Storytelling was once a one-way street: from cave paintings to newsprint to television and podcasts, there was a creator and an audience, and the audience was supposed to sit silently and take in the words of the storyteller. Now, however, stories can be told with immersive technology like virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR), making the audience not only observers, but participants. And as the technology that makes such storytelling possible advances, more and more storytellers are jumping on board.
“Augmented reality is a natural platform for journalism,” says Jeremy Gilbert, director of strategic initiatives at The Washington Post. “Even though new devices capable of ever richer AR experiences are being developed, mobile phones already allow compelling AR storytelling so The Post can be simultaneously exploring the future and successfully distributing its stories in the present.”
One of The Post’s first big augmented reality projects gives viewers an inside look at some of the world’s most iconic billion dollar buildings, such as the Elbphilharmonie concert hall in Hamburg, Germany, and the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, DC.
“In AR, users can more tangibly interact with storytelling artifacts — scaling things with their own hands or bringing foreign objects into familiar spaces,” Gilbert says. “So far, we have seen the power of introducing virtual objects into physical spaces, the value of showing locations at different zoom levels, historical recreations and even AR stencils for jack-o-lantern carving.”
It’s not just news outlets like The New York Times, The Guardian and The Wall Street Journal experimenting with VR and AR. Advertisers, too, are exploring what’s possible with these new methods of sharing stories and images.
This ability to merge the real and virtual worlds has led home décor retailers IKEA and Pottery Barn to create smartphone apps that let users place virtual furniture in their real rooms to see how the pieces will fit in their existing setups.
“Most people postpone a purchase of a new sofa because they’re not comfortable making the decision if they aren’t sure the color is going to match [the rest of the room] or fits the style,” Michael Valdsgaard, the leader of digital transformation at Inter IKEA, IKEA’s parent company, told Digiday. “Now, we can give them [those answers] in their hands, while letting them have fun with home furnishing for free and with no effort.”
People are also getting into VR and AR on a much, much smaller scale. Phinatics.com, a fan site for the Miami Dolphins, recently launched a Phinatics360 channel on YouTube, where they take Dolphins fans into press conferences, tailgating events and even the locker room using 360-degree video. While the videos are targeted at a smaller audience than the immersive products from IKEA or The New York Times, the fact that there is an audience is proof that immersive storytelling is becoming mainstream.
As the costs of AR and VR technology go down and interest in immersive storytelling rises, more outlets and organizations are likely to want to dip their toes into the virtual reality pool. And the bar for entry is much lower than most publishers think. At Digital Media North America, Marcelle Hopkins, the co-director of VR for The New York Times, discussed how easy it can be to get started, even for smaller publishers or organizations. Not only are journalists more adaptable than they’re given credit for, Hopkins said, but getting started in VR is fairly low-risk; the basic tools can be purchased for less than $1,000, she told the audience.
But you don’t have to aim for the skies on your first attempt. As The Washington Post’s Gilbert noted, AR and VR can be used for anything from small, fun stories on pumpkin-carving, to explorations of architecture to stories filmed on the frontlines of war. “The key is making sure that whatever you do truly advances the story,” Gilbert says. “It [also] needs to benefit the reader.”
Part of making sure any immersive techniques used enhance the story rather than overshadow it is having the journalists and tech teams collaborate so that both sides of the AR production are on the same page. Allowing the journalists to take the lead lets them guide the project so that the AR component isn’t something separate from the story it’s supposed to enhance.
“I think about immersive storytelling as a pyramid where at the top of the pyramid you have the smallest audience but the most immersive experience, and at the bottom of the pyramid would be probably our print- and web-based storytelling, where you have the lowest level of immersion but the highest audience,” Gilbert explains. “I think the key when you talk about these technologies is how can you move people from the lowest level of immersion to the highest. But I don’t see us looking at something and saying, ‘OK, we’re going to offer a really immersive experience, but it’s not going to include text.’
here are always going to be people who want to read our stories, and I don’t think I’ve yet seen a way for AR [alone] to tell the whole story.”
Jennifer Peters is former content manager of the News Media Alliance.