Building fully immersive Virtual Reality experiences takes know-how and investment. Yet getting started in Extended Reality (XR) can be cheap: The top two 360-degree cameras recommended by Digital Camera World cost half the price of a new iPhone.
Robert Hernandez, digital journalist professor at the University of Southern California, joined INMA for a Master Class to discuss how those who are keen to get started experimenting in XR can understand the technologies available and what each offers.
In his classroom, most students are also starting from scratch when it comes to XR. “That’s where we still are in terms of technology in the industry.”
While 360-degree video isn’t fully XR, what matters is the user’s experience with Virtual Reality — and 360 can be the perfect place to start.
Hernandez said he is always looking for the next technology that might disrupt journalism. “What might be the next printing press for our industry?”
He pointed out six apps that are important for experiencing XR:
The New York Times
Google Street View
Hernandez focused primarily on the first three in the Monday session, urging INMA members to “dust off” Snapchat and give it a try to understand the reality of XR and what is possible with it.
“We know that a variety of different news organisations have been producing immersive experiences,” he said.
At USC, Hernandez runs a hackathon-style course called JOVRNALISM, which he created in 2015. Since then, he and his students have worked with many news organisations and tech companies. The tech companies often don’t understand the idea of content creation, he said, let alone the idea of using their technology for journalism.
The role of Hernandez and his students is to prototype these connections between news and tech companies to create immersive experiences. Their work has won several Webby and journalism awards.
This is the first experience Hernandez led INMA members through during the Webinar, using the YouTube app and searching for “The Deported JOVRNALISM” — a five-part VR experience he and his students created about people deported from the United States to Mexico.
Using 360-degree video, they created an immersive experience that allows the user to actually look around the video and go where they want to go.
“When we think of Virtual Reality, we think of high-end headsets and those types of things,” Hernandez said. “People think they can’t afford it, but this type of storytelling is available to you now, through existing technology that you and your consumers already have.”
He explained the difference between 360 video and true Virtual Reality.
“360 video is a bubble that forms around you. So if I step forward, that bubble is going to move forward. I can’t get closer to those trees. But in true Virtual Reality, those trees are anchored in space and I can get closer to them.”
Even though 360 video is not “true” VR, Hernandez said he doesn’t care: “This is compelling storytelling. It’s an incredible opportunity, a tool in our toolbox that helps our journalism resonate on a much deeper and effective level.”
The distribution of 360 video is also much easier than VR, without the need for expensive headsets. They can be distributed via YouTube and Facebook/Meta, to name a couple, and accessibility is easier. Many 360-degree cameras are also very affordable, and Hernandez recommended Insta360 and GoPro Max, with the former offering the additional benefit of photo options and social sharing in addition.
He also shared several tools that can be used along with them:
Google Street View
VeeR VR Editor
All of these tools are free except Panorama 360, which is an app that is free to install and has a business plan that costs US$10 per month.
AR is a live direct or indirect view of a physical, real-world environment whose elements are augmented (or supplemented) by computer-generated sensory input such as sound, video, graphics, or GPS data.
Hernandez said AR is more likely where the future lies, because VR blocks the real world from the user’s view and replaces it with the virtual world. They are leaving one world for another, in other words. With AR, on the other hand, the user stays present in their reality but it is augmented. AR is tied with the smartphone to use, as well, whereas VR requires a headset.
He recommended tools to create AR experiences:
“So, how does Augmented Reality turn into journalism?” Hernandez asked. To answer, he shared an example of photogrammetry — a technology where a series of static photographs are run through software to create a 3D model.
“This isn’t an artist's interpretation or a drawing of a location — this is that boat. Those are the actual ruins. It’s based on photos taken from these places, run through expensive software and outputs a 3D model. It’s a photograph come to life that you can step into; you can even 3D print if you want to.”
This is also a great technology because it allows journalists to tap into skillsets they already have, rather than those they don’t such as what Pixar artists are able to accomplish. While the software to do this was once very expensive, those costs have dropped dramatically.
This social media app is typically thought of as something that celebrities and young people use to put funny filters on themselves.
“What does that have to do with journalism?” Hernandez asked. “Well, they have a free application called Snapchat Lens Studio that allows you to create those face filters, but the technology is really advanced.”
He and his JOVRNALISM students used this app to do journalism in a different way. In a reporting project that told the stories of homeless people living in tents, they used photogrammetry to create a 3D rendering of the tent homes, then used Snapchat Lens Studio to superimpose hot spots that users could click on for interactive experiences.
INMA members can view and experience this by looking up Homeless Reality by JOVRNALISM on Snapchat. From there, the user can physically walk around the 3D model of Jennifer’s tent, for example, to experience how it feels to live like her.
Hernandez has made the template for how to do this available for free.
By distributing such journalism projects on Snapchat, media organisations have both accessibility and distribution on a popular platform that is easy and free to use.
“You can have people have this very simple, extremely powerful experience of Augmented Reality by stepping into a space through that portal,” Hernandez said.
His team has done some similar things with Instagram — for example, a project that allowed users to interact with a quiz about what products sold the most during COVID using a filter.
“It’s called Meta for a reason,” he said. “They are invested in building in these spaces. They’re creating AR experiences.”
It’s not the device, it’s the story
“The thing that I want you to always remember is that it’s not the technology, it’s not the device,” Hernandez said. “That’s very powerful, and it unlocks a lot of opportunities. But the technology itself is not the point. We’re journalists. What matters is the content — the stories, the experiences, the humanity we’re capturing and sharing.”
The technology is great, but it’s useless if not used to capture powerful moments with journalistic skill. It’s a tool for news media companies to use to tell their stories.
He concluded with a quote from Brian Solis:
“Disruption is either going to happen to you or because of you.”
The news media industry as a whole has been fairly passive when it comes to technology, Hernandez said. Sometimes the industry has been dismissive of new technology or hesitant to embrace it.
“You can greet technology with folded arms and just be reactive, and wait until The New York Times and everybody else defines it — or you can be proactive. And by being proactive, you get to make mistakes when no one is looking. You get to start building up your culture and your understanding of how these tools can work for you as an individual news organisation. So when it hits and goes mainstream, you already have content and have already learned a bunch of lessons. You’re ahead of the curve, and you don’t need to spend a lot of money to be ahead of the curve right now.”