By: Rich Kane
You are balancing precariously on the outside landing rail of a helicopter that’s hovering several hundred feet over the vast flatness of central Iowa. You’re perfectly safe, but still, if you’re acrophobic or prone to motion sickness, you best not look down.
No worries—seconds later, you’re on the ground, standing in the middle of the large front lawn of the Dammann family home. You can walk freely around their property. You investigate tractors, cattle trucks and open doors. You hear crickets, birds, mooing cows and barking dogs. Strange, rotating blue discs appear. Stroll over to them. Touch them. They transform into videos, photos, charts and graphs. The more you explore, the more you learn about the Dammanns’ way of life, and the challenges of operating a family farm in the 21st century amidst climate change, ballooning expenses, and changing demographics.
But wait, you’ve never been on a farm before. How is this possible? It’s because you’re on your desktop in your office, experiencing all of this on the Oculus Rift headset, the much-buzzed-about tool that promises to transform the way we experience stories.
The Dammanns’ story and the larger state of family farming was the focus of “Harvest of Change,” a multi-part series that ran in the Des Moines Register in September. But what most people were talking about when the series went live on the Register’s website was the way part of the story was presented—as an immersive, you-are-there, depth-of-field version that allowed a viewer to explore the Dammann farm on their own, in an amazingly realistic 3D setting that had the look of contemporary first-person shoot-‘em-up video games, minus the firearms and obscenely buffed-out action figures.
For a couple of days in journalism circles, “Harvest of Change” was the hot trending topic. Never before had you been able to virtually step inside a story and be enveloped by 360-degree video and hyper-realistic 3D renderings of a landscape you could move inside of. And while the full effect was achieved through the Oculus headset, there were also 2D versions made for desktop computers, which let more people experience the story. You can find it at desmoinesregister.com/pages/interactives/harvest-of-change.
The seeds of this “harvest” were planted when Dan Pacheco, chair of journalism innovation at the S.I. Newhouse School at Syracuse University, met with Mitch Gelman, vice president of product at Gannett Digital. Pacheco showed Gelman a few things like Google Glass and a drone, but Gelman wondered about something else.
“I saw my 10-year-old son playing video games, and I wondered if there was a way to import news stories into game play interaction,” Gelman said.
Pacheco said there was, and showed Gelman the Oculus Rift, which had yet to make headlines like it did in March when it was purchased by Facebook for a cool $2 billion. Oculus VR, which is based in Irvine, Calif., declined to be interviewed for this story.
“Looking at it, I quickly saw that it was a way to create a new genre of nonfiction storytelling,” said Gelman. “Then we committed to seeing if there was a way we could incorporate the 3D technology and the 360-degree video with a story that would stand up to journalistic rigor.”
It was a story that Gelman and Anthony DeBarros, Gannett Digital’s director of interactive applications, had wanted to do for a while—how events like an aging population, immigration and cultural shifts were changing the country. The Des Moines Register, a Gannett newspaper, found the Dammanns and their farm, and the project had a central focus. Gelman said project expenses totaled about $20,000, with the single biggest price tag being the helicopter rental for the opening shot, which cost $2,000.
That might seem cost-prohibitive for smaller newspapers if they’re thinking about pulling off a similar Oculus-type immersive project, but Gelman said this technology is getting cheaper literally by the day.
“The virtual reality tech in August doesn’t compare to the tech that will be available in November or December,” Gelman said. “The advances that have been made in image capture technology alone in the past three months are extraordinary. And by this time next year, for a 360-degree video, there will be new cameras that eliminate the need for stitching—a post-production process—and that will reduce costs significantly. These new cameras will cost one-fifth of what they do now.” (See the sidebar to witness the astounding affordability of Google’s Cardboard virtual reality headset).
The Oculus Rift and the renewed interest in immersive technology it has spawned aren’t restricted to editorial departments. Some see its usefulness for increasing ad revenue.
“There’s a role for ads in the content,” said Pacheco. “If you’re offering compelling experiences, people will pay for them. The car industry is always looking to advertise, so you could use immersive technology to go into a dealership and take a car out for a test drive without ever leaving your desktop. You could go into a virtual supermarket advertisement, touch a head of lettuce, and be transported to the farm where that lettuce came from and find out about how it was grown.”
“The opportunity is there,” Gelman said. “They’re just limited right now only by the distribution of the experience. But once this becomes more of a lightweight mass market product, I think the ad opportunities will be extraordinary.”
“My fear, though, is that when the newspaper industry sees these kinds of opportunities, they don’t necessarily want to take the lead,” said Pacheco. “But brands will. Brands are going to do it one way or another.”
Of course, virtual reality has been a much-ballyhooed phrase for a good couple decades, but outside of a few lousy Keanu Reeves movies, it’s never really taken off. Does the current Oculus buzz mean that VR tech is here to stay, or is it a continuation of what’s been widely perceived as a novelty? According to Pacheco, this time, it’s the real deal.
“I worked with people at newspapers who thought the Internet was a novelty, that there could never be a replacement of one media with another,” Pacheco said. “But the Oculus is like nothing we’ve ever seen before, a totally new way of letting people experience a story and enter it. With ‘Harvest of Change,’ you feel like you’re actually on the farm instead of just watching it. I don’t know if this is even storytelling—it’s more like story experiencing. I don’t think this will be a fad at all.”
Pacheco also envisions a future of what this tech will ultimately mean for newspapers, peppering his words with his new favorite phrase: experiential journalism.
“With experiential journalism, stories can be factual, but they can also be fun. I imagine a future sports journalist will have these structural cameras on them, where they go over the areas that the public can’t go, like press boxes and locker rooms, and readers will be able to download these experiences. I think a lot of these technologies will be driven by entertainment. What will people pay for? How do news organizations incorporate those aspects into journalism? We’ve always had the comics section, that’s why people got the paper. So if newspapers could look at themselves as being entertainers, they can get people to pay for their content.”
Gelman, meanwhile, has ideas for more practical and immediate uses for immersive tech.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if the Des Moines Register is the first news organization to offer live 360-degree streaming of political events,” he said. “All this work is built on the tradition of journalistic quality. At the end of the day, this is a new genre, but it’s founded in the fundamental aspects of great reporting and storytelling.”
Six companies and products that will also impact the future of storytelling
Launched in June as a project of the Reynolds Journalism Institute (and headed up by 2014-15 Reynolds Fellow Dan Archer), Empathetic Media is an ambitious visual news consultancy that aims not only to design content for the Oculus Rift, but to be a “one-stop visual journalism shop,” where news editors can go when they want to take traditional text-based stories and turn them into fully immersive journalism experiences, including news story animation, interactive comics, and bringing boring old data and statistics to life with graphics you actually want to look at. An Oculus-based prototype of the Ferguson shooting was showcased at this year’s Online News Association’s annual conference, but Empathetic also has plans to provide news outlets with things like interactive documentaries, especially for news orgs that don’t have the cash or staff to do it themselves. They’re currently soliciting collaborations.
The notion of combining one’s sense of smell with news and visual media goes back as far as the 1900s, when aromas were combined with newsreels in movie theaters. And who could forget John Waters’ 1982 cult classic film “Polyester” and its Odorama cards, which you scratch-and-sniffed when a given number flashed on the movie screen? Now comes the oPhone, which brings to life the old “nose for news” cliché as the hardware device for what founder and Harvard professor David Edwards calls oNotes. Think of them as text messages you can smell, by blending over 300,000 possible combinations, then using a now-available iPhone app called oSnap to send the scent to an oPhone-equipped friend. It’s currently in beta testing, and the possibilities for newspapers seem limitless: A restaurant review where you could smell a hearty coq au vin? A travel piece that lets you breathe in the fresh pine of the California redwoods? We’re sure that someone is already concocting an eau de football-locker-room for the sports pages.
While there are live video streaming apps that take advantage of the skyrocketing number of smartphone users, Stringwire lets users stream live video straight into a newsroom, as opposed to a YouTube site. Purchased by NBC News last year but only now beginning a serious rollout, the app, available for Android and iPhones, is available for anyone, and there’s a 20-second delay option so there’s no concern about drunken louts running into the frame and yelling obscenities. The app also allows for group collaborations, and all footage is automatically stored online.
Here’s a $399 hands-free wearable camera that probably won’t calm anyone’s fears about privacy issues, but if you can get past that, it could be a pretty useful newsroom tool. Autographer is designed to capture images constantly, ensuring that whoever is wearing the device—on a lanyard around their neck, or as a clip-on—never misses something in the time it takes to whip out a camera or smartphone (or track down your photographer) and get the shot, since the lens is always pointing outward. Like the popular GoPro cameras, it’s fully mountable, and when it’s on, you never have to think about it—ideal for covering breaking news you suddenly find yourself in the middle of, or perhaps the occasional hidden-camera investigation piece.
At first, it may appear to be a cheap knockoff of the Oculus Rift—seriously, a high-tech responsive device made with cardboard, Velcro, a magnet and rubber bands?—but Google’s version of a virtual reality headset manages to hurl you into sense-of-place experiences on the cheap by letting you build it yourself. Instructions are on the website, just find some cardboard, a low-tech pair of scissors, fold this, secure that, and soon you can be experiencing virtual reality by touring museums, exploring Paris in Google Street View, playing games, taking in a stunning view of the Chicago skyline while floating over Grant Park, or whatever ideas your newsroom’s tech people come up with. Don’t forget to add your smartphone, it’s kind of an important element. If you were all thumbs in art class, you can spring for an already-assembled headset on Amazon for a measly $10.
Realtors have been using online video to let potential buyers see the inside spaces of homes for a while. But what if these same homebuyers could access every room virtually in a 3D environment, from their computer hundreds of miles away? Matterport does this, creating 3D in minutes with the assist of a special $4,500 camera—pricey, perhaps, but if your ad department has a lot of real estate revenue, it could be a big plus, not just for real estate clients but for hotels and resorts who want to show off their businesses, or whatever myriad other ways your readers could benefit. First-looks at new businesses opening in town? A ride-along with the local police? Travel pieces or live event coverage? Matterport is set up for all of those, and more.