Cronkite students discuss the process and impact of VR journalism

Virtual reality and 360-degree video were two pieces of cutting-edge tech discussed at this week’s Cronkite School speaker series. (Nathan Thrash/DD)

In a world where technological advances go from utterly unknown to viral overnight, Cronkite students Ryan Hayes, Stevi Rex and Carolina Marquez are diving into virtual reality while it’s still on the ascent.

Virtual reality and 360-degree video were two of the cutting-edge technologies discussed at this week’s Must See Monday — the Cronkite School’s weekly speaker series.

“It’s the next big thing,” said New Media Innovation and Entrepreneurship Lab Director Retha Hill, who has helped the three students navigate the new technology.

Hayes, Rex and Marquez started out with little to no knowledge of 360 video and virtual reality, but are now regularly incorporating it into their daily journalism.

Marquez and Hayes, two documentary makers, reported on the border using the new technology. They discussed the importance of properly setting up a 360 video rig, complete with five or six GoPro video cameras, a mount to stabilize it, a smart remote, and binaural audio recorder.

Once the video is filmed and uploaded, special stitching software overlaps the images to create the 360 view.

“You have to have these extended skills to bring a new tool to the documentary or whatever you’re making, so stitching’s very important,” said Hayes.

The trio is among the nine co-founders of a startup called Terrainial, which “delivers immersive virtual reality content about critical southwest issues,” according to its Facebook page.

“The amount of opportunity that’s in virtual reality right now is immense,” said Rex, who was also hired as a marketing director for Greenlight VR, a business intelligence firm.

The talk also featured discussion of VR use in other journalistic capacities. Nonny de la Peña, a virtual reality journalist, takes real life stories and recreates what happened in a virtual environment.

“Kiya,” one of her interactive videos, puts the viewer in the same room as a young woman being held at gunpoint by her boyfriend, as her two sisters plead for her life.

“It’s one of the most powerful things I’ve ever witnessed,” Hill said.

Hill also mentioned that virtual reality will likely be used to recreate terrorism attacks, like bombings, and other newsworthy stories that would make informative interactive experiences.

She also said the goal is not to traumatize viewers with the highly realistic imagery, but to create empathy toward those who have witnessed these events in real life.

“I think for journalists this is what we want,” Hill said. “We want people to be engaged in media … as opposed to having the news on while they’re fixing breakfast.”

The talk also touched on ethical concerns with virtual reality and 360 video. Some journalists are uncomfortable recreating events and think it’s too staged. Others believe virtual reality should show warnings before any graphic content.

There was also discussion of how transparency plays into these new technologies. For example, in 360 video, the journalist has the choice to hide or try to blend in, edit himself out in post-production, or transparently identify himself as a reporter.

Students in the New Media Innovation and Entrepreneurship Lab are developing a CronkiteVR app, which will be coming out in the spring.

“Every day there’s something new… you never know what’s next,” Rex said.

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