Immersive technologies, including virtual reality, augmented reality and 360° videos, have given journalists the tools to craft stories that provide visceral, memorable and high-impact experiences. Over the past five years, many international news organisations, studios and freelancers have either dabbled in, experimented with or committed themselves to some form of immersive journalism. Some of the content has been exceptional, with ambitious projects earning innovation and journalism awards, including a Pulitzer Prize.
While some media outlets continue to pursue projects using emerging technologies, other high-profile immersive teams have been placed in hibernation or shut down altogether. That is because the benefits of using such tools are countered by many significant challenges, including expensive production costs, long project timeframes and multiple distribution roadblocks that have limited the ability to attract large audiences, in part because so few people have headsets at home. These hurdles have raised questions about the long-term viability of immersive journalism, especially against the backdrop of a promised virtual reality revolution in the news industry from about 2015 onwards. But amid what some have described as a trough of disillusionment, there is also a strong level of resilience and adaptation taking place among practitioners who continue to create powerful immersive content. Some organisations have shifted away from making 360° videos and virtual reality experiences to focus on augmented reality projects, which can attract larger audiences, due to the fact most people have the technology on their phones. Others in the immersive journalism community have found novel ways to democratise previously out-of-reach technologies, such as volumetric video capture, or by using tools such as photogrammetry to quickly generate 3D models for news stories.
Elsewhere, innovative approaches have been developed to deliver immersive content to audiences at public places such libraries, in addition to film festivals, conferences and museums. Rather than being a revolution, as some had predicted, immersive journalism has fostered a more sustainable evolution in storytelling. The question should not just be about its long-term viability, but rather, about how emerging technologies can complement our existing storytelling practices.
At the core of the conundrum is a fundamental principle: that without compelling narratives, emerging technologies will be dismissed as novelties. But when enriched with strong storytelling qualities and creative experimentation, immersive tools offer journalists and news consumers a sense of unrivalled presence and agency within stories.
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