My first interaction with Professor Devadas Rajaram was a chance meeting back in mid-2017 when I was getting a guided tour of the Asian College of Journalism‘s (ACJ) campus in Chennai. Amidst discussing college prospects and my possible move to Birmingham for a Masters degree, we also cursorily discussed the exciting innovations journalism was staring at in the next year.
My second interaction with the man was a full year later. We sat down to discuss a new frontier for Indian journalism – immersive 360° video and VR content. While not a new development in the industry (the roots of immersive journalism can be traced back to 2012), it was still a slow starter in Indian media circles. Asian College of Journalism is one of the few, if not only, J-Schools to integrate this new platform into their fundamental modules.
Known to be an innovator and someone who quickly adapts his professional outlook and teaching content to industry developments, it isn’t hard to see why VR manages to catch Devadas’ attention. I caught up with him for a chat over Skype to discuss immersive journalism, the potential of 360° videos and academic priorities of J-Schools in India among other things. Read on.
Is 360° video the same as VR? Does the average consumer and producer understand the difference?
9 out of 10 people you speak to often consider these two to be one and the same. 360 is not even close to VR. If you ask me, it could be the stepping stone to VR. I wouldn’t call 360° videos an experience. You’re still just watching. They are non-linear immersive videos. VR though, is a comprehensive highly sensory experience.
You have two broad ways of looking at VR itself. You can use CGI and make non-interactive experiences giving the user a visceral feeling of being in the middle of a story. Second, the way I like and teach, is to let users interact with objects in the created piece.
Ergo, you have three stepping stones in the immersive journalism experience. 360 degree videos to normal non-interactive VR experiences to fully interactive immersive pieces.
You have underlined time and again that the user must be priority. How does a content creator integrate that into practice, especially in 360° video and VR?
I am all for user-driven experiences. We have had an age-old debate of linear vs non-linear narratives and the constant need to find better ways to make content relatable for audiences. Immersive journalism is a frontier in content creation that emanated from this debate.
In one case, you write a script and decide production details, thereby deciding how the user experiences something. I would rather leave the use to decide and shape their experiences themselves. Interactive and immersive content have my vote.
At ACJ, for instance, as part of one of newsrooms, we made an experience where the person walks into a space where the stories are all around you. The anchor is removed. You have spatial audio with a narration that guides you through the options. Rather than clicking on anything, if you look at one video, it starts playing. If you’re not interested, you can move over to the next one. Here the decisions are made by the viewer. You can choose what you want to consume and how you wish to consume it.
Our approach is very limited because we are focusing exclusively only on journalism. The industry though is moving forward in other directions as well.
Does placing control in the hands of the user render the journalist powerless in the producer-consumer equation?
How is there a loss of control? People often say you can’t select shots with 360° videos. Even there though, you decide what the viewer sees, what cues are available, what audio is there. Rather, I would prefer if the user is given the options of multiple paths and gets to choose which path he/she wishes to take and explore. I am all for giving the user complete control and that’s a real challenge for the storyteller. How do you do that without dictating terms to the viewer? You need to be able to achieve this as seamlessly as you can and of course, there isn’t one sure shot way. We are pushing these frontiers every day.
Control must remain in production.
Let consumption happen on a user’s terms and preferences.
The world is going the mobile way for production and consumption of news. This is primarily to cater to smaller attention spans and a quick on-the-go kind of news consumption. 360° and VR journalism demand that you sit down, set aside some time and consume content. Is there a contradiction here?
I don’t see a contradiction there because in many cases, the same people are sitting to watch a 30 second clip on the Syrian crisis and dedicating 1-2 hours of their life watching a documentary in a theatre or streaming platform. I personally think attention spans are device-specific. When you use your phone, your attention differs from when you use a laptop. VR again is now primarily mobile journalism-oriented. However, that has also already started changing. Lenovo is working on phone-free experiences as we speak. Google Glass has already done that. The phone dependence is going to be a small initial hiccup for VR and immersive forms of journalism but I don’t see it being too much trouble.
Want to know what kind of a news consumer you are? Take our quiz here and find out! Don’t forget to let us know in the comment section!
Is immersive journalism being done the right way in India? Especially by mainstream news outlets?
360° and VR in India are still spectacles. You find people and channels now shooting in 360° but where is the interactivity? Here, so many of media outlets offer you a 360° view of the newsroom and the studio. Republic TV has done it. You can see the studio and there in an anchor. You can see Arnab Goswami standing in front of you and shouting at you. Is that the experience you want to have? He in unwatchable even on regular TV.
India is probably at the bottom of the ladder when it comes to consumption. There is another side to it though. Every new innovation was ridiculed at some point before it blew it to become something big. I am a timeline myself. I come from print and I was sceptical of the internet, of the mobile phone. I remember thinking phones were for the flashy. Look at us now. I think this applies to every digital challenge. At the moment, intake for the technology in journalism is particularly is low. But, the future is bright. Headset prices are coming down. 5G connectivity is coming to India in November. Who would have thought of all this two years ago? If there is a powerful story, it will trigger consumption.
Considering very few people will go ahead and invest in gear for pure journalism consumption, is the platform restricted to a niche audience?
It does cripple the platform for the time being. However, Google, Magic Leap and Microsoft are working on fixing that. Apple has hired AR experts now. They have shown an immense interest in mixed reality content. We are looking at a very different scheme of things in two years time. These tech giants are looking to make kit wireless and wearable. These can be voice activated and will be available in structures like your prescription glasses. When Google and Microsoft get into this, affordability will be one of the biggest factors on the table. A world like this is not too far away. Personally, I hope I see the day all of this becomes available in a simple pair of contact lenses. Why not? As the years go by, new technology is taking lesser time to become mainstream.
New to 360° immersive journalism? Don’t know where to start? Check out the #InsideTheStory Guide to immersive journalism here! From gear assistance to curated playlists, we’ve got your covered.
Are 360° and VR journalism competent empathy generators?
Of course. It comes down to a simple point really. You may be a great writer or a skilled documentary filmmaker but you still have one foot out of the door. It’s easy to elicit sympathy but sympathy can be exhausting. How do you move people to take action? You need them to feel the cause to do something about it. Amnesty International and Doctors Without Borders often use 360° video and VR to make donation appeals and for social work drives.
Trigger warning: This video can be distressing. This is a training video from humanitarian organisation, Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF).
Visceral experiences can help people understand the phenomenon being spoken about better. Professor Robert Hernandez at USC Annenberg School for Journalism did this interesting project where they created an experience that shows you what Texas would look like if another hurricane strikes. He used a combination of CGI and 360° video to construct this.
About half a year later, that actually ended up happening, courtesy Hurricane Harvey. Here it was a fictional story told in a non-fictional way. Real facts and real experiences shape this story. People make fun of games but you can use it so well to give an audience a good experience of real events. Building these events in VR can be like creating a game. The same logic applies here too.
Speaking of J-School ventures, ACJ has recently partnered with Facebook. Can we expect some work on the immersive journalism front with this partnership?
The partnership with Facebook will, in the beginning, primarily deal with social media verification because everyone shares things on social media without bothering about where the information is coming from. How do you verify images, how do you check for video tampering- all this that’s already taught here at ACJ will be worked on. Facebook is bringing in more funding to help us do this.
Of course, Facebook also accommodates 360° video. In this environment where authenticity and need to verify are significant conversations, it is important to acknowledge that because of its intensity, immersive reality is a platform that can be used to manipulate. The Deep Fakes phenomenon should be enough to make us cautious. Imagine something like this happening in VR? This will come up and we want to be ready for the challenge.
Do you think J-Schools in India have prioritised immersive journalism as a tool to be taught?
I don’t think even multimedia is taught properly in J-Schools in India, so VR is a different conversation altogether. I am a Newcastle University alumni and to be fair, what I teach here at ACJ is what I wish I got from Newcastle. The problem with J-Schools across India and in many parts of the world is that they are very academia-oriented. ACJ is one of the few that focuses on hands-on experience. It is also important to keep up with what the industry looks like now. 60% of what I taught last year is obsolete today. I think faculty should take the blame for this. They are often stuck in the past. I have to teach myself and equip myself with what’s new to be able to impart it to my students. You need to be flexible and allow change in your methods and in the syllabus.
Do we face the risk of people becoming desensitised to immersive content-driven storytelling too? Is the risk of growing apathy worrying?
Don’t you think human evolution works like that? Something catches our fancy and then we eventually grow to outgrow it. Desensitisation is inevitable and it means there’s a new and better form out there. Exhaustion is inevitable. This is part of evolution. These boundaries need to be pushed and it’s our job as journalists and academicians to keep pushing them. It’s okay to be uncertain. It’s criminal to just step away saying it’s not your cup of tea or giving up saying there’s no way forward.
Is this medium used appropriately by media houses today?
I think we’re still getting the basics wrong. We shouldn’t do something with a new medium just because we can. I agree with BBC’s Joe Inwood when he says that for some stories, 360 is pointless. The decision to choose 360 video is very story specific. Nonny has been talking about this for close to 10-15 years. You can’t make a generalised rule for the medium though.
But one thing remains clear- if the story doesn’t need a 360 degree view, you don’t need it. You cannot blame the medium for the fact that some people don’t use it properly. A knife was invented to make life easier by helping us cut fruits, vegetables and meat. You can’t blame the knife if people choose to murder with it. You need to have clarity about what you can and should use the medium for.