'This format has arrived' – The virtual reality revolution comes to news at CNN

Covering the most powerful media companies to the smartest startups, former Independent media editor Ian Burrell examines the fraught problem of how news is funded today. Follow Ian @iburrell.

The experience of watching news is on the cusp of dramatic change that will transform the fundamental relationship between audiences and the stories they opt to consume.

In recent weeks, viewers have been dropped into the midst of a firefight in Iraq with a full panorama of the ensuing chaos and terror; transported to a Donald Trump rally with an unlimited field of vision of the palpable anger and passion of those present; and invited to a Churrasco barbecue in a Rio favela with a 360-degree view that only someone present might normally expect.

After a long hiatus, virtual reality (VR) is finally becoming a reality in broadcast news, and the signs are that – unlike the false dawn of 3D TV – this is a technological step change that will last.

'Fight for Falluja' is a film made in VR by Pulitzer prize-winning journalist Ben C Solomon for the New York Times during a five-week embed with Iraqi forces seeking to recapture the ruined city from Islamic State. The 11-minute production, released this month, gives an unusual insight into the vulnerabilities of those on the frontline and into the risks taken by Solomon and his translator as they go about their work in a conflict zone.

The Churrasco film was made for the Huffington Post and the immersive media company RYOT (like HuffPo, owned by AOL) as part of a series of VR films on living conditions in Rio, coinciding with the recent Olympics. And the 360-degree Trump rally experience was shot by CNN in Tucson, allowing viewers to look beyond the stage management to outbreaks of fighting in the crowd and to areas of empty seating. By panning around, they could see how media crews were penned in and formed a visible target when Trump’s rhetoric to supporters turned to his persecutors in the press.

Such developments have the potential to give news audiences a greater empathy with the subjects of stories they previously witnessed in a more distant 2D. The level of autonomy and transparency may lead to greater trust and understanding of the media workers who generate the coverage.

CNNVR

Jason Farkas is at the forefront of the use of this technology in news. From an office in New York, which colleagues say has all the appearance of an internet startup, strewn as it is with new gadgetry, Farkas leads CNNVR, the global network’s virtual reality newsgathering and storytelling operation. While declaring himself an “evangelist” for VR, he also acknowledges it has some challenges to overcome before it becomes the standard experience, not just for news but for all other forms of media consumption.

VR’s advantage over 3D, he says, will be its low cost. “With 3D it turned out that it was just a very expensive investment on the part of consumers – they had to go out and purchase a US$1000 new television set.” For VR the basic technology is already in the pocket of every smartphone owner. “The headset is just a cheap addition to your existing mobile phone.”

This convenience will become more apparent in a few weeks with the launch of Google's Daydream, a platform for high quality mobile VR, for which CNN is a launch partner. The initiative will also be supported by video company Hulu and publicised by celebrity vloggers on Google’s YouTube.

Until now, the joys of VR have been largely confined to those willing to pay for headsets from Oculus Rift or HTC Vive, costing £400 and nearly £700 respectively. Many of these early adopters are reckoned to be hardcore gaming enthusiasts but Farkas, who is also executive producer of CNN Money, believes that everyone who tries a VR headset is wowed by the experience. “They have a 'Holy Cow' moment where they have heard and read about the technology [and] once you put someone inside that headset and they have that feeling of presence, of being some place that they weren’t a moment ago, that’s a moment they don’t forget.”

Google's Daydream, and Facebook’s breathtaking $2bn purchase of Oculus two years ago, show the level of commitment to VR in Silicon Valley. It will be given every opportunity to succeed.

CNN is focusing its activities on the Oculus-based Facebook 360 platform. “CNN has 22m Facebook followers so that is the loudest megaphone for VR at the moment,” says Farkas. CNN 360 films include VR content shot from a paraglider over Rio, and film of the memorial shrine created in the Place de la République in the immediate aftermath of the Paris attacks, an indication of the technology’s potential in breaking news coverage.

Farkas oversaw CNN’s groundbreaking 360-degree coverage last October of the first Democratic debate of the 2016 election. Viewers from more than 100 countries were able to watch from four different camera positions around the stage as Hillary Clinton took on Bernie Sanders. Farkas admits now that the experiment taught him valuable lessons. “It was a real learning experience from a content standpoint about what works and what doesn’t work in VR.”

Reviewers of the output had mixed experiences. Wired magazine cited some technical glitches and concluded that “virtual reality is weird”. The technology, it said, “just isn’t good enough yet. Everyone looked like faceless holograms.” And then there were all the editorial dilemmas, such as whether the broadcaster should provide graphics and move the viewer from one vantage point to another at critical moments, or leave them to do that for themselves.

Time magazine’s reviewer found the experience “engrossing” but frustrating and said it was “not even close” to being the future of television. Most of all it was “isolating”, the headset preventing the viewer from enjoying the debate with his friends.

This is a crucial point. As social media plays an increasingly dominant role in the way news is consumed, VR will need to fit in with that culture.

Farkas points out that most activity on mobile phones is isolating. He notes that Facebook is “not in the business of isolating experiences” and will surely be working on introducing social dimensions to VR.

CNN is committed to the medium. The initial VR team in New York has expanded to London, Hong Kong and Los Angeles. “We are getting the full force of CNN”s newsgathering,” says Farkas. “The fact is that CNN journalists are in more places and have greater access than any other news organisation in the world and video is at the core of what we do – we are adding 360 video as part of that core.”

The basic kit being supplied to “all our bureaux” is a plastic rig made from a 3D printer and containing six GoPro cameras, which all shoot independently. The six films are “stitched” in post-production to create a seamless film. Farkas says the kit is inexpensive and “the size of a grapefruit”.

The future or fad?

The Edinburgh International Television Festival will tomorrow discuss the potential for the technology in a debate titled “Virtual Reality: The Future or Fad?” The event will be hosted by Laurie Segall, senior technology correspondent for CNNMoney and editor-at-large for CNN Tech. Farkas is on the panel, along with representatives of the BBC, Sky News and Oculus.

According to Segall, VR will help news audiences to empathise with the people they see in stories. “Using VR to touch on humanity has massive implications for news stories,” she says. “It has to be a different experience from just watching the news. If you can look to your left and to your right and behind you, and see things that take you to another place, that holds incredible power.”

Empathetic feelings and unique experiences. These are two big drivers of shared content on social media (in contrast to many of the depressing stories on the bulletins) and here is the opportunity for the news industry.

Louis Jebb, founder and chief executive of London-based VR specialist Immersivly, highlights some of the changes in mindset that news industry executives need to undergo to capitalise on VR’s potential.

They “need to realise” that 360-degree video “is a mobile format” for which headsets are “not an essential part of the viewing experience”, and to understand that VR (broadly comprised of 360-degree video and computer-generated content) should be treated as an integral part of a news organisation’s output “rather than a special format”.

For those that embrace it, VR can be a game-changer. “News in 360-degree video addresses the problem of falling audiences for mainstream news,” Jebb argues. “It puts viewers at the heart of events and has the power to modify their attitude to what news is, through an altered sense of editorial engagement. It also has the wow factor to bring new audiences to mainstream brands.”

The BBC is taking its own steps to introduce VR, most notably in the film We Wait, a fictional depiction of migrants making the life-threatening journey from Turkey to Greece on boats run by people smugglers. The film, which was based on interviews with migrants by BBC journalists and brought to life in collaboration with Aardman Digital using animation techniques, is a good example of the type of empathetic qualities of VR cited by CNN’s Segall.

VR offers opportunities in news beyond the big networks. “This isn’t something that’s confined to the big players in the market," says Inga Thordar, director of CNN Digital, who is producing the Edinburgh debate. The breadth of it provides an enormous opportunity for production companies to look at their portfolio and potentially diversify beyond the normal 2D production.”

In this sense, the UK is well-placed. London’s Soho, with its unique mix of skills in media, theatre and technology, alongside immersive media companies such as Framestore, Visualise and The Foundry, can be a hub for the sector.

In the 10 months since the Democrat debate live stream, much has happened in VR. Playstation is about to launch into the sector, bringing a large new consumer base. Farkas talks of VR’s potential in short-form pre-recorded video across politics, travel and other genres. Jebb notes how post-production costs have plummeted in recent months. “This format has arrived,” he says.

The News Business column is published on The Drum each Thursday. Follow Ian Burrell on Twitter @iburrell

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