Virtual reality debuts in Indian journalism

BY SHUMA RAHA| IN Media Practice | 24/10/2016
After the internet and the rise of digital media, VR could well turn out to be journalism’s next big technological disruptor.
SHUMA RAHA explores the concept of ‘immersive journalism’

A still from the Memesys film "You Keep the Cow's Tail",  on the Una march.


On Monday Memesys Culture Lab, a multimedia outfit founded by filmmaker Anand Gandhi, launches India’s first virtual reality magazine, ElseVR (pronounced Elsewhere). This includes the launch of its app featuring three films that have been shot in the VR format and can be viewed as 360 degrees immersive experiences. 

One of the films is on how coal mining is affecting the lives of adivasis around the Kusmunda coal mine in Chhattisgarh. The second is on the agitation to win women’s right to worship at the Trimbakeshwar temple in Nashik in Maharashtra earlier this year, and the third on the Una protest march by Dalits in August after six Dalit men were flogged because they were carrying the carcass of a dead cow.

Viewed with a headset like the Google Cardboard or the Samsung Gear VR, these films make you feel as though you are inside the picture, within smelling distance of the desolation of a coal mine’s fly ash pond or the smouldering anger of Dalits protesting against a grievous wrong. 

“The online quarterly magazine is VR with multimedia,” says Khushboo Ranka, editor-in-chief, ElseVR. “So the eight-minute films are accompanied by other material such as text to contextualise the narrative.” 


"ElseVR may be India’s first effort to meld virtual reality with journalism, but global news media have been experimenting with the VR platform for some years."


ElseVR may be India’s first effort to meld virtual reality with journalism, but global news media have been experimenting with the VR platform for some years. Though the concept of virtual reality seems to be straight out of science fiction, or at best the gaming universe, the technology is actually a pretty irresistible storytelling tool. The immediacy of the 360 degree experience (as opposed to the flat 2D or 3D images) is such that the viewer feels as though he or she is witnessing the action while physically present on the scene. It’s why VR is called “immersive journalism” — it feels like you have been pitched into the story unfolding all around. (For the truly immersive feel, you need to use a headset; watching a 360 degree video on YouTube is not the real thing.)

In other words, after the internet and the rise of digital media, VR could well turn out to be journalism’s next big disruptive event.  

This year the BBC and the NBC made substantial use of 360 degree videos to cover the Rio Olympics. Newspapers such as The New York Times, Los Angeles Times or The Guardian already have their own VR apps, which you can download on your smart phone, connect to a headset and view their VR films. You can take a virtual tour of the Gale Crater on Mars (LAT), experience the texture of Pluto’s frozen, serrated terrain up close (NYT), or, as in the The Guardian’s Project 6X9, feel the crushing claustrophobia of being in solitary confinement. 

These may be more experiential knowledge videos than films of news events. But they are really part of the effort of news organisations to familiarise themselves — and their audience — with the next generation of media technology.  

Nonny de la Peña, a Los Angeles-based journalist and film maker, is someone who has been at  the vanguard of bringing VR to journalism. Often referred to as the Godmother of VR, Peña, whose Twitter handle is @immersivejourno, has been using the technology to great effect to tell some hard-hitting stories. Her VR films include  Project Syria (2014), an extensively researched journalistic piece which recreates two scenarios — a bombing in an Aleppo street and a Syrian refugee camp; a film of a Mexican refugee being beaten up by a US border patrol; and another on an event that roiled race relations in the US — the shooting of Treyvon Martin, a black youth who was gunned down by a neighbourhood watchman in 2012.  

In a 2015 TED talk titled The Future of News: Virtual Reality, Peña said, “With virtual reality I can put you right in the middle of the story… so you get a whole body sensation of actually being there.” To Peña, there is no better, more intense or visceral way to connect the audience with a story. “This stuff works, it really does,” she says.


"There is no better, more intense or visceral way to connect the audience with a story."


Though the global media are making their first forays into VR, Indian news organisations have largely ignored the technology. The exceptions are feisty new digital news portals such as The Quint which  have begun to experiment with 360 degree videos. (See hereand here). Says Ritu Kapur, co-founder, The Quint, “Since our reporters have really warmed up to the idea, we are now looking to invest in higher technology.”

It’s certainly a start — although 360 degree videos viewed without a headset, and where you have to move your phone around, does not provide the truly immersive experience of VR.

Prasanto K Roy, former technology journalist and now head of NASSCOM's Internet Council, says that VR is a natural fit for mobile multimedia, but that Indian news media have been slow to take to the mobile itself (barring mobile websites and a few apps, none of which is in the top 100 apps in India). This is especially stark given India's roughly billion mobiles.  

Roy adds that typically, large media organisations are slow to take up tech until after it disrupts them. "Many of them ignored the internet when it first turned up in India in 1996, and it was left to disruptors like Rediff and Indiaworld to show the way. Today, in the West — where news media have long been disrupted by digital players, with a lot of print having shut down — media firms are experimenting with cutting edge digital tech, including virtual reality. Indian media houses haven't been as severely disrupted yet, and print is going strong, creating less appetite for experimenting with technology.”

Indian news television channels too feature only  broadcast videos — there is no significant use of multimedia on their digital platforms. “In contrast, large global electronic media organisations such as the BBC or the CNN are extremely reliant on multimedia digital tech. So it’s natural that they would take up VR,” says Roy.

Of course, even in the West, the costs and the complexity of the technology remain a barrier to its widespread adoption. The good thing is, the costs have been coming down in recent years. There are now several relatively inexpensive (about Rs 34,000) VR cameras such as the Ricoh Theta S, the Nikon Keymission 360 or the Samsung Gear 360 available, which can be used by reporters to produce stitched VR footage. 

Headsets too are getting cheaper. While there are the more expensive variety such as  the Oculus Rift or the HTC Vive, a basic Google Cardboard costs no more than a few hundred rupees on Amazon.

Some publications are doing their bit to pump up the use of VR hardware on the consumer side. In April this year, The New York Times distributed 300,000 free Google Cardboard devices to its most loyal digital subscribers so they could view its new VR film called Seeking Pluto’s Frigid Heart. In fact, when the paper launched its VR app last year, it gave away a million headsets to its print subscribers!

Despite the desire to push the storytelling envelope with VR, those who are employing it admit that they are still figuring out the medium. “Right now we are just scribbling on the canvas,” says ElseVR’s Ranka. “With every film, we are learning something more about the technology and how best to use it to narrate non-fiction.”

So will VR transform journalism? Will newsrooms of the future dispense with text and 2D images and switch to conveying everything in spherical, 360 degree format? And will consumers want to get their news fix in media res — through VR goggles that plunge them into the scene of the story? 

That vision seems slightly dystopic to one’s early 21st century sensibilities. But, really, it is too early to tell. As the technology stands today, it’s clearly fantastic for creating powerful immersive experiences of specific situations. Says Nasr ul Hadi, journalist and Delhi-based consultant for digital media companies, “The cost-benefit analysis of VR to tell a one-off story isn't great. But using it to build a reusable, repurpose-able asset could make sense. For example: VR films on emergency medical care access in non-metros or virtual tours of spaces often in the news such as Parliament in session and so on.”

Indeed, for all the excitement around VR, at this point it is undoubtedly faster and cheaper to stick to current multimedia formats to report news stories. But that could change. As is so often the case, today’s “esoteric, gimmicky” technology may be totally mainstream tomorrow.

If that happens with VR, one hopes Indian new media won’t be left scrambling to play catch up.


Shuma Raha is a Delhi-based freelance journalist. Twitter: @ShumaRaha



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