One of the foundation issues when talking about Virtual Reality in news organisations is this: When is VR really the right storytelling platform — and when is it just a technology brag for the publisher?

On the other hand, trying to discuss VR in a text article like this clearly misses something. So before you do anything else you might want to click on the Conversation button above. It will give you among other things a solid list of links to the examples and demonstrations demoed by INMA’s three VR expert speakers during this Tuesday morning session of the 2017 World Congress.

One might need a well-endowed smartphone, laptop, and network connection to access all of the projects, but it’s well worth the effort. They won’t all be mentioned here because there were so many.

“I’d love to say that we’re all in on Virtual Reality, but the very truth of that matter is we’re not,” conceded Jarrod Dicker, head of ad poduct and tech at The Washington Post.

“We are a news organisation. We break news. We need to deliver experiences to make sure that everyone receives them. So while we want to make sure that we’re positioned to set things up, platforms like Snapchat, Facebook, and Google are huge partners to us in order to get that news disseminated.”

Jarrod Dicker of The Washington Post says that platforms can help disseminate the news.
Jarrod Dicker of The Washington Post says that platforms can help disseminate the news.

Mia Tramz, managing editor of Life VR at Time Inc., helped the audience understand the range of approaches falling under the umbrella term “Virtual Reality,” saying it has to do with degrees of immersion.

Mia Tramz of Time explains what true virtual reality is.
Mia Tramz of Time explains what true virtual reality is.

“When we’re talking about VR, it is defined as a computer-generated experience. So a lot of what you see today as VR is really 360 video that you’re watching stereoscopically. It’s certainly a gateway into what is traditionally considered to be true VR. But really when you’re getting into the higher-end headsets and you’re seeing experiences built up in CGI (computer-generated imagery), that’s what is meant when people say ‘VR.’” 

Beyond that comes mobile VR headsets incorporating a smartphone, then mobile head-mounted VR displays that is tethered to a computer, and finally PC-based headset VR.

At NBC News, “we view them very much as experiments and tests,” said Steve Veres, director of strategic content. “It’s a new format. It’s a new medium. And we know the audience isn’t quite there right now. But we want to test, learn, and figure out what’s compelling content in this space — so when they do come, we’re ready and have the best-in-class experience.”

NBC’s flagship VR experience so far has been its Democracy Plaza project, built around the 2016 U.S. elections. The design was based on the real, physical Democracy Plaza that the broadcaster set up on and around the iconic ice rink in front of the Comcast building at 30 Rock in Manhattan, first in 2012 and then again last year.

The difference was that in 2012, only locals could be at the plaza as the states changed colour on a big ice map, with laser graphic charts projected on the skyscraper. In 2016, anyone could have a digital avatar walking around the plaza and talking with other people, as the election results became apparent.

Steve Verez of NBC News describes a VR experience put on by his organization.
Steve Verez of NBC News describes a VR experience put on by his organization.

“We ended (the Democracy Plaza VR event) with fireworks — because fireworks are much cheaper in Virtual Reality,” Veres added.

Life VR’s project demos were extremely varied, ranging from World War II re-enactments to an interaction with astronaut Buzz Aldrin.

Predictably, the issue of cost and return-on-investment led the audience questions.

“A lot of the focus of how we look to fund these sort of programmes are partnerships,” Dicker said, “as well as we’re really keen on building our own sorts of technologies. So while we partner, the type of technology companies that we’re looking to partner with is educational, to help us figure out what to build internally; and then hopefully not just saving those costs, but being the partners or agency for clients that are looking to dip their toes in this field.”

Later, he added, “If you’re bucketing VR in its own cost structure, then it’s a lot more difficult to experiment. A lot of these innovations that we’re doing in the VR space — whether clients are going to sponsor them or integrate within them — has zero to do with whether this will be successful. But the fact that we even go these routes makes clients want to work with us. So it’s actually like a creative investment.”

Tramz detailed how the technology costs have dropped rapidly just in recent months, from cameras with video switching capability to software such as Adobe Premiere Pro, that now works with 360-video out of the box.

“From our perspective, creating 360 video in-house does not cost much more than regular 2D video,” she said. “CGI is a different story.”

In discussing the business model around VR, she added: “You have to think about it a little bit differently than you would with our traditional business model, where you’re either looking at subscriptions, or you’re looking at advertising sales. With VR, I think it’s important to take a look at the industry it’s coming from. There are different streams there that fall outside a traditional business model for a media company.”

Veres concluded that the monetisation structure for VR and 360 is the “wild west.”

“We’re all kind of experimenting in new ways,” he said, “which will help with the ROI. But again, the costs of doing these videos are much higher and the ad revenue coming back is not quite there yet.  So for us, it’s all about experimentation and figuring out how to do cool things so clients will want to work with us.”