OPINION: Virtual reality is the future of storytelling


If you have spent any time reading up on technology in the last year or so, there is a high chance that you have read something to do with virtual reality.

Virtual reality is quickly becoming the new technological frontier. Tech companies everywhere seem to be racing to get their foot in the VR door. There is the crowd-funded Oculus Rift, Samsung’s Gear VR, Sony’s Project Morpheus and the recently announced Vive, which is being made by HTC in collaboration with video game developer and digital distribution company Valve.

Virtual reality is seemingly on the up-and-up. It certainly is not a new concept. Virtual reality has been around for years. Until recently, though, the technology needed to deliver a good VR experience hasn’t existed.

Virtual reality has a set of challenges and hurdles that it must overcome in order to work well. Michael Abrash, a writer and programmer, listed a number of these in a speech from 2014; They include things like low latency, high refresh rate, high resolution, a wide field of view and rock solid tracking, among others. Even if you don’t quite understand the technical aspects of those terms, it should be noted that VR is heavily dependent on being very fast, very accurate and very good-looking. If it isn’t, the viewer will feel motion sick or disconnected from the world that VR is trying to create.

Now that we can actually build VR headsets that begin to meet these requirements, we are seeing a rising interest in VR. As it rises, so does the interest in creating new media to be experienced using virtual reality.

Journalism is a medium built on relevance. Journalists should always be finding new ways to tell stories and deliver content. Virtual reality is bursting at the seams with potential. It is a goldmine for storytelling. What better way to tell a story to someone than to put them right in the center of it?

Some journalists and publications are already utilizing VR. Vice creative director Spike Jonze, in a collaboration with director and visual artist Chris Milk, put viewers at the scene of the Millions March protest in New York in December 2014. The University of Southern California created “Project Syria,” which allows viewers to experience the bombing of a crowded neighborhood and visit a refugee camp in the titular, war-torn country. These are just a few examples of a growing number of projects that are out there.

Virtual reality is a powerful tool for journalists. The consumer isn’t just reading or watching something play out; they’re experiencing it. The immersive nature of VR allows for people to connect with the subject matter on a much deeper level than just reading about it. The experience is emotional and visceral, speaking more to our instinct than our intellect. The possibilities for storytelling here are legion, and any storyteller wanting to do something more interesting than their peers should surely be considering the sheer power of VR.

The question of virtual reality, though, is not how powerful it is. That is immediately apparent. The question of VR is one of viability and availability. Telling stories must be easy to do, and access to those stories must be readily available. This is the biggest challenge that VR faces. If the tools to tell a story with VR aren’t easy to pick up and learn, VR will fail. If VR technology isn’t both top-of-the-line and affordable, VR will fail.

Accessibility was one concern for Thomas Hallaq, assistant professor of journalism and mass communications, who said that current VR technology is pretty exclusive right now. Despite that, he said he doesn’t think the exclusivity of this technology will be a problem in the long run.

“I think it’s very viable,” Hallaq said. “We’re seeing more technology become accessible, and more people having access to that technology. Just look at smartphones.”

If the technology is widely available and companies like Oculus, Samsung, HTC and Valve can overcome the inherent hurdles, the technology is widely available, VR will succeed in being a viable avenue for storytelling. Like radio, TV and Internet before it, virtual reality will change the way we tell stories.

Collin Weaver is a sophomore in mass communications.