From distant, made-up planets to vast tropical rainforests, virtual reality (VR) can seemingly take users anywhere. While the recently developed tech has been viewed primarily as a means of entertainment, especially in the world of video games, journalists have discovered a different side of VR.
On Tuesday, March 7, news giant CNN revealed its VR unit, titled CNNVR. The branch was only recently unveiled, but CNN has already experimented with and released VR content. One of the channel’s videos puts viewers in the streets of the war-torn Syrian city of Aleppo.
This marks a foray into the realm of what has been called “immersive journalism”: storytelling that gives the audience a first-person perspective within a narrative. Rather than reading an article told from a third-person perspective, news stories will feel less distant when viewed in VR.
However, CNN is far from the first to utilize VR for journalism. Nonny de la Peña, nicknamed “The Godmother of Virtual Reality,” heads the Emblematic Group, which specializes in “immersive virtual, augmented, and mixed reality.”
At the 2012 Sundance Festival, Peña presented “Hunger in Los Angeles,” a VR experience that placed viewers in a food bank line at the First Unitarian Church in LA. The video showcases poorly modeled, video game-like scenes with recreated audio, but the video is based on an actual event. With this, Peña aimed to put viewers in the not-so-glamorous regions of LA where hunger
Peña has spoken particularly about how VR in journalism helps viewers develop a sense of “empathy” when consuming news. She says that “it was that sense of empathy that attracted some artists to the medium.”
At Florida International University, a VR lab under the name Virtual Eyes has encouraged students to engage with and pursue immersive journalism. The initiative largely focuses on sea level rise by putting viewers in communities affected by the issue and even dunks viewers underwater at Key Biscayne.
It all sounds very exciting, but of course, VR has its limitations. Not everyone can afford the technology to view 360° videos, and scrolling through a text-based article is a much easier way of receiving information. While immersive storyt
elling will definitely be more prevalent across news media, it won’t be replacing traditional text- and image-based articles any time soon.
Yet while the price of actual VR headsets – such as the HTC Vive, the Oculus, and the Playstation VR headset – may be intimidating, the most accessible way for people to access VR videos is through their smartphones. Google Cardboard, a makeshift VR headset literally made of cardboard, turns any smartphone into a 360° video viewer.
By Carina Vo