Extended Reality — including Virtual Reality and Augmented Reality — is a powerful tool for informing, educating, and entertaining future audiences with compelling stories.
Zillah Watson, an executive producer in XR who formerly produced such projects for the BBC, joined INMA for a master class on how newsrooms can effectively use XR, sharing tips for great content, ethical considerations, opportunities, and four ways newsrooms can get ready.
While at the BBC, Watson won a Rose D’or award for a three-part Virtual Reality series described by the judges as “a blueprint for the future of news.” Her work with the BBC gave her great insights into how the technology can create impactful experiences for audiences, as well as the models and partnerships required. Much of what she learned is in a 2017 Digital News Project report she wrote for Reuters. Most recently, she’s focused on XR production.
What makes a great VR story?
Watson learned a lot about this during a BBC/Ipsos Mori Ethnographic Study on VR in the home, conducted in 2017. The results showed that when VR is done right, people love it.
“But we also found that headsets were a pain,” she told INMA members. “They were hard to use, people forgot how to use them, there was variable UX across content — and not all content was very good.
“Our conclusion was that VR content had to be pretty amazing to be worth the bother of dealing with the headset. If you could tell [the story] better on TV, you shouldn’t bother with VR.”
So, what is it that makes an amazing Virtual Reality experience? Watson began by saying that VR is not new; in fact, it’s been studied for decades. Good VR is all about the viewer feeling present. Good VR, she said, tricks the user’s brain into thinking they are really there.
“Stories need to be spatial to really benefit from VR,” she said. “By looking around and understanding the space, you really understand more about the story.”
Another facet is that the viewer needs to be more than just a spectator. The viewer is not a disembodied bystander, but rather an explorer within the VR world. They need a sense of agency and involvement, and good VR gives them a reason to move around and explore the created world.
“VR is great for conveying an emotional sense,” Watson said. “It’s less good for conveying factual information, and incidentally that’s led to a different style of reporting.”
VR audiences connect more with visceral feelings or sensations than dense information. With traditional broadcast reporting, journalists have stood in front of the camera and explained things to the audience. In a VR headset, the reporter instead becomes the viewer’s companion. It’s a conversation and works best when the audience is allowed to take some control.
Because VR is great for evoking empathy by placing the viewer in another person’s shoes and experience, a lot of VR production has been centred around more difficult topics such as war and refugee crises. Watson said that looking for topics that offer more hope and joy is something news organisations should think about. VR is a great vehicle for offering escapism and a chance to explore places people would otherwise never be able to visit in person.
Marketability is another thing the team should think about from the very start when it comes to VR projects.
“I often find when people deal with new technology they forget the things they already know,” Watson said. “But it’s like launching a new podcast — you need to think about who your audience is, how they will find out about it, all that needs to be built into it.”
Ethical considerations in VR and AR production
When Watson was putting together the Reuters report, she asked news organisations whether they had encountered any new ethical considerations. Most organisations said no, citing existing journalism ethic guidelines as sufficiently applicable.
However, VR has a different level of intensity that makes it different to consider from an ethical standpoint. With 360-degree filming, there is the issue of privacy and consent.
“Are people realising that’s going to be broadcast later?” she asked. In an early VR piece for BBC, her team filmed a migrant camp in Calais where the people didn’t necessarily understand that what was being recorded would be broadcast publicly.
There are also issues when it comes to post-production. Watson cited one project in which the sky was removed, along with the camera tripod and even the reporter.
“These are the kinds of things you have to think about in terms of transparency and trust with your audiences,” she said. “Once you start taking things out of the footage, how can anyone know what is true?”
At the BBC, their solution was to include the crew as part of the story.
“There are issues there that you need to think about,” Watson said.
The intensity level also needs to be considered, particularly with difficult subjects such as war. When the viewer is wearing a headset, it’s much more difficult to leave the experience, whereas on television a viewer merely needs to look away.
“You are there, in the middle of the situation, and that can be quite frightening. With the BBC pieces we were very aware of this. There was no standardised way to warn people or describe content.”
They used a ratings system, similar to what is used in gaming. Warning systems of particularly disturbing, intense content are still in flux, and need to be given serious consideration in terms of duty to the audience.
Another ethical consideration is that of tech and information inequality. Will VR super-serve richer audiences? Particularly with VR requiring the use of expensive headsets, this gap to access must be considered.
“There’s also a danger that certain platforms start to dominate access to this,” Watson said. “The message is that we’ve all go to understand this — this is not an issue where we say, oh we’ll leave that for the tech people to understand.”
If journalists want VR to be democratically accessible, the newsroom needs to think about and be involved in it. At the BBC, for example, the team took its VR — including the headsets — to public libraries so anyone could experience it.
Beyond VR: Opportunities opened up by AR and immersive tech
“AR is going to transform the way we navigate the world,” Watson said. “I really think we’ll be able to use this to find news on location as we move about, which will be really interesting in terms of opportunities for local news in particular.”
AR graphics, particularly when used with glasses, will start to augment the journeys we take and places we physically visit.
Watson discussed another way AR and VR tech are starting to transform news — techniques using game engines to create studios and real-time graphics.
“This could form a virtual studio and just transform how studios look and what you can do with graphics in them. I think most news organisations who do broadcasting of some form or another will have a big decision to make over the next few years about whether they switch over to game engines to create news.”
This is expensive now, but the cost is already coming down dramatically and will continue to do so. It can also be used on a smaller scale, such as adding graphics with a phone as one is filming.
What should newsrooms do to be metaverse ready?
Watson admitted she was sceptical about the term “metaverse” at first, but now finds it a useful term to discuss bringing these technologies and creative possibilities together.
Watson summarised her key strategies for news media organisations to move forward in the world of XR:
Stay up to date with developments and learn from others. Track what leading players such as the BBC and The New York Times are doing, and look beyond news as well.
Experiment to learn and understand. This is possible even on low budgets — Watson referred to the master class given by Robert Hernandez. Use existing platforms such as Snapchat and YouTube to drive innovation.
Build partnerships. Whether for access to funding, expertise, platforms, or audiences, partnerships will be essential.
- Build strong brands and make sure your data is in order.
“The more data you have, the more you can prepare for the future,” Watson said.