ISOJ 2017 panelists to discuss the future of VR and 360 video as technology becomes more accessible, affordable

Over the past year, virtual reality and 360 video have taken viewers everywhere from the 6×9 foot space of a cell in solitary confinement to Mars. Though the technology has existed for years, it’s become increasingly popular and accessible, with Facebook announcing in March that users would be able to livestream 360 video.

Robert Hernandez, associate professor of professional practice at University of Southern California, has been taking advantage of the accessibility with his JOVRNALISM team. The undergraduate, master’s and doctoral students on the team have used 360 video and virtual reality to cover the Inauguration and the 2017 Women’s March in D.C., among other things.

With the technology developing at such a rapid pace, Hernandez said it’s made it easier for newcomers to start experimenting and developing different stories.

“[The technology] is becoming more affordable, more accessible,” Hernandez told the Knight Center. “It’s allowing people to dip their toes in the water without having to have mountains of money or an endless supply of resources.”

Hernandez will discuss VR and 360 video at the panel “Video everywhere: From live coverage to VR, 360, and other innovative formats” on April 21, at the 2017 International Symposium on Online Journalism (ISOJ). He will be joined by Ethar El-Katatney, executive producer at AJ+; Micah Gelman, senior editor and director of editorial video at The Washington Post; (Sanchez) Wang Jiapeng, senior operation director of Caixin; International Knight Fellow Shaheryar Popalzai; and panel chair R.B. Brenner, director of the UT Austin School of Journalism.

As more journalists and news outlets begin utilizing the technology, Hernandez said it’s important that the quality of the projects increases and that it won’t just be used as a novelty.

“The commitment to the quality of storytelling is there,” Hernandez said. “We’re going from this neat technology that could easily be used as a gimmick to using this technology for effective storytelling. That poses a challenge for a lot of people who are just starting off. How do you do this without making it too gimmick-y?”

One of the most important steps in the development of the technology is that people try and fail, in order to help others learn from their mistakes, Hernandez said.

“There needs to be a lot of experimentation by every news organization that sees an opportunity there,” Hernandez said. “You don’t know what a good story is until you start experimenting and just because you do and you produce something, doesn’t mean you need to publish it. It helps educate you to find what works best.”

For panel chair R.B. Brenner, director of the UT Austin School of Journalism, one of the most important things to do when considering VR or 360 video is to begin by asking “why?”

“Why is doing the story using this technology going to enhance what you’re going to do?” Brenner said. “If you can’t give a good answer, that’ll tell you something.”

Ideally, Brenner said VR and 360 video should be used for two main purposes.

For virtual reality, it should take users to a place that wouldn’t be easy for them to access otherwise.

“No one is going to Mars right now, but with VR, you can get a sense of what it’s like to be there,” Brenner said. “That’s one of the most important things to think about with VR. Can it transport someone to a place that is almost impossible for them to go to physically?”

For 360 video, it all boils down to presence, Brenner said.

“You might read about a vigil in Paris after a terror attack and a great writer or a conventional video might help bring that to life,” Brenner said. “But is there something more powerful about feeling like you’re standing right there with these people as they’re mourning?”

When it comes to VR or 360 video, Brenner believes they’ll become more mainstream eventually, but always remain supplemental to other journalistic content.

“VR’s been around for quite a while and there’ve been false starts before,” Brenner said. “But I do think a lot of it depends on if there’s really good content versus content just flooding the market.”

(Sanchez) Wang Jiapeng, senior operation director of Caixin, said that for virtual reality to really catch on, it needs to get past the novelty stage in order for more people to pick it up.

“The gadgets and their user experiences are not ready for massive consumption, yet,” Jiapeng said. “People are still not willing to put goggles on unless they’re in cinemas or playing games in a room.”

Whether or not the public is ready to adopt the technology, Ethar El-Katatney, executive producer at AJ+, wrote in Aljazeera Media Institute’s 2017 book “Finding the Truth Among Fakes,” that it’s imperative for news organizations to begin using it now in order to connect with their audiences.

“Six months from today, a year, [AJ+] can’t look like we do now,” El-Katatney said. “We were lucky to be innovators in this field, but a lot of competitors are now snapping at our heels. If we aren’t changing and adapting and experimenting and innovating, we won’t grow. As any organisation at the forefront of digital storytelling experience, we have to constantly stop and remember that the industry is shifting rapidly. Existing on social media platforms, we are at the mercy of their algorithms.”

At The Washington Post, Micah Gelman, senior editor and director of editorial video, has led the charge into the world of video for the paper with the announcement of Washington Post Video in 2015. Last year, in an interview with The Huffington Post, Gelman said the transition within newsrooms toward creating more video content was a way to connect with their younger audience.

As the technology’s become more available, they’ve had more room to experiment with their storytelling.

“The approach to how we tell stories is always changing,” Gelman said. “Video is still relatively new — when you compare it to the invention of television to the printed press. And for the first few decades video was the domain of the few—largely due to the cost of gathering and distribution. But now the masses have video and 360 video and soon it will be VR and AR and the next thing we don’t know about yet. Our approach is always evolving — it has been since the beginning of communication.

ISOJ, which brings together a unique mix of journalism professionals and academics from more than 40 countries, kicks off Friday, April 21, at the Blanton Museum on the campus of the University of Texas at Austin. While registration for the popular event has closed, livestreaming will be available on YouTube and Facebook on April 21 and 22.