How USA Today continues to grab a VR slice of America

Tomorrow, the USA Today network will be live streaming the Presidential inauguration in VR and 360-degree formats. With multiple camera angles capturing the historic event at the Capitol, the National Mall and along the parade route, it will be a fully-immersive look at one of America’s most important political days, starting at 9:30amET on USA Today’s YouTube channel.

This is the first VR livestreaming for USA Today and their VRtually There program, which debuted in October 2016 and has reached more than 5 million views over multiple platforms.

This thoughtful experimentation is part and parcel of the effort for the national news organization and company and their continued evolution of the platform. Like others, USA Today is keen to find the appropriate pathways to tell stories. Where USA Today could be unique is in its ability to tell American stories that interest a wide swath of the public. Though strong editorial presence is its main forte, the ability to dig in to the more unique, accessible pieces of American lives and culture can be a natural fit.

To that end, some of the experimentation done in the close to two-and-a-half years places a premium on the “wow” factor of VR and 360-degree technology mixed with American adventure. Fare so far has included parachuting with the US Army Golden Knights, a walk on the moon with NASA, the Vans US Open of Surfing and sailing through an Arizona canyon. At CES, an in-progress experience featuring life on the USS Eisenhower, a new nuclear-powered aircraft carrier, didn’t disappoint in its ability to impress in its scope and scale.

Though all so far are adrenaline-inducing and fit the modus operandi of the technology, the team continues to take a thoughtful approach to what its storytelling future can and should become.

VR still reaching for full potential

Like everyone trudging around the VR world, Niko Chauls, director of emerging technology at USA Today Network and David Hamlin, executive producer of VRtually There, are excited about the prospects of what the platforms can become, but also understand that it is early days.

“It's like saying that when a Model T showed up, cars have arrived,” said Chauls. “We're just on the early stages of this technology, and the capacity and the promise. We don't know yet, but there's still enough meat on the bone for us as filmmakers and creators, I think, to create emotionally satisfying experiences.”

Both are conscious that they are on more of a journey and are realistic about where they stand on the current VR continuum.

“We have a body of knowledge that we have created from our work that we refer to as ‘practices’ because they're not good enough to be called ‘best practices yet,” acknowledged Chauls who cut his teeth in the field for a number of years at Microsoft. “It's amazing what's in there in terms of what you should do and what you shouldn't, but it's the tip of the iceberg.”

Clearly, they feel as though they haven’t yet fully cracked the code on VR, nor do they surmise that others have either.

“I don't know how long it's going to be before VR arrives, before true experts will emerge, but it's not now. Anybody who calls themselves an expert, [walk] away from them because such a thing does not exist in our industry yet because the technology is evolving so quickly, and the mindset of what a good storyteller in VR is yet to be defined,” noted Chauls.

The story is really the thing

For his part, Hamlin, who came to Gannett from National Geographic, sees that the documentary style of which he is accustomed to as a benefit. Additionally, the classic idea of a story’s structure is still crucial but the form, function and interaction is changing to a more self-directed approach.

“The basis of a story, a narrative arc with a beginning, middle, and end, that's not changing,” said Hamlin. “How it's presented and how people arrive at it [is different]. There are traditional controls of a director telling you where to look, whereas now you can explore and interact, and those are different pathways to achieve a beginning, middle, and end. The tools to create the environment in which you are experiencing the story [are changing], but the basis of the story, the fundamentals, are the same.”

Indeed, the CES preview included the commensurate visual and audio might, but also included important story components that made it more interesting. So far, VRtually There’s canon is engaging. But the next logical evolution, especially for a news organization like USA Today, is in getting into an editorial rhythm.

“Through trial and error, mistakes, and some eureka moments or epiphanies here and there, we're going to start chipping away and discovering, ‘Oh, this is a VR story,'" said Hamlin, who has earned three Emmy award wins and nine nominations for his work.

The foundation of the news organization is a big plus. Throw in the continued experience and track record of the team and it is becoming more apparent what actually are appropriate and compelling VR stories. Hamlin’s team is in the mindset of thinking story first, but VR being a close second.

“The thing I say to the team so far is that when you pitch me a story, the first thing I should be thinking is, 'Of course that's a VR story.' Don't pitch me a story about something that could just as easily be effective in a 16:9 screen or a 2D rectangle. We have to be doing stuff that exploits the format,” said Hamlin.

Chauls concurred with the sentiment.

“It's a simple pH test, but the question is ‘Is it better in VR?’ We ask ourselves that, or people who are pitching us. If the answer that we or they can provide is a good one, is robust, and we believe it, then we go ahead, but it's pretty hard to consistently come up with that answer,” said Chauls.

Part of the equation is how, as Chauls put it, “the nexus of journalism and drama” meet. The likes of Frontline, 60 Minutes and Edward R. Murrow have exhibited how they can come together to combine those two points and the obligation of journalism.

“Some of the pieces that people have created in refugee camps, for instance, are uniquely powerful because they're in VR and there's a claustrophobic component that didn't exist when you're in the comfort of a living room watching a TV with borders. I think we're going to find those places where we're breaking new ground and finding new ways to be powerful with capturing the real world and trying to reflect it back,” said Chauls.

This up-close world carries the cache of the company’s foundation and should be of interest to both news hounds and the causal consumer, even those who aren’t yet shelling out for VR headsets and devices, which explains the commitment to devices like Vive, Daydream, Gear and Cardboard — but also 360-degree desktop. Additionally, with brands like Toyota, Honda and Nest already participating, in addition to building the first VR ad unit, it appears that a playground to satisfy multiple KPIs is afoot.

As of now, it might not necessarily be about breaking news, but VRtually There could learn something important tomorrow at the inauguration that might inform a different perspective. But for now, the team, and especially Hamlin, knows where to focus the energy and effort.

“The team's focus, I think, the company's focus, is let's make something fantastic out of this opportunity. I want to make sure we give the viewer unique and privileged perspectives," he said.

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