Is Virtual Reality Journalism Finally Poised to Reach Critical Mass?

The virtual reality company Oculus, owned by Facebook, recently debuted its new Rift headset. At around the same time, the Knight Foundation, partnering with USA Today, released a report titled "Viewing the Future? Virtual Reality in Journalism."

Coincidence? Probably. But the symbolism is nonetheless striking, as Knight's study argues that 2016 will be a make-or-break year for virtual reality journalism. So we figure now's as good a time as any to explore their argument and extract some lessons for nonprofit journalism outlets intrigued by this technology. 

Let's start with the technology itself. After many stops and starts, most analysts concur that at long last, the technology is ready for prime time. Indeed, you can purchase your own Rift headset for as little as $99. Does it have its flaws? Sure. But they'll be tweaked. Rather, the most pressing challenge facing virtual reality in journalism, as with any instance in which an industry adopts a mature (or semi-mature) technology, is one of implementation. 

We see this same challenge in the cinema space. Back in December we wrote:

Virtual reality technology is at the point where it needs to take that crucial next step toward a more commercial application, especially in the cinema world. Someone has to do the legwork and make the promise of virtual reality a reality. They need to expand existing support networks to give artists and filmmakers room to experiment.

In this instance, Sundance stepped up to the plate. First, it announced it will expand its New Frontier section at the upcoming Sundance Film Festival to include 30 virtual reality experiences, up from about a dozen last year. Sundance will also take these pieces to New York’s Museum of Modern Art in April and the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis in June. 

That being said, journalism outlets are slightly ahead of their cinema brethren. International outlets like the Associated Press, ABC News, and the New York Times have recently rolled out virtual reality stories. Grantmakers like the Online News Association and Institute for Nonprofit News, which awarded a grant to the Center for Sustainable Journalism earmarked for virtual reality documentaries, have been chipping in as well. 

Add it all up, and you get a sense that journalism outlets have a handle on the technology and experiences to draw from. But will virtual reality journalism take the next step? Will it become a mainstream communication channel? Will outlets throw real money behind it? For answers to these questions, we return to the Knight report. 

To hear Knight tell it, while virtual reality technology may have reached an inflection point, its application in the journalism field still has a way to go. Not surprisingly, it all comes down to money. The study's authors were unable to identify any outlet that could successfully monetize virtual reality stories. Wary advertises have yet to step up.

Another problem involves how outlets frame the stories themselves. While outlets certainly consider their stories "news," the modern consumer, influenced by the hype surrounding the technology, may view virtual reality stories as entertainment. This leads to an actual business term called, believe or or not, "consumer confusion," defined by Wikipedia as "a state of mind that leads to consumers making imperfect purchasing decisions or lacking confidence in the correctness of their purchasing decisions." Then there's the issue of distribution — the nuts and bolts of transmitting a story to a viewer's headset. 

"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," said Sam Gill, Knight Foundation vice president for learning and impact. In other words, the centuries-old paradigm that dictates how we consumer news needs to evolve just a bit further.

Given the massive disruptions that have affected the journalism field in the last 20 years — many happily facilitated by the Knight Foundation — don't be surprised if this shift occurs sooner rather than later. In the meantime, journalism outlets have a bit more work to do.

But this work can reap rewards. If nonprofit journalism outlets can address the current roadblocks hampering virtual reality's mainstream implementation, starting with creating replicable models for monetization, they'll find support from grantmakers like Knight who remain committed to revolutionizing the field of journalism.