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Publishers peer into a virtual future

Virtual reality technology is emerging from the world of video games to add a potential new dimension to digital news coverage, writes ELIZA GOETZE

“I’m sorry, there’s a dead body in the room,” Los Angeles journalist Nonny De La Peña says. “But you should be able to get an idea.”

Ms De La Peña is producing a work on domestic violence, but it’s no ordinary piece of journalism.

She is showing me a scene from a virtual reality story she and her team of animators have created in collaboration with TED Women and Al Jazeera. It is a real scenario that has been recreated in animation as part of a story about how three women are killed by their intimate partners three times a day in America.

Users who put on a virtual reality (VR) headset view three-dimensional graphics with such a depth of field that they feel as though they are right there in the room; a witness.

The potential of virtual reality technology for media companies is vast, from putting digital subscribers in the middle of a sporting match to being front-and-centre at a crime scene. 

This is not a far-off future concept. Gartner technology research predicts that by 2018 there are going to be 25 million headsets in the market. With the newly Facebook-owned Oculus Rift set to hit retail shelves in early 2016 and a gaggle of competitors likely to follow, VR is approaching critical mass.

At The New York Times digital NewFronts in May the paper announced it had “big plans” in the area, unveiling its first virtual reality film, “Walking The City”, and New York Times Magazine editor Jake Silverstein proclaimed, “we think the journalistic potential of this emerging technology is huge.”

The concept is beginning to spread south.

News Corp Australia head of innovation Mark Drasutis says Fox Sports already places cameras on players kit. “With VR you could live an NRL game,” he offers. “You could replay a Rabbitohs game as if you’re part of the match, or watch the live game from the perspective of a player in the game, and select different views – drone view; fan view.”

Mr Drasutis believes VR will be mainstream within several years. “But you have to think about it in a way that you are ready for it in three years’ time,” he says.

While producing virtual reality content is expensive, like any new technology Mr Drasutis says this will change. “It used to be expensive to build websites, it used to be expensive to build apps, but now it’s not. So it will get down to a level where we’ll be able to deliver immersive experiences.

“When it becomes more achievable is when it becomes relevant to people’s lives. As a customer, you advocate. You use it and you go ‘You’ve got to try this’.

“It will be interesting because consumers will have a new level of control over the content they want to view.”

The Sydney Morning Herald innovation editor Stephen Hutcheon expects barriers to both VR technology and production to fall.

“As soon as it hits the retail shelves, content will explode,” he says. “It’s another platform journalists will have to be aware of and start looking into.

“It will also be driven by advertisers, who will come to publishers and say ‘we want VR to promote our product’, and publishers will adapt to meet that need.”

Putting on a VR headset blocks out all other senses – “a very solitary experience”, Mr Hutcheon says. “VR blocks out the real world so that what you see on the screen is your reality. There is something of a VHS-Beta war brewing between VR and augmented reality, which is not a complete deprivation of other senses.”

He predicts Google will come out swinging with a recalibrated version of Glass, which did not catch on in its first incarnation last year. “I can imagine as technology gets better, the geekiness will disappear and it will become more normal like a pair of sunnies or prescription glasses,” Mr Hutcheon says.

Senior News Corp Australia journalist Trent Dalton, who has previously had his work turned into interactive multimedia pieces on The Australian’s Captivate platform, is thrilled by the prospect of VR.

“The best thing about my job as a writer is stepping into a world and taking the audience there in text form – but I would love the opportunity to report by showing them the image. That’s what you’re trying to do as a writer – immerse people in a space you’re in.”

Captivate was an attempt at three-dimensional storytelling, he said, but VR “could really take it there”.

“I’ve been wanting to do an interactive story around the idea of ‘Secrets’, where you have a man or a woman in a room, and you click on various places on their body or drawers in their bedroom, and it reveals something about their life. Wouldn’t it be amazing to use VR in that situation?”

Los Angeles journalist Nonny De La Peña has produced a number of VR pieces, including on the police shooting of 17-yearold Trayvon Martin in Florida in 2012. Her first work was a tour of Guantanamo Bay built in the game, Second Life. Ms De La Peña’s team has also produced a branded piece for Formula One, immersing viewers in the driver’s seat of the race.

“It was such a hit they asked us to do it again,” she says.

Ms De La Peña and her team take real video, audio and photographs and painstakingly handcode animated videos that are not only realistic but interactive. But software is emerging that can make the process easier and less expensive.

Ahead of a pitch to almost 400 venture capitalists at a conference in Los Angeles to try and turn her small team into a fully-fledged business, Ms De La Peña believes “mainstream media is just starting to come to the table”.

“AP and Google funded an Online News Association grant which we have used. We now have Al Jazeera on board and we’ve got a number of other media partners who are interested.” Virtual reality will one day be considered another medium alongside broadcast, print and radio, she believes.

“We’re just starting.”

Trent Dalton used to think things like VR were part of the distant future – “but really, they’re right now”, he says. “All we need is to get those talented guys who know how to produce it for the readers, and journalists will do what they’ve always done: tell stories,” he says. “VR will deliver them with even more impact.”

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