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From the Field

It was a really terrific workshop APTRA had Saturday, October 25th at USC. It was all about what could happen when virtual reality and TV news reporting collide. As President of APTRA, my thanks to Skip Rizzo and everyone at USC for making it possible. Skip has made something else possible too. Click this link and it will take you to some of powerpoint presentations made at the workshop. Thanks Skip! That address is's%20Stuff/APTRA%20Talks/ I'd also like to thank Bess Hubbard and Karen Matsumoto who were at the seminar and wrote a piece on it to share with those who couldn't make it. Here's their story.

Virtual Reality and Television News,
or News in the Round – Can It Work?

By Karen Matsumoto and Bess Hubbard

Virtual Reality has merged its way into the realms of our technological superhighway. We’ve seen it in video games, theme park attractions and Internet sites, bringing life to the ol’ 2-dimensional tunnel. But are we ready for virtual reality’s invasion of the news media?

In Los Angeles last weekend, Integrated Media Systems Center, in collaboration with Annenberg School of Journalism at the University of Southern California, presented its study of Virtual Reality TV News. This event, hosted by APTRA president Hal Eisner, brought to USC the first group of media professionals to get a sneak peak at this new technological breakthrough. This ground-breaking project, funded by the National Science Foundation, uses a “360-degree panoramic video camera” to videotape a news story. The camera is actually 5 digital-video-cameras-in-one shooting in every direction at once. The images are then digitally aligned into one seamless 360-degree “environment” that the audience would watch at home using a “Virtual Reality Head Mounted Display.” The VR display – a device that looks like a pair of bulky ski goggles – literally places the viewer in the same “environment” as the reporter, letting you choose what you want to observe by simply turning your head, as you would in real life. Unlike normal two-dimensional “on-the-scene” reporting, virtual reality gives the viewer much more control over what you see – virtual reality throws you right in the middle of the action!

Dr. “Skip” Rizzo, Director of IMSC’s Virtual Environment Lab at USC, explained that the VR Head Mounted Display is one of three ways the lab displays “news in the round” as part of an experiment that looks at the usability of this new way of viewing news, and its impact on the viewer’s ability to remember and empathize with a story.

Dr. Rizzo and his researchers began by producing a mock television news story about homeless life on Skid Row in downtown Los Angeles, featuring USC graduate student Naomi Worrell as reporter. Then the research team arranged for three different groups of viewers to watch the news story in three different ways. One group views the story in the traditional way, on a television screen just as they would at home. The second group watches a 360-degree presentation on a computer screen, using the cursor to navigate around the picture’s panoramic arc. The third group, using the VR head-mounted display, “stands” on Skid Row with the reporter, able to observe the full panoply of homelessness around them with a simple turn of the head.

This experiment will measure the viewer’s ability to remember the news content, both short and long term. The experiment will also look at whether VR’s ability to immerse a viewer more deeply into the “environment” of the story will increase the viewer’s empathy – making people care is what journalism is all about. Results from this research are expected to be available in December 2003, but that did not stop symposium panelists and audience members alike from speculating about these issues and more.

Some practical hurdles were immediately obvious. The 360-degree panoramic video camera is bulky, and setting it up for a shoot takes up to three hours. For a news team rushing to the scene of a breaking news story, that much down time is an intolerable delay. Also, Dr. Rizzo’s student-reporter felt uneasy during her stand-up – it was hard to focus her attention on an omni-directional camera. And as with all emerging technologies, there is, of course, the question of cost – to the newsroom and the viewer at home.

Some exciting possibilities also emerged. Certain kinds of stories seem to lend themselves to VR – stories where the event or the environment itself is the story. A 360-degree view of the square in Baghdad where Saddam Hussein’s statue was taken down amid a crowd of Iraqis and U.S. soldiers would arguably be a more powerful – and more telling – image than the usual 2-D flat screen. Broadcasting in the round a story like southern California’s ongoing battle with firestorms could be another visually arresting opportunity. One news producer in the audience envisioned the camera on top of a live truck during such an event, broadcasting images live over a station’s website as an addition to the daily newscast. Viewers could watch it play out panoramically, or could navigate through the 360-degree space with the click of a mouse. Another media professional imagined this camera in the hands of the National Geographic or Discovery Channels, capturing spectacular natural vistas from all sides at once.

The discussion – at once visionary and pragmatic – explored a range of problems and possibilities: Could virtual reality really work for television news? Would viewers enjoy news in the round, or would VR create too much work for them? Would a 360-degree perspective always enhance a news story’s impact, or only certain kinds of stories? Would giving the viewer more control empower the reporter – or make the reporter obsolete? And would newsrooms and viewers ever be able to afford the technology needed to produce, broadcast and watch news-in-the-round?

There were no hard answers, but panelists and participants alike enjoyed contemplating the possibilities.