Virtual reality program allows journalists to tell more immersive stories

Alastair Talbot

First, it was the internet, then came social media. Now, journalism has found another innovative way of captivating an audience’s attention through a new level of immersive technology: virtual reality.

Virtual reality is the use of computer-generated technology to create a simulated environment. Unlike traditional user interaction, VR places the user inside an experience. Newsrooms like The Washington Post have started adopting computer-generated technology to cover significant events such as the pope’s arrival in Mexico, the Iowa caucus during the presidential election and the teleportation of readers to Mars in VR.

Starting in 2015, UT received multiple grants from the Knight’s Foundation, the Longhorn Innovation Fund for Technology and the dean of the Moody College of Communication in order to develop an open-source software for journalists to publish their own works on VR content without needing the skills of an engineer or a programmer. The UT School of Journalism, the UT3D film program, the Texas Advanced Computing Center and The Washington Post were associates for the assignment.

“We were working with computer scientists,   journalists and engineering students at the time,” said R.B. Brenner, the director of the UT School of Journalism. “They learned from us while we were learning from them as well. There were a lot of different talents working on this project, which made it even more challenging.”

The software, called Immerj, offers the choice of adding text, images, audio files and 3D models  within a 360-degree video made through virtual reality. The journalism pr    ograms at Syracuse University and Stanford University, as well as other media organizations such as NPR and the Texas Tribune, have started using the system.

“Immerj, which is spelled with a ‘j’ at the end because it includes the journalism aspect to the name, helps storytellers reach their audience by making them feel physically present or engaged with the story,” Brenner said. “It’s also a particular and effective way to bring someone to a location they can’t specifically go to physically.”

The immersive technology is perfectly suited to recreate historical events, but the format doesn’t suit every type of story, Brenner said.

“When you’re doing a story through VR, like the one the Post did on Mars, you can embed eight different stories at the same time, and that provides the reader with a better understanding of the event,” Brenner said.

Journalism graduate student Paro Pain said she thinks VR can even be beneficial for journalists in a classroom setting.

“It is a great way for students to interact and gain hands-on experience with different kinds of information,” Pain said. “VR in the classroom will help students think and process information better. It provides for a more immersive experience of topics.”

Although technology has a growing influence on journalism, Pain said she doesn’t think the basic requirements of being able to spot an excellent story, develop a narrative and relay a meaningful account will ever change.

“These are the cornerstones of the profession, and VR and other technology will only enhance them,” Pain said. “A doctor can be a better surgeon with precision instruments, but tools alone cannot replace the ability to connect with patients and
understand their issues.”