Forecasting future trajectories for immersive journalism

Turn Uskali, Astrid Gynnild, Esa Sirkkunen, and Sarah Jones

In this book we have critically explored the emerging practices of immersive journalism. In the news business, experimenting with new forms of storytelling has become the new normal. After spending a decade to get familiar with simple virtual reality tools, however, the future of immersive journalism is still considered uncertain. Immersive storytelling appears to become more concentrated on special events and locations. Journalistic virtual reality skills are increasingly crafted away from the newsrooms by small and specialized subcontractors. SponsoringVR by the big tech companies tends to diminish in parallel with a growing move towards augmented reality investments.

An early VR experiment by the Finnish Broadcasting Company (YLE) highlights some crucial challenges with implementing VR within news. In 2019, the public broadcaster funded a VR experience that imitated the first explosion of the hydrogen bomb Ivy Mike in 1952 in the Pacific Ocean. The video was produced by Tea Time Productions and promoted in YLE's main news program. The piece experiment was heavily criticized and considered a waste of time. It was too difficult for the viewers to grasp what was going on. In the broadcast the journalist wore the head-mounted display and moved around the studio, whilst the background showed the atoll and the explosion. Users could also download the video from the broadcaster’s website. The only dilemma was that most people in the audience did not own high-end VR devices, so later on YLE decided to offer the video experience at various events such as city fairs. The strategy was clear: to create the experience, demonstrate it in a traditional news format, then offer as a download and allow more people to experience the video in exhibition formats. The strategy uncovered the difficulties of promoting new visual technologies on established platforms. Television obviously cannot really support VR affordances such as presence and immersion. Additionally, the TV audience got the feeling of being ignored for a few valuable minutes by the public broadcaster.

In science and technology studies there is a growing interest in understanding the social consequences of technologies more reflectively. Lievrouw (2014,46—47) sketches a triad of artifacts, practices, and arrangements with which we can start to seek answers to the slow development of VR technology in a broader societal context.

As a thought experiment, we apply this model to the existing research findings of this book. An important aspect of VR as material artifacts is the poor usability of the low-end VR devices. The HMDs have been rather clunky to use, the visual footage has been blurry, audio monaural, etc. The offering of free cardboard HMDs was a sympathetic, shoelace-budget idea to introduce users to this new medium, but it came at a price. The smartphone can slide away easily from the cardboard, the footage is rather fuzzy, and the feeling of immersion limited. These experiences may partly explain the low interest in VR content or devices. In addition, fears of simulation sickness, especially when using low-end devices, has made users suspicious and less eager to try new gadgets. Chapter 11 on the hierarchy of user experience articulated clearly the importance of understanding the material usability of VR artifacts.

The usability of VR devices has been previously up for discussion as well. The technological lag between expectations and reality created much disappointment during the second appearance of VR in the 1990s (Evans 2019). The costs of high- end devices with better usability have remained high. Thus, VR is still far from being the democratic medium as was previously predicted.

Following Marshall McLuhan’s famous tetrad of media effects (McLuhan & McLuhan 1988), we can ponder what kind of media practices the use ofVR would render obsolete? Television still has important cohesive meaning in modern societies, although cloud-based services like Netflix have been challenging the ritualistic television usage.The good side of conventional TV is that it allows multitasking, which is, at the moment, impossible with VR. The social applications of VR are limited compared to social media apps. Users are left mostly alone in the VR environment, although AltSpaceVR and Facebook Spaces exemplify attempts to make VR more social. Therefore, we predict thatVR as a practice starts as a complementary, rather than an eliminatory, media practice.

Journalism follows its own production logics and ethics.The ethical premises of accuracy and transparency create tensions among journalists about how to be ethical storytellers in the virtual reality universe. Being transparent means making the users understand how immersive technologies work and how the users are affected by them.The underlying idea is that when users become more VR-literate they will become aware of the epistemic differences between genres such as immersive news and more interpretative immersive documentaries.

When thinking about arrangements and institutions, we enter into the world of digital economy. The global techno-giants’ Google, Facebook, Microsoft, and Samsung drive towards VR is a continuation of their general battle for market dominance of the emerging consumer VR market and the future of the digital economy, as Evans (2019, 46) states.The already functioning VR platforms demonstrate how the relations between users and companies are being arranged. When building is closed, proprietary platforms are able to control the contents and collect data from the reactions of users - as they have been doing with various other services. If the business model of data collection is transferred into VR usage, the concerns around privacy and user-profiling become paramount also in this field. The situation resembles the process around 2006—2008 when the social media platforms were established without public knowledge about their business model and its consequences. In the same way the platforms are setting the field and controlling the emerging practices of VR. However, structures and norms on how to regulate this new medium are still far into the future.

Our experiment with Lievrow’s model shows that in VR there is much improvement to be made. The material artifacts must be easier to use to become part of our daily practices. Immersive journalism needs to further develop storytelling approaches that are in alignment with journalism principles of accuracy and transparency. The alfordances of technology and journalism are challenged to merge in new ways. At the same time, some kind of regulation is needed to protect the users from emotional manipulation and exploitation. To a large extent the giant tech companies rule out the emerging practice for immersive technologies in journalism as well as in other business, without too much interference from the content producers themselves.

From the time that podcast was first developed as an immersive medium, it took ten years before it was adopted by journalism. The main factors that contributed to the breakthrough were: interesting content, enthusiastic producers, usable and widespread technology, users who knew how to use the devices, cloud services, fast connections, and channels of distribution that are independent of the producers of technology (Hammersley 2004; Berry 2015; Berry 2016; Bottomley 2015).

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