What the VR industry is missing

Virtual reality (VR) may have the potential to touch every industry. But it might not belong in every industry – just yet.

Perhaps the most exciting thing about virtual reality (VR) is that it has the potential to touch every industry. But it might not belong in every industry – yet.

As of June 2015, 76 percent of VR content was games, created by mostly gamers. But recently, VR for journalistic storytelling has taken a front seat.

In late October, The New York Times shipped over one million Google Cardboards to print subscribers. The cardboard box came with instructions to download an app to not only read or watch, but also experience the stories of three displaced children from South Sudan, Ukraine and Syria in virtual reality. VR is an “empathy machine,” filmmaker and Vrse CEO Chris Milk has said, enabling cinematic virtual reality (CVR) to lend itself to immersive journalism.

Tanja Aitamurto, deputy director of the Brown Institute for Media Innovation at Stanford, told Peninsula Press that the best impact of VR will likely be in two buckets: either taking cinematic virtual reality to exotic and remote locations, or bringing absorption and involvement to local and mundane stories.

Because of VR’s immersive nature, stories told well can touch more of the viewer’s senses than a traditional video. The viewer is no longer simply watching what the journalist presents, but actively looking around, forcing the viewer to pay closer attention.

Aitamurto envisions that virtual reality can be utilized as a civic technology, to contribute to the common good.

But VR researchers say the technology doesn’t work universally for all types of applications.

In an Oct. 2015 article in Slate, Jeremy Bailenson, director of Stanford’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab (VHIL), wrote about the Democratic presidential debate airing in virtual reality: “Used properly, virtual reality is poised to transform the way we engage with our world and with each other. A political debate is not one of those scenarios.”

For now, VR enthusiasts are trying to spread the technology to the masses.

Aashna Mago, a Stanford junior in computer science calls herself a “VR evangelist” and hopes to make virtual reality more accessible. For a few months, she carried a VR headset with her everywhere, to viscerally show virtual reality to the people she met.

Mago, who is a founder of organizations Women in VR and Stanford Rabbit Hole VR, believes different types of stories can be told in VR. “The men who primarily comprise the VR industry” will humor stories in VR that allow the viewer to learn more from each piece, each world they visit. The “call to action,” according to Mago, may be one of immersive journalism’s most powerful components.

As virtual reality becomes more consumer-ready and accessible, Aitamurto sees a future of immersive journalism as a medium for collective intelligence that will extend across industries.

(Editor’s Note: Peninsula Press is a project of the Stanford Journalism Program, which is collaborating with the Stanford Virtual Human Interaction Lab and the Brown Institute for Media Innovation on projects. Reporter Naomi Cornman works in the Stanford Virtual Human Interaction Lab as a graduate student researcher and is the media and communications lead with Rabbit Hole VR.)

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