Virtual reality is also defined as "multimedia immersion" for its capacity to recreate sensory experiences such as taste, smell, sound or touch. In the U.S. they are already creating contents that cause this "total immersion" applied to journalism.
In October 2014, Des Moines Register, the local newspaper in Des Moines, a rural town in Iowa, launched an interactive project called Harvest of Change, five articles whose aim was to show the forces that are driving changes in this state: culture, immigration, technology, globalization and age. In addition to the usual text and images, each article also includes the point of view of a farming family, recorded with 3D lenses and which enables readers with an Oculus Rift headset to experience first hand the feelings in the farm, how these five factors affect everyday life, and make decisions about the farm in the first person.
Since it is unlikely that any of the 420,000 readers of the Des Moines Register has one of the 20,000 Oculus Rift headsets distributed so far, Gannett, the developer of the project and owner of the newspaper, also developed a computer simulator. It is one of the first projects undertaken by Gannet, the owner of USA Today, which specializes in the development of immersive contents that enable users to live the stories in the first person thanks to virtual reality.
“Virtual reality (VR), which is often defined as 'multimedia immersion', is a technologically-simulated environment that can represent the physical presence in a real or imaginary environment. VR can recreate virtual sensory experiences such as taste, smell, sound or touch”. This is how Robert Hernández, professor of the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism of the University of California, defines virtual reality.
We have heard about virtual reality since the 1980s and 1990s, when there were attempts to carry out some projects associated with the early computers, with little success. However, it is now when this technological experience has become a present and future trend. What has happened?
Two very important aspects:
- Software and hardware: Technology today is better than ever both to produce and to consume relevant content in 3D, thanks to the new headsets.
- Content: Although the price for generating immersive content is still high, there are many examples of generation of Virtual Reality content in areas such as gaming or journalism.
For most of the market, virtual reality returned from fiction and installed itself in the real world in 2014 when it became known that Facebook had paid 2 billion dollars for Oculus Rift, a virtual reality headset. Cory Ondrejka, co-founder of Second Life and current director of the project in the social network, pointed out in an interview with the digital publication The Verge:
“Today we capture our spaces in different ways. I can send you a text message, but if I send you a picture, the experience is more powerful. And if it's a video, you'll have a better idea of where I am. The next step is to capture that moment in 360º, the depth of the experience with which you are going to live what I'm feeling is absolutely deeper. This is what we're working on”.
The DK2 for Oculus developers is available at an average price of $350 and although the commercial version is not yet available, nothing suggests that the price will be any lower.
At the opposite end, Google has presented the low-cost version, Google Cardboard, a cardboard headset that enables the use of Android phones (not iPhone) to enjoy immersive content and is available for $20.
Between these two extremes there is a wide range of headsets with different specifications, notably Sony's Morpheus Project, an immersive headset that goes one step beyond the PlayStation and has not yet been launched. Samsung Gear VR or HTC Vive are other options of headsets available on the market.
In 2014, when the technology began to show clear signs that it was mature enough to reach the public, some companies started developing content suitable for being consumed in 3D, a generation of content that is still too costly.
Emblematic Group is one of the companies that has more rapidly excelled in the development of content for “total immersion” applied to journalism. The goal of most of the experiences developed by Nonny de la Peña and her team is for users to live an event in the first person. The company digitally reconstructs the scenarios of an extreme situation and makes the user relive the entire event in the first person through a virtual reality headset. De la Peña has used this immersive content in denunciation projects such as Hunger in Los Angeles, Use of Force and Project Siria (Victoria & Albert Museum).
Along the same line, the startup Empathetic Media lets the user relive in the first person the events that took place in Ferguson, with a project developed for Fusion that can be viewed on a computer, but “lived” in the first person with mobile viewing in a Google Cardboard.
Gannett Media has also established itself in the generation of virtual reality content. Beyond the experience with the Des Moines Register, it has generated an immersive experience with Cincinatti's baseball team, the Cincinatti Reds, to enjoy the matches with a 360º view.
Sports is another area where immersive content is being generated. Widerun defines itself as Virtual Reality Fitness, and its proposition is for users to pedal on an exercise bike while their headsets make them feel they are traveling around the most incredible places.