The Media Briefing Examines the Future of VR in Publishing

The Media Briefing has been addressing three key questions about the potential of VR in the world of publishing; What will it take for virtual reality to become economically viable for publishers, where is that tipping point of viability and where is the revenue?

Chris Sutcliffe has written three articles which attempt to address these questions separately. Together the articles investigate the current status of VR and look at what is required to provide the fertile conditions needed for VR to grow into both an affordable technology for publishers and an accessible experience for consumers.

In the first article Sutcliffe says that there have been a number of interesting experiments in VR documentary making, pointing to Hong Kong Unrest as an example. Productions like this have proved the potential for VR’s immersive qualities to provoke a new level of audience engagement with documentary storytelling. So what will it take for reporting like this be viewed alongside the news headlines of the future?

It’s one thing to do experiments, and quite another to make virtual reality one of your regular means of distribution. Issues of investment are certainly one consideration - though the cost of entry is lower than you might assume - but the real questions are these: When will there be enough of a userbase for it to be worth publishers’ time producing content for VR users? And how can they monetise them?

Sutcliffe points to the accelerating rate of technology adoption (as summarized by the Pew Research Centre) as evidence of the speed at which we can expect VR to become mainstream. The early adopters of VR have come to it through the games industry and it seems unlikely that journalism on a VR platform will become mainstream until it can be monetized. But Sutcliffe says that publishers existing partnership with advertisers could provide them with the experience and leverage needed;

While many publishers are still grappling with the issue of what a successful ad looks like on mobile, brands and advertisers are already experimenting with marketing services using VR platforms. In an article for AdWeek about the potential of advertising on VR platforms, Christopher Heine provides the following example: “The 360-degree videos will live on an Oculus content platform that’s set to go live early this year. Destination B.C. also plans to distribute the clips via a partnership with Thomas Cook, a U.K.-based travel agency that will outfit its U.K., German and Belgian locations with the Oculus Rift. ‘You don’t have to simply lean on telling consumers things like, ‘The trees are this big.’ That sense of being there is such a powerful tool,” notes Janice Greenwood-Fraser, a representative for the tourism authority. “It brings it to life in a way that no photo or regular video can.’”

Sutcliffe’s second article examines what conditions will be needed to tip VR towards mainstream distribution. The NYTimes’ recent experiment with VR saw them sending out 1.3 million free Google Cardboard headsets to readers of its print product. The project has been viewed as a success with average audience engagement times of 14.7 minutes, and the NYT is now planning future VR projects.

And of that 14.7 minutes figure, Andy Wright, senior vice president of advertising and publisher at The New York Times Magazine, said: “Given the average time spent within the NYT VR app is close to 15 minutes, an unheard of metric for digital media, it is clear that this experience resonated with viewers.”

YouTube’s Google Cardboard platform is now accessible to Android users as well as iOS, making a 360 viewing experience genuinely possible for any smartphone owner. The cost of camera rigs is coming down too so are the conditions for VR to take off here right now?

But there are other fundamental problems to be overcome. For instance, the body’s proprioception is keyed to adapted to your personal height and body type. For the same reason that mirror box syndrome can (reputedly) alleviate the pain of phantom limbs, the tricks virtual reality employs can stimulate a physiological response in the user. As a result, introducing too great a variance in the body type (height/weight/etc) means that an individual’s proprioception can be thrown off, breaking the ‘presence’ of the experience and arguably blunting the point of true VR. But, as a result of the efforts of the NYT and other publishers in pushing the new medium via the minimum viable product of Google Cardboard, in addition to the lower-than-expected price of the Samsung gear VR headset worldwide, it’s likely adoption of VR will be faster than we could have predicted even six months ago.

The third article looks at the way advertisers are investing in VR. As with native advertising, the success or otherwise of an advertisement is based on the trust a reader has with the host publication (see previous Radar post). Sutcliffe argues that publishers are in the best position to judge their own audiences, and they have the skills to produce the copy. An investment in in house VR could reap rewards for advertising revenue and documentary storytelling alike.

And with major audiences come major advertising opportunities. Whether that’s through content produced on behalf of brands in an incredibly immersive medium, or an event or brand producing it to bolster its ecommerce proposition, it’s evident that if 360 video offers savvy publishers a new way to engage audiences.

Watch this advert for mini (which the article points to). The short 360 film, which can be watched on a laptop or smartphone as well as with goggles, shows some interesting creative possibilities for both advertisers and dramatic storytelling.