VR and AR: New ways of telling stories

Virtual and augmented reality give journalists the ability to tell stories that the audience can experience rather than simply consume. Both involve computer-generated imagery but use it differently. VR creates a simulation of real life while AR adds layers to the user’s actual surroundings. The Pokemon Go fad may be the best-known AR example but it’s also been used to provide a 3D view of an object in the news. Quartz, for example, let users of its iPhone app get a close-up look at the Cassini spacecraft in augmented reality.

“With AR, we are not creating a new world,” says John Keefe, a developer and project manager for Quartz. “The world is your world and we’re just adding to it.”

Virtual reality is more about providing an immersive experience for the user. The Guardian’s VR project 6×9, for example, let users see what it would be like to live in solitary confinement in a cell that’s just six feet wide by nine feet long. “Welcome to your cell,” the voice-over says. “You’re going to be here for 23 hours a day.” The actual experience lasts just nine minutes but it feels real, and that’s what makes VR so compelling.

“It is the real, extraordinary sense of being present on scene that creates a visceral connection that is really unique to this medium,” says Nonny de la Peña, a VR pioneer quoted by The Guardian. That connection brings a different kind of understanding of the content, which means virtual reality works really well for some kinds of stories and not so well for others. A study by Google News Lab found that people often struggle to remember exact details of VR content but they definitely remember what they felt. VR “leaves viewers with powerful emotional experiences.”

An Associated Press report on the future of AR journalism found its best use is to add context to a larger story package that can incorporate more depth and detail through text, graphics and other media. Deciding whether to use AR, the AP report says, depends on the answers to these questions:

  • What aspect of this story is the most explorable?
  • How can I give my audience a perspective that other mediums can’t?
  • How is my audience going to play with this AR extension?

We’d add one more. How much time do you have? Keefe says the process of prepping a single 3D object and having it ready for AR display can take as many as one or two days. A complete VR story can take much longer. For the time being, AR and VR are tools best used for exploring a story that’s predictable and that’s going to be in the news for an extended period of time.

Social VR, on the other hand, is designed for quick hits but has different drawbacks. In Facebook Spaces users can create an avatar and share what they’re seeing in real life. But, as Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg learned, a cartoonish take on hurricane damage can come across as insensitive. Amara Aguilar, who teaches at the University of Southern California, organized a day-long social VR event and says it has great potential. Her write-up at Mediashift shares these tips from Facebook’s trainers: Keep it simple, straightforward and human.


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