Virtual reality and journalism: It's more than racing down the track

For Southern California fans of IndyCar racing, this weekend might be very special. The Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach begins on Friday at the Long Beach Convention Center, which is the second stop on the 2017 IndyCar tour. 

In previewing the event, the Los Angeles Times captured what it is like to spin around the track with professional driver Zach Veach.

Over the two-minute 360 Video, Veach narrates as he takes us around a lap. “The Long Beach Grand Prix is Indianapolis 500 of street courses,” explained Veach, a 22-year-old driver from Ohio. “This place is the fastest street course you can go too. You have to have composure right on the edge of everything going wrong, and with it being such a bumpy circuit as well you have to be completely comfortable with the car moving around and really being out of control as you try to tame this place.” 

An experience like Veach’s allows ordinary people, who may never get this close to an IndyCar. And journalists using new technology to tell familiar stories. Immersive journalism has great potential, and journalist don't need to be working at publications like The New York Times or the Los Angeles Times to produce great experiences that allow the reader (well, viewers) get a profound sense of a subject. 


Universities are even catching on to this new medium. The Stanford Journalism Program, for example, has started to offer a 10-week course on how publications use virtual reality and teach them the fundamentals of the discipline. 

“VR has the potential to enhance storytelling by offering the audience experiences and environments that are logistically out of reach for most of us: life in a refugee camp, exploring a distant planet, scrubbing up to enter an Ebola ward, walking with bison on the Great Plains, teetering atop the spire on the World Trade Center,” said Geri Migielicz and Janine Zacharia — both Stanford Professors. 

 Students in Stanford's VR Program working with the Samsung Gear VR headset.

Students in Stanford's VR Program working with the Samsung Gear VR headset.

The two-person team goes on to say that not all stories need or should use VR as the medium. “And for at least the foreseeable future, we believe the majority of VR pieces will complement other forms of reporting rather than replace them,” they continued. “But the potential for impacting audiences in ways never possible with other journalism mediums is enticing.”

The Stanford professors outline 3 points when VR should be utilized:

1. Places that are hard to get to or where people are unlikely to go.
2. Where being in the actual space deepens one’s understanding of a story beyond a written narrative, photos or regular video.
3. And most crucially, following on the previous point: where turning your head side-to-side is essential. If all the action is front and center — say at a political debate — you don’t need spherical video.


This new form of journalism flips the traditional storytelling on its head and forces the creator and writer to become a part of the story. For most journalists, being slightly removed from the story offers a way being able to express a true and unspoiled narrative. But with more immersive technologies, journalist are allowing their viewers to see the reality as they see explicitly see it.  

“The difference now,” Migielicz and Zacharia argued, “is that the reality surrounds the cameras and the journalist has two choices: leave that reality or become a part of the story, active or passive.”

For more information on Virtual Reality and Journalism, check out Geri Migielicz and Janine Zacharia's article, "Stanford Journalism Program’s Guide to Using Virtual Reality for Storytelling — Dos & Don’ts."

Until then, watch another shot from the Los Angeles Times, where you are in the driver’s seat as you are drifting down the Long Beach track.