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Why Journalists Should Embrace Virtual Reality

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Photo: Maurizio Pesce//Flickr

There's this idea people have of the future. We're going to slowly lose our touch with humanity. Soon, all we'll know are the phones we sleep next to instead of the people we used to.

In part that's sort of true. Technology has spoiled us. If the world went off the grid tomorrow, who knows their way around a groove-skinned map? Does anyone have anyone's phone number memorized? Can anyone cook without a microwave or tell the time without a watch? (Who the heck uses a watch?). Some people can answer these questions confidently, but others, not so much.

And that's the point. Technology is said to be a hindrance to our communication. There's a known meme on the internet called TL;DR, which stands for Too Long, Didn't Read. As you might've guessed, internet users say this when a post is just too extensively long. In this day and age, TL;DR seems to apply to everything. People are busy, the internet's distracting and someone's texting. Traditionally interacting with people and media feels foreign.

So what does this mean for us journalists? Should we start burning Macs in a large square Fahrenheit 451 style? Of course not. We should take these tools and harness them to our will. We know we need to have the social medias all on lock, but what about the other tech? Stuff like ... virtual reality?

The first quarter of 2016 ushered in the long awaited dream of a technology we've seen time and time again. But this year, the concept of VR seems to have stuck--with more than just gamers. Last November, The New York Times shipped 1 million Google Cardboards to its print subscribers. Cardboard's a vein of affordable VR Google has created to work with your smartphone. Samsung owns a similar technology called the Gear VR. Following the Google Cardboard announcement, The Times launched its app, NYT VR, with a trio of virtual reality films to watch. This year, the newspaper will ship another batch of Cardboards to digital subscribers, according to an April 2016 article by The Verge.

Other media organizations have followed The Times' lead such as ABC News with its News VR section. The virtual reality craze is spreading way out of its video game jurisdiction. If there's one piece of technology journalists should be watching, it's this. Here are a few reasons why.

It's Immersive

My first virtual reality experience bypassed the Gear VR and Google Cardboard. At 2015's Consumer Electronics Show, I tried what is now known as the Oculus Rift, a headset Facebook acquired a few years ago for a cool $2 billion. Unlike the Google Cardboard or Gear VR, it runs off of a high-end PC.

It's unlike any other experience, and very difficult to communicate on a camera screen. When I say you have to be there, you have to be there. That allure of being in another world is what makes it special for journalism. We can take readers to places they've never been in a similar fashion to how our words do it now. But they won't need to visualize it. It's already there. The other major VR player in the industry right now is the HTC Vive, a joint partnership between game developer Valve and HTC, the smartphone manufacturer. It's equally as powerful as Oculus' rig. Below is a demonstration of it at CES 2016 in Las Vegas. Notice how the player tries to use her legs for the ladder scene. She's completely immersed.

There's an engagement you get out of virtual reality that you can't quite nail with an article or even a video. It forces the reader to interact with your work, what you've created and captured.

Reaches Younger Demographics

As mentioned earlier, it's hard to get people off their phones, especially younger people. Virtual reality could be a gateway for a younger audience. The 20-somethings who might never pick up a daily edition of The Times might be more so inclined with the perk of a Google Cardboard. In these cases, VR becomes a novelty. It's an attention-grabber. It'll draw your unorthodox reader--or should I say visualizer--in, and there you have it, a new subscriber.

Early Adopters Reap Benefits

Having your foot first in the door means you have more time with the trial and error period. Papers such as The Times are learning what works early on and what doesn't. When you're a journalist who starts experimenting with technology as advanced as this, early, you benefit more. You grow familiar with the medium you're working in. By the time another publication dips into the VR scene, you'll have already cleared the majority of your challenges.

All this in mind, there are still draw backs to using virtual reality in journalism. It's expensive. Google Cardboard is affordable because it's designed for mobile. High-end virtual reality seen in the earlier video is not. An HTC Vive will set you back $799, and that's not including the computer you need to run it. On top of this, you have to create content as a journalist and media organization. Constructing VR films require special equipment that can dip into the wallet. Although other work arounds such as 360 degree video is picking up steam. YouTube even has a section dedicated to it, according to The Verge.

The humanity factor is also an issue. How can we remain connected to one another if we're constantly plugged into our machines? Will this become the preferred way generations consume media? How can we know for sure? We can't, and that's both heart racing and bone chilling.

All I can recommend is journalists keep their eye on this new technology. Observe it. Play with it if you have the chance. But remember it's all in an effort to provide the necessary truth to our readers.

And to my readers, if you've made it this far, thank you. I know this was TL;DR :)