virtual reality

The 360° future of virtual reality news: a view from inside the BBC

By Kitty Knowles 21 October 2015

News outlets are already using virtual reality: we asked Zillah Watson, editor of BBC R&D Internet & Future Services, what the future holds.

Here at The Memo we’ve already spoken to porn stars about how VR is set to bring a “golden age” to the adult industry, we’ve met Trillenium the ASOS-backed company that wants you to browse clothes in their virtual shop, and we’ve glimpsed how VR can affect tourism, letting you time travel through the ages of historic destinations. We’ve even profiled the artists bringing virtual reality experiences to galleries across the UK.

But did you ever think about watching the BBC news in 360°?

The Memo asked Zillah Watson, editor of BBC R&D Internet & Future Services, how virtual reality is shaping the future of journalism.

Kitty Knowles: what different types of virtual reality news already exist?

Zillah Watson: There are two types. One is three hundred and sixty degree filming. When viewed through a virtual reality headset, it doesn’t enable you to move around, but it enables you to look around.

When it’s done well, you feel that you’re at the center of the action and so it is sort of immersive form of news reporting. You don’t need the reporters to tell you very much about what it’s like, you can see it for yourself.

The other type of virtual reality would be virtual reality proper, using a game engine to construct a virtual environment. For example, in one of the experiences that Nonny de la Peña produces, you’re standing in the middle of the action, and a bomb goes off in a Syrian square.

Warning: the video above shows a Nonny de la Peña’s VR reconstruction, but also includes the real source material on which de la Peña based the experience.

KK: Where is the BBC already experimenting with virtual reality?

ZW: Recently Newslab and BBC R&D filmed in Calais. The whole point of it was to see whether it would allow you to actually xeperience what it was really like; the viewer can look around and see what it’s like to live in the migrant camp on the sand dunes of Calais in makeshift shelters, and experience life there for themselves.

By chance there was a strike by ferry workers, which then led to all the lorries being backlogged up the road. The migrants used that as an opportunity to climb onto the lorries, so we found ourselves caught up in the action of a fast moving news story.

BBC Calais video (above): Use your mouse to grab the screen and move the viewpoint of the camera.

Did you experience any problems?

The thing that held us back is the fact that the technology is still in its infancy. Filming a fast moving news story with the kit is hard; the cameras we’re using are rigged with GoPros, and you haven’t got an on/off switch, you’ve got six switches. It is also complicated stitching it together at the end, but this will all get easier once the technology improves.

Will virtual reality reporting be reserved for hard news?

Well a 360° Strictly Come Dancing performance was released just over a week ago, and the natural history unit have always experimented with new cameras, new filming techniques: they filmed some three sixty work in Monterey Aquarium for Big Blue Live this summer.

There are various projects being talked about at the moment, but its all quite experimental; to understand how to do it, and where the BBC’s place might be in this world.

BBC Big Blue Live sea lions video (above): Use your mouse to grab the screen and move the viewpoint of the camera.

What other news outlets are leading the way in virtual reality reporting?

I think we started to see that with films, such as those made by Chris Milk, that virtual reality can take people to a place like the Zaatari migrant camp in Syria, and that viewers can really empathise with the people there.

But a lot of news operations, like Al Jazeera, have also started to experiment; ABC News released a film about Syria, which really shows you terrible destruction.

And we know that travel, tourism, and property journalist are all going to be doing these sorts of type things; allowing people to see a place you’re going to visit, a hotel you might be staying in, or a house you might be buying. Those are all going to be big areas for VR.

SMART NEWS agency Syria video (above): Use your mouse to grab the screen and move the viewpoint of the camera.

Are there any reasons to be cautious when producing VR news?

I’m very aware that with a 360° approach to a breaking news experience, especially in future once this becomes live, you show absolutely everything.

As news providers we’ve been careful to shield the public from some atrocities, and we provide warnings if, for example, you might see something very distressing.

Ultimately, if you had a sort of future virtual reality news service where you could just transport yourself to these cameras during earthquakes or disasters around the world, this whole idea of presence might really put you in a situation where you see things that might be very damaging to see.

With the ethics, we just haven’t truly sorted through what the implications are. You’re seeing everything, and you may see things that are very damaging to see firsthand.

Still from a 9/11 VR recreation.
Still from a 9/11 VR recreation. Pic: Pretty Neat VR.

And this relates to the constructed virtual reality environments too?

Speaking personally – not on behalf of the BBC – I think that whenever we see too many images of disasters or harrowing scenes you can become more immune to that, and the danger with some of these VR things is that you see an explosion or experiences that take you to places where most happy people wouldn’t expect to be.

I question how good it will be for humans: for human beings to have a sense of presence in really terrible situations.

For example, I mean I saw there was a 9/11 virtual reality experience showing you what it was like on the tops of the Twin Towers, and although it was properly researched, and very much based on testimony of what it would have been like up there, personally, that’s not a place I’d want to be.


Vice News US protest video (above): Use your mouse to grab the screen and move the viewpoint of the camera.

In the future, will people really sit around wearing their headsets to watch the six o’clock news?

I don’t think all of news will ever work in 360°. Television constructs like court reports, where you have a reporter standing outside to report, 360° is not going to offer much to that.

It’s also possible that it may take longer than some forecasters say for large numbers of people to have virtual reality headsets at home.

However, the possibility for giving the sort of material on smart phones are really exciting; where you move your phone around to see the pictures. And the technology is progressing so far that it is only a matter of time.

So even if it’s not people with headsets on constantly, the prospects of virtual reality video are definitely worth exploring.

Watch David Grossman, the Technology Editor at BBC Newsnight, explain how he thinks VR will change news: