The first thing you need to know about Virtual Reality (VR) is that it has nothing to do with 360 video. As the movie “Avatar” taught us some years ago, the latter pushes you into a three-dimensional world, where you feel like you’re part of the scene but you’re still stuck into a kind of “bubble” you’re not able to cross. On the other hand, when you put your VR glasses on, you can walk through an “infinite” space as you would normally do. No borders on your way. That’s why VR has been named the forthcoming future of video making and whatever has something to do with: movies, video games, documentaries and, yes, journalism. But putting the excitement aside, what are the next steps to leave the niche behind and make of VR a mainstream tool?
That’s what has been discussed during the “VR Conference for Journalism and Documentary 2017”, organized by the start-up company Vragments on the 22th September in the silent green Kulturquartier in Berlin. The first one to take the floor has been Zillah Watson, a BBC reporter specialized in VR journalism. The news is: «We’re living the “winter period”of VR journalism, but we’ll work it out». In the past three years, this kind of journalism has emerged from its early experimental phase to become a more integrated part of many newrooms. At the same time, technology has played an important role in making the medium available to consumers, even though in the form of 360 videos watched on smartphones, supplemented by a cheap cardboard headset. Zillah showed us how American sheets as New York Times, Wall Street Journal and Guardian have taken part in developing and spreading this brand-new thing. Flying back to Europe, BBC tried to make its mark with the VR report “Calais: Living in the ‘The Jungle’ migrant camp”, which immerges the audience directly into the non-comfort zone to prove what it means to live as a migrant. This could be considered a very useful tool to make people aware of migration issues.
After all, it is no coincidence that the main goal of VR journalism is to improve empathy and meditation: that means the audience is not a spectator anymore, yet it becomes part of the action. Moreover, as confirmed by a recent BBC research on VR impact on audience, it turns out that the volunteering “guinea-pigs” reached a sense of freedom and adventure. It’s something that everybody should experience, except it’s a very expensive tool. «When I asked my chief to strengthen this sector, he told me there was no way to do that», said Zillah. The reason is that monetizing VR means cutting paper and, more in general, the traditional newsmaking machinery. And if one thinks that VR stitching can cost 10,000 $ per minute, that makes sense. But this is not the only cause why VR isn’t ready to become a mainstream tool yet.
«Think about the physical space – continues Zillah -, sitting down on a sofa or lying in bed after a long day is not conducive to an experience which necessitates turning around and looking behind you. Some people, then, were anxious about feeling stupid in front of friends, or self-conscious about their appearance, hair and make-up». Hardware is another point: «If the headsets or the screens of the phone are not well cleaned, this will significantly diminish the quality of the experience, blurring or obscuring the images. The phone must be charged as headsets are often used at the end of the day – after school, college or work, when the phone is low on power. And phone overheating and wifi speed could be possible obstacles too», explains the reporter. And what about content? «We found that much of the content available didn’t add any value over and above consuming the same sort of thing on a TV screen. For the occasion to be worthwhile, the content must be a special experience that could only have been conveyed in VR and not through any other media».