How Freelancers Can Capitalize on the VR Revolution

By Aja Frost December 15th, 2015

On November 8, 2015, 1.3 million New York Times Sunday papers were tossed onto driveways, pushed into mail slots, and left on front stoops. They were bulkier than usual. Each came with a Google Cardboard VR headset, which creates a virtual reality experience using lenses embedded into a folded piece of cardboard and your smartphone.

Print subscribers could then download NYT VR, the newspaper’s new virtual reality app, and lift the headset—with phone in place—to their eyes. If they did, they were transported to South Sudan, Ukraine, and Lebanon to meet three children affected by the Syrian refugee crisis (or to a MINI Cooper for an advertisement, depending on their mood).

Virtual reality had arrived. Ad Age called it a “watershed moment”: Virtual reality’s potential as both an entertainment product and journalism tool had finally been presented to a mass audience. And with the release of most major VR headsets coming in early 2016 and investor money pouring into the industry, virtual reality is set to explode in the coming years.

For freelancers looking to maximize their skills—and learn new ones—a new medium may present a new opportunity.

“I think early on there will be lots of opportunities for freelancers who have developed the specialist skills,” Fergus Pitt, a senior fellow at Columbia University’s Tow Center for Digital Journalism, said. “There will be a period where the skills will not have become commoditized, as opposed to how a lot of writing and photography have.”

Pitt predicts that the medium will become widespread “no earlier than 2020″ but that “it’s such a different production and narrative process that journalists will need all of that time to get competent.”

For freelancers hoping to get ahead of the back, here are four critical steps.

Step 1: Join the community

“Connecting with people in the VR community is the first, very simple step,” said USC Annenberg associate professor Robert Hernandez, who teaches a VR journalism course.

He explained there’s a variety of events taking place across the globe of likeminded VR enthusiasts. At these meet-ups and conferences, virtual reality beginners can talk to experts and interact with VR prototypes and demos. It’s a great—and free—way to get hands-on experience.

With more than 240 VR meet-ups in 42 countries, there’s a decent chance you’ll be able to find a community near you.

Experiencing and analyzing existing VR content is another easy way to pick up on techniques and best practices.

Hernandez suggested beginners check out what Vrse and Ryot, two VR studios, have produced. He also recommends the documentary Hong Kong Unrest, The Wall Street Journal‘s 3-D Nasdaq model, and Frontline‘s Ebola Outbreak: a 360 Virtual Journey (which Pitt helped produce).

Step 2: Get some equipment

To experience “true” VR (i.e., content that’s pushed through a third-party device rather than your browser), you’ll need to get your hands on a VR headset.

Hernandez advised starting with Google Cardboard. The price varies slightly, but most basic models come in at around $20. It’s the cheapest option, and Hernandez explained that it will give you a basic feel for the mobile VR experience.

If you’re willing to invest more, Hernandez is a big fan of the $99 Samsung headset because its “portability and great graphics.” Unfortunately, it’s only compatible with the Galaxy S6—so if you’ve a different phone, try the ZEISS VR ONE ($1200), or the Freefly VR ($79).

You’ll have an even greater number of choices in 2016, when the headsets from Oculus Rift, Sony, and HTC are scheduled to launch.

Producing VR, however, is a bit more complicated, and requires a different suite of gadgets. If you’re a developer and plan on working with 3D models, you’ll only need software like Unity or Virtalis.

360° video, however, requires (at the least) a special camera, and likely more. Like the headsets, these cameras are on a sliding scale of cost and quality.

On the low end, Hernandez recommended the $350 Ricoh Theta S. It’s a small, lightweight device that lets you shoot both still images and spherical video with audio. Plus, there’s an HD live-streaming feature.

Hernandez, like most professional VR producers, uses a GoPro rig. Six GoPros are mounted on a device so there’s one facing every direction, such as in these 360 Heroes rigs. (Freedom 360 is another option, and GoPro is producing its own rig with recently acquired company Kolor). Between the six cameras and mount, this array can cost upwards about $3,500.

Finally, you’ll need software to stitch your footage together and edit it. Visionary VR and VideoStitch are both solid options. Many VR rigs are available in packages with stitching software.

Step 3: Build a basic skill-set

After you’ve acquired the necessary equipment, it’s time to get to work building out your skill-set. According to Hernandez, the requisite skills vary depending on which type of VR you want to get into.

Journalists with coding skills (or freelance software developers) who want to experiment with creating VR experiences can download a free version of Unity and start building interactive worlds. Of course, most journalists aren’t Javascript experts (the programming language Unity uses), so 360° video is probably the more practical option.

To produce 360° VR, one records several video streams from a single point using the previously mentioned rig. Those multiple viewpoints are then combined using video-stitching software—this is largely an automatic process, but learning to film in the 360 video mindset can be a challenge.

“The skills aren’t that foreign, but the thinking is different,” Hernandez said. The challenge for most, he said, is changing a key underlying assumption of traditional filming—that the filmmaker can hide behind the camera. A 360° view fundamentally changes the filmmaking process, which makes practice with the form all the more necessary.

Of course, this can only be done through practice and immersion into the 360° video community.

Step 4: Find your niche

Once you’re comfortable enough with the basic process, it’s time to find your niche. Unlike many forms of journalism, you probably can’t produce VR alone.

Case in point: according to the producers of the previously mentioned VR documentary, “Ebola Outbreak: A Virtual Journey,” they needed team members for the following:

  • Reporting
  • Producing
  • Hardware development
  • Software development
  • System design
  • Workflow design
  • Videography
  • Film direction
  • Art direction
  • 3D motion graphic production
  • Coding
  • Video editing
  • VR authoring
  • Editorial
  • Business development
  • Project management
  • Marketing

Virtual Reality Journalism,” the report from the Tow Center detailing the process behind the documentary, concluded that the various abilities needed to produce a piece of VR journalism are fairly uncommon—and it’s “unrealistic” that one person could do it all.

So it’s in your best interest find a niche. Focus on building your camera skills, or your editing skills, or reporting from a VR perspective; like traditional video journalism, going on your own is nearly impossible, though technological innovations and reduced costs will likely make solo VR production more viable in the coming years.

Once you’re ready to start working, Pitt suggested going to production companies or in-house teams that need freelance help.

And don’t worry if you feel out of your depth.

“Truthfully, with a little effort, you can be on par with everyone else in the industry right now,” Hernandez said. “It’s so new, and there are no best practices. We’re in the middle of trying new things out, seeing what succeeds or fails.”

Image by bento rodrigues
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