sound experiences – 3D audio and/our sounds played back at a certain time in a certain place – also count as immersive. (Just for the record: a very compelling text can be immersive, too). Eventually, it’s all about empathy, an engaging experience, a “be there, be them”.
Now the metaverse is defined in many different ways. Wikipedia (DE) speaks of a “collective virtual space created by the convergence of virtually augmented physical reality and physically persistent virtual space – including the sum of all virtual worlds, augmented reality, and the Internet.” In other words, the whole thing could be described as a second, digital/virtual world that is superimposed on the real one (just about anywhere and at any time) – with various advantages and disadvantages. In full bloom, the metaverse would be a drastically expanded, highly complex and endlessly monetizable internet with novel interfaces to the real world. There’s a big bet about virtual products and NFTs which are supposed to drive a new economy decoupled from physical space.

The relevance of XR

Regardless of their practical benefits, XR and metaverse technologies are relevant simply because big tech and the digital media sector have taken massive interest in them. For example, Facebook – now Meta – announced at the end of 2021 that it would invest at least $10 billion in the XR business. Apple is likely to follow suit shortly (e.g. there’s already a lot of talk about the company’s first and really fancy AR/VR headset). Relevant tech services consider 2022 to be a big year for XR and the metaverse. The technology’s already sizable market volume could increase nearly twenty-fold by 2026.

XR in journalism

Apart from these trends, XR has shown the potential to invigorate journalism and provide a certain prestige. Since Nonny De La Pena’s pioneering Hunger in L.A. (released a decade ago), a variety of media organizations have created premium XR experiences:

In the realm of AR, for example, the BBC built Civilisations, an app that offers fascinating interactions with virtual museum artifacts. Springer Nature’s Mission To Mars provides new perspectives on our neighboring planet – and invites users to take a virtual rover for a spin. The Time Magazine’s Inside The Amazon – The Dying Rainforest uses AR  to create awareness for environmental issues. Impressive VR productions include We Wait by the BBC (refugee boats in the Mediterranean), 6×9 by the Guardian (solitary confinement simulation), or Home After War by NowHereMedia (an Iraqi father returns to Fallujah). The New York Times got started in the “assembly line” VR business with its colorful Daily 360 collection. (Another note: While all those productions got quite a bit of attention and good reviews, none of them became a viral hit, mostly due to limited XR infrastructure.)

In addition to expanding the journalistic portfolio, XR is likely to have a noticeable impact on workplace design and workflows – even though headset dominance in editorial or scrum meetings is not to be expected anytime soon. In the medium term, XR technology could be of significance in the planning and organization of media productions. In times of crisis, for example, it’s safer, cheaper and easier to first go on a virtual exploration of remote or dangerous production sites.

AR vs VR, the metaverse – and fundamental concerns

XR experts emphasize that the VR variant will play more of a niche role in the future because “wearing scuba masks” makes you feel “cut off from your surroundings in a way that’s just not natural”. In contrast, “perceptual design” à la AR/MR strongly accommodates human habits, which is why it’s expected to be “at the heart of the metaverse”. One day, it could even usher in a new era of post-screen interfaces.

No matter how it will be accessed in the next couple of years (or decades), the metaverse is a thing, and various brands are already trying to grab a lucrative spot in the virtual sphere. The situation is somewhat similar to the hype surrounding Second Life at the beginning of the century – except this time around, technological advances and massive business incentives could actually make sure the whole thing becomes a real industry. NGOs are therefore already taking a closer look at the issue of human rights in the metaverse.

Nevertheless, critical voices point out that a fully developed metaverse may seem colorful and attractive, but would not solve a single problem for the majority of humanity. Apart from that, technical feasibility is a major issue. Where will the computing power come from? What about the exorbitant use of energy? 

Another aspect is, of course, the comparatively low number (and high price) of fully-fledged XR devices in circulation (i.e. everything that’s not just a phone with basic AR/MR features). The once overhyped startup Magic Leap has apparently sold less than 10.000 units of its avantgarde headset. Microsoft did a lot better with the Hololens, but roughly 500.000 sales isn’t a commercial breakthrough either (and the focus is on B2B markets). According to recent estimates, Meta has set new records by shipping 10 million units of the (relatively affordable) Quest 2 – but compare those stats to the baffling number of 6.6 billion smartphones currently in use around the globe. Also keep in mind the critics who call VR “the rich white kid of technology” who promises a lot, but delivers very little at the end of the day: “The headsets are spiffier and the games are more lucrative, but our minds nevertheless remain collectively un-blown.” And to bring up the question of sustainability again: Are there even enough resources to build billions of headsets? And is that even desirable?

Despite these dampers and concerns, singular or loosely linked XR applications will certainly retain their importance, as there are simply too many intriguing (and reasonable) use cases.

XR at DW

As for DW, the broadcaster recognized the XR trend early on. In fact, the first, rudimentary DW immersive experience was launched almost 20 (!) years ago. More sophisticated pilot projects have followed since 2016. These include:

AR/MR

  • ARticle (AR meets DDJ; prototype; DW Lab project)
  • Hidden Stories (In-situ AR journalism, prototype, GMF Hackathon project)
  • You Draw It (AR meets DDJ meets social media meets gamification; DW Lab Project)

VR

  • Fader/VRappr Stories (interactive WebVR/360 storytelling, Google DNI project)
  • World Heritage 360 (a gamified VR tour of UNESCO world heritage sites; DW Culture and Lifestyle)
  • Little Walter’s Toys (history meets art meets culture; 6DOF interactive VR experience, prototype, DW Kab project)

XR

  • Uighur Sham Trials (XR Scrollytelling, DW News)
  • V4Design (media content recycling for XR use cases, EU project)
  • XR4DRAMA (XR and multimodal data for disaster management and media production planning, EU project)

The list could be extended, and new concepts and proposals are already in the pipeline. However, DW isn’t planning on establishing an XR department or a metaverse task force any time soon. This then might serve as a typical, and rather reliable prospect on the future of XR at news organizations: 

Immersive content and immersive tools will (continue to) play a role in the media diet and in media management, respectively. Innovators will keep an eye on XR; they will experiment, learn about new concepts and technical requirements, refine immersive storytelling. Yet it also seems clear that for now, XR is only one of several focus topics. The era of sustainable and affordable XR headsets is not upon us, and the vast majority of mainstream viewers is much more interested in “flat” (albeit colorful and interactive) content than in the daily XR bulletin, delivered to a virtual room in the metaverse.


Written by: Alexander Plaum
Image: Julien Tromeur