Last week I attended the Orama Festival in London, which explored the future of immersive journalism and storytelling. Several NGOs were in attendance and there was a panel discussion on Immersive Journalism content for Social Impact with Charlotte Mikkelborg, Peter Speller, Mary Matheson and Marisol Grandon. There were also content demonstrations of WaterAid’s Aftershock, Plan International’s Mamie’s Dream and Born Into Exile.
A lot of the discussions were based around the technical issues of filming in 360; where do you place the camera? how do you use sounds to prompt the viewer to turn around; lighting issues; flow of action; proximity and the ethical dilemmas of not knowing what’s behind you when filming or the fact that many people are unaware of what a 360 camera looks like. There were also a lot of discussions around distribution outlets – how do you get people to watch your films once they have been made?
Producing 360 films is getting cheaper, but I did overhear someone say they produced a film for around $35,000 which is cheap. Is it cheap? What is the return on investment? Maybe it’s more to do with training opportunity cost as I genuinely don’t believe that NGOs will recoup the costs of producing a 360 film with donations. One of the panellists claimed that VR increases the conversion rate for NGOs by 100%, another panellist estimated 80%. I didn’t challenge this or ask what they meant by conversion rate – I should have done. Are they talking about donations? Are we due to see an army of street fundraisers armed with VR headsets in the future? Scary thought. Marisol Grandon from Unfold Stories highlighted the impact of VR as an advocacy tool. I expect she was referring to the apparent success of Clouds Over Sidra and it’s launch at DAVOS.
— Unfold Stories (@Unfold_Stories) April 1, 2017
Apparently the VR headset market was worth $5.2 billion in 2016 and will rise to £162 billion in 2020. There was discussion around whether there will be VR fatigue in the not too distant future, but it was agreed that is is extremely unlikely. As technology improves and the cost of headsets fall, 360 video and VR is likely to grow and grow. One speaker said that “360 video enables us to step into the facts and engage with them” – I’m sorry but I really do not agree with this and it scares me somewhat. There is a great academic paper which debates the ethics of immersive journalism, which is a must read for all journalists/NGOs experimenting with 360/VR. I worry about people describing VR as “transportive”, “emotional” and “evoking empathy” – the stories we receive as viewers are very much down to the orchestration of the director/producer.
At the moment VR is a solitary rather than a community experience, although in China there are already hundreds of VR arcades. One participant at the conference asked whether VR is a backlash to the “light touch” aspects of social media. Very possible – or is it a ethical timebomb just waiting to explode.