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Christina Romualdo

This movie starts off like many others: a disembodied voice gives light to a black screen, saying, “I’ve never known a Cuban who didn’t know how to dance.” Then the scene fades up to a beautiful valley of lush green trees. But there’s something different with this video – the sight never ends. Every slight tilt of your head reveals more and more of this beautiful panorama. The scene then fades to black before opening up to a marble staircase in a fading but beautiful house. A 180-degree turn shows a group of youths congregating outside, hanging around and waiting for some unknown future. The narration and screenshots continue, painting a picture of life in Cuba.

Once the groundwork is set, the story begins. Dancers, graceful and agile, perform a montage of Cuban dance through the ages, while the narrator explains the circumstances and events that colour and give rise to each movement.

The video, titled A history of Cuban dance is one of several available on the VRSE application. It’s a short documentary, similar to many found on Netflix or the Discovery channel.

It’s a kind of storytelling that doesn’t rely on mere words or pictures to draw you in – the audience can actually interact with the scene around them. The screen, strapped onto a viewer’s head, moves as they move, immersing them in the full experience of life as a dancer in Cuba.

Access to these experiences is getting easier with each passing minute. Pair an Android or iPhone with a $15 Google Cardboard – or for those looking for something more high-end than a bare-bones cardboard viewer – Samsung users can purchase a Gear VR headset for $99 and watch as they are transported to a refugee camp in Syria or up into space with a star-studded cast as your guide.

Virtual reality isn’t new. In 1995, Nintendo released the Virtual Boy, a portable video game console that promised “True 3D graphics” for players. The system, which sold for just under $200 USD, gave viewers motion sickness after a few minutes of playing Mario Tennis. It failed to find a market in North America and was discontinued in March 1996.

However, a lot has changed in 20 years, both in technological advances and in how society consumes technology. And with virtual reality viewers like the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive making their long-heralded arrival into the mass market this year, it’s easy to see why many news articles have proclaimed 2016 the year of virtual reality.

While many are excited about the implications of virtual reality on the gaming world, in addition to its potential uses by non-profit organizations and museums, another industry is preparing itself for the inevitable arrival of the virtual world – journalism.

Virtual reality in journalism isn’t exactly new either. The first instance of virtual storytelling has become something of journalistic lore, a tale told to each new journalist that delves into the virtual world.

The story begins in January 2012, when Nonny de la Peña, now known as the “Godmother of virtual reality,” brought a film to the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah. But instead of showing her movie on a big screen, like most offerings at the festival, her setup involved a pair of headphones and a set of goggles that had been created with duct tape by her intern, California State University student Palmer Luckey.

VR virtual reality headsets are seen before the annual news conference of German media group Bertelsmann in Berlin, Germany, March 22, 2016. German media conglomerate Bertelsmann on Tuesday reported a 4.7 percent rise in 2015 core profit on 2.8 percent higher revenues, helped by currency effects, its book publishing unit and its German media operations. REUTERS/Fabrizio Bensch

The movie was called Hunger in Los Angeles and it put viewers in line at a Los Angeles food bank, where they watched a man collapse from a diabetic attack. The response was tremendous – audiences left the experience shaken and crying. In a report on virtual reality in journalism published by the Knight Foundation, de la Peña said, “Everybody uses the ‘empathy’ word and it’s true. When I did Hunger in Los Angeles, people were trying to hold the (diabetic’s) head and came out bawling. People commented on the intensity of their emotional connection and feeling.”

Since then, de la Peña has made many other successful ventures into virtual storytelling. Luckey refined his duct-taped headphone-and-goggles set up. In August 2012, he started a Kickstarter campaign with an initial goal of $250,000. He ended up with nearly $2.5 million. In March 2014, he sold Oculus Rift to Facebook for $2 billion.

In September 2014, the Des Moines Register debuted Harvest of Change, which allowed viewers to tour a single-family farm in Iowa. In April 2015, the Wall Street Journal released a virtual reality “roller coaster” which followed the ups and downs of the Nasdaq. In June 2015, the BBC premiered a 360-degree immersion into a Syrian migrant camp in northern France. In September 2015, PBS Frontline released Ebola Outbreak: A Virtual Journey, which takes the viewer to a village in Guinea, where the Ebola outbreak is believed to have started, then through Sierra Leone as the disease spreads, and finally to a field hospital attempting to handle the onslaught of illness and death.

In Canada, there has been less of a land rush towards virtual reality. Thanks to shrinking newsrooms and rounds of budget cuts, media organizations are not adopting shiny, new – and expensive – technologies as readily as they once were.

However, the immersive storytelling potential is difficult for any journalist to ignore and with the emergence of more affordable 360-degree cameras, more and more news organizations are venturing into the virtual world.

VICE News is one of the early adopters. In the United States, the organization launched “VICE News VR: Millions March” in January 2015, a collaboration with VRSE founder and director Chris Milk and filmmaker Spike Jonze. The film gave viewers a look into a rally that saw 60,000 people flood the streets of New York to protest police brutality against unarmed black people.

In Canada, VICE News’ first foray into virtual storytelling will premiere in early May. The details of those projects are being kept under wraps, but Patrick McGuire, VICE Canada’s head of content, says they are “looking across all our verticals.” McGuire explained, “I wanna do VR stuff with Matty Matheson, like how-tos. I wanna do music experiences and also news as well.”

McGuire acknowledges that the novelty of the technology poses problems on both the production and audience sides. “One of the challenges still is obviously getting it seen by people and getting people to understand how it works,” he says. “This is a very young and sort of up-to-date office, but there’s people in the building that still haven’t experienced what VR can do for story-telling.”

But getting in on the ground floor is better than being late to the game. “It’s exciting to be early on and I’m just really  anxious to make something and get it out,” says McGuire.

The Globe and Mail’s VR team is another one of the few to dive headfirst into the virtual pool.

Angela Pacienza, the Globe’s head of newsroom development, says that their battle to get the ball rolling on VR wasn’t a difficult one at all.

“We’re very lucky that we have a supportive board and executive that want us to be doing cutting-edge journalism,” she says. “I’ll be honest. It’s not a hard sell.”

The Globe’s VR project was born of an idea from three staff members: two developers and a multimedia journalist. Thankfully, they had an opportunity and the resources to bring their idea to fruition. “We have an innovation lab,” explains Pacienza. “All the staff can pitch ideas for the innovation lab and so this particular VR project came out of a pitch – I was the sponsor, because I’m a big believer in it.”

“It’s also not a ton of resources,” she explains, emphasizing the experimental nature of this trial run. “We’ve got three people doing it and they’re constantly reporting back and showing the editor-in-chief what they’ve been working on, talking to our national editor and our reporters. And so people who are contributing to the VR project, they’re coming in for a couple of days, then leaving – so it’s not a huge amount of effort.”

The team’s original pitch was, as developer Kevin O’Gorman puts it,

“Using virtual reality as a storytelling device.”

It had been mostly used as this kind of idea for simulations for military training or pilot training or whatever.

“What we were actually interested in seeing was if we could actually make a part of the newsroom an arsenal for basically building empathy with the subjects of stories,” says O’Gorman. “Rather than answering the question of very quantitative questions, it would be for giving a feel of what other people’s lives were like.”

He says that an open-door policy for others in the newsroom to come and collaborate was a key part of their idea. But, as much as the team was willing to open their project to others, the bigger question would be, was the newsroom ready for such a new technology?

Chris Cox, chief product officer at Facebook, introduces the Surround 360 virtual reality camera on stage during the Facebook F8 conference in San Francisco, California April 12, 2016. REUTERS/Stephen Lam

Chris Cox, chief product officer at Facebook, introduces the Surround 360 virtual reality camera on stage during the Facebook F8 conference in San Francisco, California April 12, 2016. REUTERS/Stephen Lam

“People are open to it,” says Pacienza. “You’re not gonna give a reporter VR with no support network, right? So the idea of the lab is to build that support network.

“Journalists are very curious beings naturally, so if there’s a better way or different way to tell a story, they will often want in on that and get excited about it. They may not know how to actually execute it, which is where the developers and the multimedia specialists will come in. Working together is how you are going to achieve that,” she says.

Explaining the world of virtual reality is something that even VR veterans have trouble with. The team at the Globe found that out when they started bringing their idea out of the lab and into the newsroom. As designer Dawson Guilbeault puts it, “You can’t explain VR … You try and explain it to someone and it doesn’t make much sense.”

The best approach to achieve maximum comprehension is to show, not tell. “That’s something we learned too, like put it on their head and let them walk into a wall,” Guilbeault says.

It also helps to have other outlets’ previous projects to hold up as examples. “One of the challenges with it is that it’s really hard to visualize in your head what a VR story is unless you can actually experience it,” says Danielle Webb, another member of the Globe’s VR team. “The fact that there are more media organizations out there doing this, we can actually take some of that stuff and say, ‘This thing that the New York Times did is kind of where our head’s at,’ is really valuable.”

Bridging the gap between development and editorial teams was one of the biggest hurdles the team faced. Their bridge, so to speak, was Webb, who is normally a multimedia journalist in the Globe newsroom. Guilbeault says, “We all pointed at Danielle being that in-between space of knowing their job and knowing our job, as being the key component of our group.”

Webb’s contribution was crucial to the team’s success, because of her ability to speak both the technical and editorial languages. “We wouldn’t have gotten it, if it was just Kevin and I, we wouldn’t be able to talk to those people or get anything from them, they would have thought we were just weird,” says Guilbeault.

From an editorial standpoint, there are a few factors that go into deciding whether or not a story would translate into a good VR piece. “Basically, the two big advantages that VR has is that it’s able to put you into a place and it does empathy really well,” Webb says.

The Globe’s current VR project focuses on a prisoner’s experience in solitary confinement. The viewer starts off in front of three cell doors and, using gaze control, chooses a cell to enter. Once inside the cell, users can explore certain objects and areas of the cell – again, using gaze control – and hear an inmate talk about what their time in solitary was like.

Webb explains that the reason this topic works as a virtual storytelling piece is the physicality of the story. It’s important to the story that the viewer is physically in the cell.

“Solitary is great because the chances of the average reader spending any time in solitary in their life is slim to none,” says Webb.

“To be able to hear in someone’s own words about their experiences in the place where they experience them is sort of like the perfect combination of a powerful VR experience.”

There are still many questions to be answered about virtual reality. How can these videos be monetized? Will it be widely adopted by viewing audiences or will expensive systems turn them off? Will shrinking newsrooms be able to afford the high cost of production? When will the novelty and the hype wear off? One thing is certain, the storytelling potential of this medium cannot be ignored and the trajectory of virtual storytelling is only just beginning.

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