Creative Course Finder: Journalism Meets Virtual Reality

Journalism students use virtual reality equipment to tell immersive stories in an emerging medium.

July 11, 2018
 
University of Oklahoma
Students at Oklahoma prepare to show off virtual reality projects in Kathy Johnson's broadcast journalism class.

Welcome back to Creative Course Finder, our periodic look behind the scenes at classroom innovation. If you think your course qualifies for this series -- or if you've heard about a course that could fit -- send us a note at [email protected], or comment below this article. We'd love to hear from you.​

Institution: University of Oklahoma

Course: Routes TV -- a crash course in long-form reporting that culminates in a 30-minute magazine-style television news production. The 14-student class is open to enrollment from all five schools in the university’s Gaylord College of Journalism and Mass Communication -- professional writing, strategic communication, journalism, creative media production and advertising. Kathy Johnson, professor of journalism, thinks students benefit from working with peers in other disciplines -- for instance, she likes to pair journalism students with entertainment production majors “so they can rely on each other’s strengths.”

The assignment is simple, though the challenges can be complex: find a story, report it out, turn it into a virtual reality viewing experience.

Origins: The Gaylord College of Journalism has in recent years started teaching students about the use of virtual reality and augmented reality in media and entertainment. A few years ago, Johnson took some of her broadcast journalism students to a room in one of the university’s libraries full of virtual reality equipment. Their enthusiasm convinced her that virtual reality should become more central to the curriculum, and she has done that with the help of seven Vuze VR cameras, which cost $800 apiece.

Johnson co-teaches the Routes TV course with Mike Boettcher, a professor of journalism who has reported for CNN, ABC and NBC. They had help launching the course from Rob Morris of Trifecta Communications, a technology company that connects journalists to virtual reality and other digital tools.

Successes: Students found innovative ways to make use of and even stretch the VR format. One group superimposed footage of the university’s cheerleading team celebrating immediately postvictory onto a wall behind an interview the students conducted. “Most 360 video doesn’t embed traditional video in there,” Johnson said.

Interest in the course skyrocketed once word got out about the updated curriculum. Most prior iterations of the course had seven or eight students. Now each section fills up quickly and has a wait list.

Requiring 360-degree video also forces the students to plan the structure and substance of their stories before they even start production -- thinking through shots, lining up interviews, navigating potential privacy concerns, illustrating storyboards. Johnson believes students come away with more concrete skills that can be applied in other courses or jobs than they would with a more traditional assignment.

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Beth Privat, a senior at the university, said virtual reality shooting is far more challenging than other forms of filmmaking -- but also more rewarding.

"The uniqueness of 360 storytelling in how it presents itself to the audience is what draws me to it," Privat said. "If VR can fully take my biases out of the story and let the watcher decide what to think of an event, I'd take the frustrations any day."

Challenges: Virtual reality at its best creates the illusion of intimacy. But the process of creating it can be cold and clunky. Interview subjects need to be two or three feet away from the camera in order to prevent seams (created by gaps in camera lenses) splitting people's faces. Locations need to be visually appealing from all sides, rather than shooting interviews in empty rooms with four bare walls.

Working with the cameras also took some adjusting. The tripods that came with the cameras were too short to reach a person’s eye level even when sitting on top of a table. Johnson and her students eventually boosted the camera more by placing it on top of the box that came with it. One group during an interview with a band at a bar used nearby beer boxes.

Lighting rooms for 360-degree video can be a challenge; shooting outside eliminates that problem but also creates more potential for unexpected interruptions. The camera itself doesn’t record stellar audio, so the institution eventually ordered some alternative recording devices, and students used their smartphones as well.

Early on, students didn't follow directions for stitching together footage from various cameras, causing headaches at the end of the process. "That is why we now go over the directions extensively and they have to take a quiz over the material before they can use the camera," Johnson said.

Privacy issues are more pressing with 360-degree video than with traditional view. Most people on the street know to stay out of view of a TV news camera, but some might not recognize when they’re being captured by a camera that can see in all directions.

“While in public there’s no presumption of privacy … we still want to be careful about what we’re shooting, make sure people in the area know they’re going to be on TV or on the internet,” Johnson said.

Most of the early struggles will be ironed out once the tools become more commonplace in students' lives, Johnson believes. Some students have even opted to take the class a second time to improve on their first efforts, Johnson said.

Up Next: Johnson hopes eventually to establish a similar class in which students create augmented reality material. Meanwhile, the demand for the current class is so great that Johnson might open a second section.

"There’s a real drive in excitement for this technology by students," Johnson said.

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