As incredibly vast as New York City is, it has always been a great place to walk around. Its multitude of wonderfully diverse neighborhoods, streets, buildings, parks, shops and endless array of other sites can always be more fully appreciated going on foot here and there in – – as we NYC natives like call it – – “The City”.
The April 26, 2015 edition of The New York Times Magazine was devoted to this tradition. The lead off piece by Steve Duenes was entitled How to Walk in New York. This was followed by several other pieces and then reports on 15 walks around specific neighborhoods. (Clicking on the Magazine’s link above and then scrolling down to the second and third pages will produce links to nearly all of these articles.) I was thrilled by reading this because I am such an avid walker myself.
The very next day, on May 27, 2015, Wired.com carried a fascinating story about how one of the issues’ accompanying and rather astonishing supporting graphics was actually done in a report by Angela Watercutter entitled How the NY Times is Sparking the VR Journalism Revolution. But even that’s not the half of it – – the NYTimes has made available for downloading a full virtual reality file of the full construction and deconstruction of the graphic. The Wired.com post contains the link as well as a truly mind-boggling high-speed YouTube video of the graphic’s rapid appearance and disappearance and a screen capture from the VR file itself. (Is “screen capture” really accurate to describe it or is something more like “VR frame”?) This could take news reporting into an entirely new dimension where viewers literally go inside of a story.
I will sum up, annotate and pose a few questions about this story. (For another other enthusiastic Subway Fold post about VR, last updated on March 26, 2015, please see Virtual Reality Movies Wow Audiences at 2015’s Sundance and SXSW Festivals.)
This all began on April 11, 2015 when a French artist named JR pieced together and then removed in less than 24 hours, a 150-foot photograph right across the street from the landmark Flatiron Building. This New York Times commissioned image was of “a 20-year-old Azerbaijani immigrant named Elmar Aliyev”. It was used on the cover of this special NYTimes Magazine edition. Upon its completion JR then photographed from a helicopter hovering above. (See the March 19, 2015 Subway Fold post entitled Spectacular Views of New York, San Francisco and Las Vegas at Night from 7,500 Feet Up for another innovative project inject involving highly advanced photography of New York also taken from a helicopter.)
The NYTimes deployed VR technology from a company called VRSE.tools to transform this whole artistic experience into a fully immersive presentation entitled Walking New York. The paper introduced this new creation at a news conference on April 27th. To summarize the NYTimes Magazine’s editor-in-chief, Jake Silverstein, this project was chosen for a VR implementation because it would so dramatically enhance a viewer’s experience of it. Otherwise, pedestrians walking over the image across the sidewalk would not nearly get the full effect of it.
Viewing Walking New York in full VR mode will require an app from VRSE’s site (linked above), and a VR viewer such as, among others, Google Cardboard.
The boost to VR as an emerging medium by the NYTimes‘ engagement on this project is quite significant. Moreover, this demonstrates how it can now be implemented in journalism. Mr. Silverman, to paraphrase his points of view, believes this demonstrates how it can be used to literally and virtually bring someone into a story. Furthermore, by doing so, the effect upon the VR viewer is likely to be an increased amount of empathy for certain individuals and circumstances who are the subjects of these more immersive reports.
There will more than likely be a long way to go before “VR filming rigs” can be sent out by news organizations to cover stories as they occur. The hardware is just now that widespread or mainstream yet. As well, the number of people who are trained and know how to use this equipment is still quite small and, even for those who do, preparing such a virtual presentation lags behind today’s pace of news reporting.
Another journalist venturing into VR work is Newsweek reporter Nonny de la Pena’s reconstruction of the shooting in the Trayvon Martin case. (See ‘Godmother of VR’ Sees Journalism as the Future of Virtual Reality by Edward Helmore, posted on The Guardian’s website on March 11, 2015, for in-depth coverage of her innovative efforts.)
Let’s assume that out on the not too distant horizon that VR journalism gains acceptance, its mobility and ease-of-use increases, and the rosters of VR-trained reporters and producers increases so that this field undergoes some genuine economies of scale. Then, as with many other life cycles of emergent technologies, the applications in this nascent field would only become limited by the imaginations by its professionals and their audiences. My questions are as follows:
- What if the leading social media platforms such as Twitter, Facebook (which already purchased Oculus, the maker of VR headsets for $2B last year), LinkedIn, Instagram (VR Instgramming, anyone?), and others integrate VR into their capabilities? For example, Twitter has recently added a live video feature called Periscope that its users have quickly and widely embraced. In fact, it is already being used for live news reporting as users turn their phones towards live events as they happen. Would they just as likely equally swarm to VR?
- What if new startup social media platforms launch that are purely focused on experiencing news, commentary, and discussion in VR?
- Will previously unanticipated ethical standards be needed and likewise dilemmas result as journalists move up the experience curve with VR?
- How would the data and analytics firms that parse and interpret social media looking for news trends add VR newsfeeds into their operations and results? (See the Subway Fold posts on January 21, 2015 entitled The Transformation of News Distribution by Social Media Platforms in 2015 and on December 2, 2014 entitled Startup is Visualizing and Interpreting Massive Quantities of Daily Online News Content.)
- Can and should VR be applied to breaking news, documentaries and news shows such as 60 Minutes? What could be the potential risks in doing so?
- Can drone technology and VR news gathering be blended into a hybrid flying VR capture platform?
I am also looking forward to seeing what other applications, adaptations and markets for VR journalism will emerge that no one can possibly anticipate at this point.