More than 170 years ago, inventor and scientist Charles Wheatstone designed the stereoscope, a contraption that used angled mirrors to create three-dimensional images. A century later the View Master, a much more compact device, brought reels of tiny coloured photographs to life, and was used for everything from tourism to military training, and of course, children’s toys.
Now in 2016, after years of development bubbling under the surface, the three-dimensional image is set to reach a whole new level as tech giants like Google, Apple, Facebook and Sony focus their attention on virtual reality.
So what’s the attraction? Virtual reality is a new medium of story telling and innovative stories are at the root of audience engagement. VR could be as ground breaking as the photograph. If a picture tells a thousand stories a VR headset could tell a million.
VR is also surprisingly accessible – Google Cardboard lets users turn their smartphones into VR headsets using low cost material like… you guessed it cardboard. Headsets can be bought for under £20 or even built from scratch. Google has shipped over 5 million headsets since their launch in 2014 and are ramping up the development process this year.
Virtual reality’s most powerful tool is its ability to transport audiences to the scene of the story. Recently, news outlets like Sky News and The New York Times experimented with VR, bringing their audience into the heart of major events such as the European migrant crisis and onto the streets of the Paris Attacks.
The New York Times sent free VR headsets to their subscribers, which allowed individuals to virtually stand amongst the devastation in Paris in the immediate aftermath of the attacks. Virtual reality lets people feel their way through the scene of a story, and makes news more relatable and more real.
In sport, virtual reality app BrainGainz is helping drive the debate around concussion in sport. The app lets users simulate the feeling of visual disorientation that athletes suffer after hard tackles. As well as having powerful health and education benefits, the app also shows how virtual reality can add a new dimension to debate, by shifting the audience’s perspective and putting them in the shoes of the case study.
For individuals, news organisations and companies looking for innovative ways of telling stories, virtual reality could really be a platform with game changing potential.
By Andrew Will