Newsrooms Join the Virtual Reality Bandwagon Through Facebook
A prominent media flagship brand has recently jumped on the virtual reality bandwagon through the Facebook platform. That brand is the USA TODAY NETWORK, which boasts approximately 107 properties located in various places around the country, such as The Indianapolis Star, Detroit Free Press, The Cincinnati Enquirer, The Tennessen, and The Des Moines Register. In line with its goal to expand its reach globally, USA TODAY has harnessed the power of virtual reality by producing creative and exciting media videos in 360 format on its Facebook page. At present, the network’s videos are one of the most popular 360 videos on the Facebook platform.
USA TODAY NETWORK Uses VR Through Facebook
Niko Chauls, who serves as Gannett’s director of Applied Technology, has this to say about the recent practice of using VR in media: “We think about virtual reality as a new medium—not a feature enhancement, or a platform, but a new, emerging medium. It represents a tremendous opportunity for us as storytellers and content creators.”
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In the same way, Facebook is greatly interested in both virtual reality and 360 video technology especially in terms of their usage on different kinds of platforms. The intense commitment that Facebook is showing toward these technologies has encouraged many media organizations like USA TODAY think more extensively of strategies that can help them harness the power of virtual reality and use such power in their current work processes. “Harvest of Change,” the introductory VR project of the network, was created as a means to test the waters with the new and unfamiliar technology.
“At the time we did not really understand what we were getting into, but had an instinct that VR and 360 was an area we needed to explore,” Chauls said about the project, which relates the travails of a farming family in Iowa.
Harvest of Change was conceptualized with the Oculus Rift DK2 In mind. The initial design featured a CGI image of the farm, with graphics and completely spherical videos that were based on the gathered data. The project became a massive success, and for his efforts, Edward R. Murrow received an award from the National Press Foundation for the Best Use of Technology in Journalism.
On the recognition, Chauls said further, “More importantly, it demonstrated to us internally the power of immersion and engagement of VR and 360 content experiences.”
In two years, the USA TODAY NETWORK has conceptualized and created over 40 virtual reality productions. In the beginning, the cameras they used weren’t of the 360-degree kind; even then, the network was able to produce a quantity of features, one of which included the Kentucky Derby, a collaboration with the Courier-Journal based in Louisville. They also provided regular updates on the Cincinnati Reds for one season, working with the Cincinnati Enquirer. In another video, they took their viewers to Havana, Cuba, for the first time via VR, with both Spanish and English translations.
“We are still humble students of the space,” Chauls added.
Upon dealing with additional quantities of spherical content, the news organization took it upon themselves to learn how to relay stories via a 360 platform. Most of the producers had to relearn the processes entailed in the art of narrative and learn how to create a perfect story structure via new medium. With a lot of experimentation, the tools needed in telling a story through a new medium were learned.
“Over time we built up a series of ‘practices’ that to this day we still refuse to call ‘best practices,’” Chauls said.
Among them are:
For instance, at a shoot at an IndyCar event held at the Texas Motor Speedway, they realized that the height of the camera influenced the intensity of the presence. At first, they would place the camera a bit higher than the drive, but they quickly found out that instead of creating an impression of a 250 mph speed, they had actually achieved the opposite as the viewer seemed to just be awkwardly floating above the car. When the footage was reviewed, this error was observed. In the end, they had to do another take of the scene.
When they are used in multiple shoots, VR equipment have a tendency to overheat as they get overworked. Upon realizing this, the USA TODAY staff started bringing portable cooling units to sets; they had already built these units in-house.
The transition they made from 360 rigs to GoPro arrays and other types of completely spherical cameras was smooth and quick because the team behind it didn’t waste any time on switching the instant the opportunity presented itself. The Ricoh Theta S., which is consumer-focused, was also used. They declared plans to work with the Facebook 360 camera in the future.
In this time, an interview with the Blue Angels was conducted, and the footage was aired. Mark Zuckerberg himself shared the shoot with the aim to point out the unique innovations regarding the technical aspects and the storytelling. On one USA TODAY Facebook post in particular, the clip attached to the post generated over 11 million views; 98,000 likes; 340,000 shares; and 33,000 comments in total.
About this achievement, Chauls said, “This clearly demonstrated to us how powerful 360 content assets can be in storytelling and as a social sharing mechanism. The Facebook platform allowed our audience to view and interact with the content without requiring a download, plugin, or special equipment.”
Once headquarters gained enough information, the network then worked on making sure that the entire organization has access to that information. To do this, the core team based in Virginia invited several members from several media rooms to a virtual reality convention, in which they all trained such members in the said VR knowledge. They provided the whole team, which consisted of over 3,800 journalists, with equipment, knowledge, and practices that they could take back to their newsrooms. It was an exercise in education and empowerment.
As can be seen from their experiences with VR, the investments they have taken on have paid off greatly, as now VR and 360 stories are constantly shared not just in many states but also all over the country. At their recent launch of VRTually, the USA TODAY NETWORK announced that they plan to feature an eclectic lineup of program content with diverse topics.
Chauls concluded, “Virtual reality represents the new frontier of immersive storytelling. As we begin to master the tools and techniques of this new medium, we’re already looking beyond and preparing for the next wave of technological opportunity.”