Five Lessons from our Experiments in Virtual Reality

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At this year’s MozFest News Labs led a session showcasing the BBC’s work in virtual reality and 360 video. News Labber Andy Haslam has some additional thoughts on prototyping new virtual environments which he didn’t have time to fit into the session.

1. Other formats are great sources of inspiration

With all the hype surrounding VR, it is sometimes tempting to focus purely on the hot new medium, missing content produced in other areas of the industry. Luckily, our team at News Labs has a breadth of interests, keeping us abreast of projects across the digital journalism spectrum.

Our most compelling ideas have been spawned by conversations taking in entirely different formats - reinforcing our belief that a diversity of interests drives innovation. Pieces like The Tampa Bay TimesChoice and Chance and The New York TimesCharlotte Scott Shooting are prime examples of online projects which have inspired our own thinking about VR.

For example:

  • Would it be possible to deploy some of the ideas used in Choice and Chance into an immersive VR reconstruction?
  • Would the ability to change perspectives in a scene similar to the Charlotte Scott Shooting offer a clearer view of the situation?

The best ideas often come from unexpected sources and so, regardless of our focus at any given time, we feel that it’s important to explore and learn from as many areas of the digital media landscape as possible.

2. Targetting mobile is surprisingly hard

Despite staying up to date with the innumerable online resources that compare the headsets available (such as New Atlas2016 VR Comparison Guide), we were still in many ways unprepared for the challenges associated with mobile-based VR before we built our first application for Google Cardboard.

We read optimisation guides before we began development, but we still found it difficult to maintain stable framerates on some of our earlier projects, because of the level of complexity we originally envisioned. We also realised that many third-party headsets don’t come with features supported by Google Cardboard SDKs, such as buttons to trigger interactions. This prevents users of some third-party headsets from exploring projects that are built to incorporate tactile input.

We came to realise that it is important to temper our expectations, both in terms of complexity and interactivity, whenever we plan mobile-based VR prototypes.

3. Sound effects and visual cues are a match made in heaven

As anyone familiar with CSS transitions, state pseudo-classes or even JavaScript-driven styles is likely to know, the smallest alterations to the appearance of virtual elements can impact user experience. Unsurprisingly, we have found that the same kinds of visual effects used to convey the states of objects on the web (such as :hover or :disabled) are equally valuable within virtual reality.

We’ve also been consistently impressed by how much more intuitive a VR experience becomes with added sound effects. People expect to hear sounds when they interact with things in the real world, so it follows that VR becomes more life-like when care is given to the audio as well as the visuals.

As a result, whenever we add an object that changes state to our environments we make sure to add sound effects (many of which can be found for free online) to signify the change alongside visible indicators.

4. There’s potential for integration into existing workflows

Few VR experiences have been fully developed into formats, despite the quality of one-off projects. Will Smith’s interview-based FOO Show (whose first episode is freely available on Steam) was designed to be released in weekly instalments, but unfortunately doesn’t appear to have been updated since July.

Despite this, we still believe that there is a fantastic opportunity for reusable VR-based formats. Building something bespoke is great, but within large organisations like the BBC, the most scalable ideas tend to be those which use existing resources to offer new ways to engage with content. That could be by driving interactive visualisations through the use of APIs which already feed our websites or it could be by integrating graphic models created for our TV content into virtual environments.

5. There are plenty of amazing experiences to try without paying a penny

We’ve been unsurprised by the amount of great content that has been released this year. What has surprised us is just how much it’s been possible to try for free.

Projects like the The Guardian’s 6x9 and The Des Moines Register’s Harvest of Change are great examples of journalistic VR experiences, but we’ve also found that the free content on digital stores such as Steam, Oculus Rift/Gear VR Store, Google Play, and PlayStation Store has been valuable in different ways.

We’ve found it useful to look at polished pieces for techniques that work well, but we are also interested in projects created by hobbyists on sites like itch.io. They have allowed us to experience ideas that are often more experimental in nature.

Regardless of the path the BBC decides to take, we are certain that exciting times lie ahead and look forward to seeing the formats that will inevitably be produced in the future in this truly global movement.

For more information on VR and 360 in News Labs, check out our project page.


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