Currently viewing the tag: "Virtual Reality"

By JASMINE BALA
Staff reporter

A guessing contest in The San Francisco Examiner on Sept. 29, 1895 (Courtesy of Paul Moore).

Building audience engagement has long been a newsroom preoccupation, only today it involves Instagram and Facebook, while in the past publishers seduced readers with paper cut-out toys and thrilling accounts of reporters on around-the-world races against time.

New research on the history of Sunday newspapers by Paul Moore, an associate professor in Ryerson University’s sociology department, examines one of the greatest audience engagement gimmicks of all time: The New York World’s decision to send reporter Nellie Bly travelling around the globe. Bly was assigned to beat the fictional record described in the Jules Verne novel “Around the World in Eighty Days.” She completed the trip in 72 days.

“There was, of course, a guessing contest for readers to be more personally invested in The World’s regular reports of Bly’s travels,” Moore and Concordia University professor Sandra Gabriele write in their forthcoming book, The Sunday Paper.

They examine Bly’s exploits as part of their research on the history and role of weekend newspapers in mass consumer society between 1888 and 1922 in North America. The research, funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada, will be published by the University of Illinois Press as part of a larger series, The History of Communication.

The 1890s was a period of innovation and experimentation as publishers tried to attract audiences and teach people “how to read the newspaper when it was a new object – a mass-leisure object,” Moore said. What was happening back then, he explained, is similar to what’s going on today: News organizations faced with massive disruption due to digital technologies are experimenting with “new practices of reading and new practices of engaging with the [news] now that it has a new form.”

Guessing contests were a popular form of audience engagement in the 1890s. In the case of Bly’s travel assignment, readers were asked to guess how many days the trip would take. The winner received a free trip to Europe. Guessing contests, Moore added, almost always required the purchase of a newspaper to obtain a ballot, so the device was “clearly about selling papers. But it’s also about engaging people with the act of buying the paper and with the act of reading the paper closely.”

The guessing games usually involved contests more modest than circumnavigations of the globe. In 1895, for instance, both The San Francisco Examiner and the San Francisco Chronicle ran contests asking people to guess the size of their large Sunday editions and offering cash prizes to the winners, Moore and Gabriele wrote.

The publishers asked “how many words [were] in a 32-page Examiner or how many words [were] in a 28-page San Francisco Chronicle…which is just crazy to think of,” Moore said. “But people sent in guesses – educated guesses – and won those contests.”

Advertising, puzzles and photographs in the Sunday paper were other early strategies designed to make reading the paper and engaging with the news a habit. Supplements like paper cut-out toys were included for younger audiences; The Boston Sunday Globe, for example, gave away paper dolls with miniature stage sets.

A cut-out paper printing press with dolls from a 1896 copy of The Boston Sunday Globe.

 

While the supplements weren’t news, Moore said, “they are as important as the news itself or even more important than the news itself for that role that the historic newspaper had in creating [engagement in] mass society.”

Publishers also built engagement by offering readers behind-the-scene glimpses of how newspapers were produced. The Chicago Herald and The Philadelphia Inquirer did this by installing viewing galleries overlooking pressrooms to show off their new press machines at work, Moore and Gabriele wrote.

While the technologies have changed, the authors argue that variations on the same strategy are still used to engage audiences. These days, for instance, the Chicago Tribune offers opportunities for readers to meet Tribune journalists in person as well as two-hour tours of their printing plants for $25.

Other newsrooms are using virtual reality (VR) tools to provide audience experiences. “They’ll make a New York Times VR documentary about the production of the paper itself,” Moore noted.  And when The New York Times Magazine (NYT) published its first virtual reality piece, “The Displaced,” two years ago, it gave all print subscribers a Google Cardboard VR viewer with the weekend paper so they could watch it.

Still from the virtual reality documentary “The Displaced” by The New York Times Magazine.

More recently, the magazine created its own Minecraft world as part of a larger feature on the video game. Readers could log onto the NYT server and explore the magazine’s world if they had the game downloaded. A video that showcased the world was available for those who did not have Minecraft.

Historically, Moore said, the Sunday papers touched on all parts of daily life: leisure, business, democratic engagement and shopping. But in the 21st century, he observed, the newspaper for the most part no longer carries the department store ads, movie listings and the classifieds that are all easily accessible online.

“The paper has been left with only the news and not the other sections in the same website,” Moore said. “So, you know, the internet itself, unfortunately for newspapers, is the new Sunday paper in the 21st century…The internet itself is that form that contains all the supplements to the news and that doesn’t hold out hope for traditional news organizations maintaining their commercial dominance.”

Audience Engagement Then

  • Contests: Prizes were offered to individuals who won guessing contests on everything from elections outcome and census population counts to the newspaper’s own production statistics.
  • Paper cut-out toys: As Sunday papers turned to colour print papers they introduced paper cut-out toys such as paper dolls and miniature stage sets. The Boston Sunday Globe also gave away miniature toy versions of their colour printing machine.
  • Tours: In the 1890s, news organizations including The New Yorks World, The Chicago Herald, The Boston Globe and The Philadelphia Inquirer offered tours and installed viewing galleries above their pressrooms.
  • Hot air balloon trips: In 1887, The World’s Sunday edition sent a reporter out in a hot air balloon to go from St. Louis to just outside of New York. The trip, inspired by another of Jules Verne’s novels, was designed to show readers that the newspaper could bring fiction to life.
  • Comic mascots: Some of the earliest recurring cartoon characters were newspaper mascots.  The Boston Sunday Globe’s “Globe man,” for example, had a torso the shape of a globe and a waistband reading: “The Largest Circulation in New England.”

Audience Engagement Now

  • Virtual reality documentaries: The New York Times has a virtual reality app to showcase its VR films while other major news outlets, like The Globe and Mail, are experimenting with the new immersive technology.
  • Social media apps: Most, if not all, major news outlets can be found on Instagram and Facebook, where they engage with their readers through comments. The New York Times has combined an app with celebrity by collaborating with Nigella Lawson to create a food-themed Pinterest board for Valentine’s day.
  • Tours and meetups: The Chicago Tribune and other news outlets offer tours of their pressrooms and face-to-face meetups with their journalists to give readers a look into what goes on behind-the-scenes.
  • Collaboration between writing and radio: The New York Times has worked with public radio WBUR to create a podcast of its weekly “Modern Love” column, and with WBEZ Chicago’s This American Life to tell a patient’s story about being shot in the chest by hospital guards.

By ILINA GHOSH

Staff Reporter

Canadian Press photo editor Marie-Espérance Cerda was in the midst of this year’s violent May Day protests in Montreal and her virtual reality coverage of the event allows audiences to share in the experience.

Cerda’s experiment in virtual reality journalism plunges the user into a three-dimensional world, entirely filling the user’s field of view with 360 degrees of video that shifts with the gaze of the viewer. Her project also pairs this video with real-time audio from the scene, completing the immersive experience.

 

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Marie-Espérance Cerda demonstrates her experiment in virtual reality journalism – playing in the background is her coverage of the 2015 May Day protests in Montreal. [Ilina Ghosh]

“With virtual reality you are no longer representing reality or an event, you are recreating an experience. You are trying to get someone to feel something,” said Cerda, who produced the immersive journalism experiment as the major project for her master’s in media production degree at Ryerson University.

Gene Allen, a professor at the Ryerson School of Journalism and the supervisor of Cerda’s work, praised the innovative nature of the project: “[It] allows viewers to focus on any aspect of the unfolding action, just as if they were there.

“You can look in one direction — with the images filling your whole visual field — and see the cops approaching, beating shields with their batons, then turn around and see the protesters cursing and throwing water bombs, then turn 90 degrees to see a group that broke off and ran up McGill College Avenue, then back to the cops — or wherever you like.”

Cerda said her interest in technology and its function in journalism led her to explore the relatively new concept of virtual reality as a journalistic medium. She is not, however,  the first to experiment with the tools. American journalist Nonny de la Peña, “the godmother of virtual reality,” pioneered the use of immersive technology in reporting. Her latest piece, Project Syria, commissioned by the World Economic Forum, simulates the bombing of a Syrian refugee camp. Each element of the film is drawn from real audio, video and photographs taken on scene.

Similarly, The Wall Street Journal took its readers on a roller coaster ride of the NASDAQ, while VICE News asked, “what if, instead of watching a news broadcast about the latest protest, you could walk into it?” when it created VICE News VR: Millions March. It places the viewer in the midst of 60,000 protesters on the streets of New York City.

“I saw huge potential. I wanted to do the same thing and see what the implications of that would be,” Cerda said.

Intrigued by the work of those before her, Cerda began creating her own piece of immersive journalism. To capture all 360 degrees of the Montreal riot, she walked the streets of Montreal with six GoPro cameras set into a 3D printed rig: the result is what looks like a baseball bristling with cameras pointing in six different directions.

Cerda’s rig of six GoPro cameras in action on May Day. [Marie-Espérance Cerda]

The rig and cameras used by Cerda to capture all 360 degrees of the protest. [Marie-Espérance Cerda]

The next steps involved asking Ryerson to purchase a computer program called VideoStitch and teaming up with an undergrad student to plug all the audio and visuals into a 3D content development software called Unity.

While Cerda’s video can also be watched in a two-dimensional interactive 360 degree video, it becomes immersive when viewed through the lens of Google Cardboard, a low-tech virtual reality viewing headset that attaches to a smartphone.

The headset, made of folded cardboard, two biconvex lenses, magnets, velcro and a rubber band, is available for around $20 from Google Cardboard. Users can also build their own Google Cardboard at home using Google’s free instructions, with the lenses available online and other materials available at home or at a hardware store.

Google Cardboard, the low-tech attachment used by Cerda to transform a smartphone into virtual reality viewer. [Handout/Google]

Unlike traditional broadcast journalism, immersive journalism does not involve narrating a story, Allen said.  “It’s an exploration. It’s much more similar to a game than a standard news story. You’re in a defined area, but how you move around is really up to you and yet it’s reality.”

While virtual reality journalism can offer a viewer a way to experience a story that traditional forms of journalism cannot, Cerda says it is just one of the tools in a journalist’s storytelling toolkit. “VR journalism can’t be a stand alone product… because you can’t get the full story in a virtual reality experience,” she observed. “It’s best place is to offer a different aspect of… the information so that you can better understand it.”

Cerda said one of the drawbacks with the new medium is that it cannot be edited like reels of traditional footage and will likely not be successful with all news audiences. In her research, she found younger males were most receptive to the technology, while people over 35 were less interested and more set in their ways in terms of how they received their news. She said producing immersive journalism is also more labour intensive and technologically demanding than current approaches.

Allen, a historian whose research involves exploring the impact of new technologies on journalism, said that despite the limitations, “[the future possibilities] are pretty amazing.”