Knight Foundation explains why 2016 will make or break VR in journalism

The Knight Foundation partnered with USA Today to look at how virtual reality is being used in journalism, where it may be headed, and questions that need to be answered.

Virtual reality is seeping into a variety of different industries, including journalism. So far, news organizations like the Associated Press, ABC News, the New York Times, and others have released their first VR stories, taking viewers everywhere from North Korea to the makeshift memorial after the September 2015 terrorist attack in Paris.

The Knight Foundation partnered with USA Today to create a report called Viewing the Future? Virtual Reality in Journalism on the use of virtual reality journalism this March--one of the clear takeaways is that even though there are plenty of experiments happening in newsrooms, 2016 will still be a make or break year in determining whether virtual reality will become a reliable tool, or a passing fad.

In the past 100 years, journalism's had to adapt to radio, television, and the internet. Sam Gill, Knight Foundation vice president for learning and impact, thinks that technology tends to be neutral; it's a way of distributing information to meet the desire for knowledge that's always present.

"For journalism and the business of reporting news, the question is how, and to what extent, do you adapt to or make use of technological change and new advances in technology," Gill said.

The report has seven sections, including a broader market analysis, timeline of virtual reality in journalism, a rundown of opportunities and challenges, and benchmarks, as well as a look at what's been done, where it's headed, and why.

SEE: Immersive journalism: What virtual reality means for the future of storytelling and empathy-casting

"I think [news organizations are] just asking the latest iteration of that question, which is what can this new technological tool do to help us tell really critical stories in a more effective way, and what can't it do, or what isn't it able to do yet?" Gill said.

To get the broader context, the Knight Foundation went to data analysis firm Quid to get a look at marketplace trends, including intellectual property trends in virtual reality, as well as how large a space journalism occupies in the market. Quid split the market into three main areas: Education and gaming, hardware-focused, and real-world applications. Journalism falls into the real-world applications category, which makes up about 54.5% of the market. While investors are interested in all those areas, and real-world applications is the largest portion of that pie graph, most of the investment leans toward hardware.

"Hardware-related investments have jumped from 14 percent of investment on average in 2012-2014 to 68 percent on average in 2013-2015," the report said.

Even if you're not in journalism, the report gives a thorough and useful assessment of the market.

One of the overarching themes is that these are early days for VR.

"I don't think anyone that we talked to would say that they're doing anything but experimenting," Gill said.

There are many open questions including ethical ones surrounding the use of an immersive environment to tell a story. And aside from ethics, Gill said they didn't talk to anyone who had a clear idea about how to monetize VR stories (and that's a problem, because these stories are expensive to produce, and so far, there hasn't been much interest from advertisers), or where they'd fit into the business side of news. And of course, there's distribution.

"Growing availability of affordable headsets is not the same as these sorts of experiences becoming a significant part of how people consume content and information, and how people entertain themselves ultimately," Gill said.

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