How Bild is using VR and 360-degree video for breaking news

Media companies continue to experiment with virtual reality and 360-degree video, but a tougher nut to crack is using it for breaking news. Bild is making it a priority.

Parent company Axel Springer took out a minority stake in American virtual reality startup Jaunt in September last year to beef up its expertise in this area. Since then it has only done a couple of true VR pieces of content, ones that require a VR headset like Oculus Rift or Google Cardboard to view, but are also available in 360 degree too. This included a piece with German basketball star Dirk Nowitzki in April, and last week a two-part series on American aircraft carrier, “USS Harry S. Truman.” Both are more explanatory pieces where viewers can understand what is going on in a place they’re unlikely to ever visit, and the team can afford the post-production time of stitching together data four from four or five different 4K high-end cameras.

“The goal is to reduce post-production from something like five weeks to one day to use full VR in breaking news-environment, that’s something we are working on.” said Julian Reichelt, editor-in-chief Bild Digital. The aim is to be able to do this in time for the U.S. election on November. “It’s obviously ambitious, but it’s realistic, at least the news will still be relevant for a few days.”

The different places that Bild has taken 360-degree video, which it has produced up to 40 pieces of content since early 2015, include a Greek refugee camp Idomeni, and a Greek coastguard picking up Syrian refugees. “During that time everyone had just one question, ‘what is it like to be there? What’s it like when it rains and children get stuck in the mud?’”

The refugee crisis has received a fair amount of coverage. But using technology as immersive as 360-degree draws people in with fresh eyes. “There are so many gruesome things going on in the world there is always the risk of withdrawal,” said Reichelt. “This technology provides you with the leverage to get people back into looking at something.”

That said, with such a nascent technology Bild is still learning what works with 360-degree. Making sure there is a strong story is important, if the footage can’t stand up without the technology then it’s not working. Shooting on the frontline with Isis was a “little weaker from a story standpoint because it was so chaotic,” said Reichelt. This is hampered by lack of stable movement and camera angle, areas news organizations like the BBC are still working out too.

Bild found that driving in a car on a straight road is fine, but running around a hostile environment is not. “People can feel lost and confused and that’s where you see a drop off,” he said. Still, this video has had 140,000 views on YouTube since February. By comparison others have lower YouTube view counts of up to 30,000.

Viewer figures drop off also when people don’t know what they’re looking at, now Bild adds in graphics to make sure people don’t miss the important stuff. “Use those to anchor the moment, don’t abandon people in that new environment.”

Bild has about 500 editorial staff, of them so far up to roughly 20 have pitched and shot their own 360 degree piece. Once a reporter pitches an idea, Bild gives them some training, and offers to  link them up with one of its 40-strong video team or with relevant experts at Jaunt.

It’s an investment Reichelt believes will payoff. “There’s not been an attractive tech that wasn’t turned into a great cost-effective consumer product. The trend is it will get smaller and more integrated. Oculus won’t be the model later on.”

Ultimately, Reichelt believes that in a time when people could criticize mainstream news journalism for only showing news that suits a publication’s agenda, VR has a philosophical component to it. “

“It’s my dream, and every reporter’s, to take readers with them on a journey,” said Reichelt. “That’s what journalism is. VR gives us the toolkit to do that.”

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