LOS ANGELES — USA TODAY Network debuted a first-of-its kind weekly virtual reality news show Thursday, inviting viewers to soar in 360-degrees at a hot-air balloon festival in New Mexico and to join high-liners above Arizona's canyons.
Called “VRtually There” and co-produced with YouTube, the show's initial content is targeted towards action, along the lines of what's been shown on the USA TODAY YouTube channel in 360°, including flying with the Blue Angels and getting into the pit during the Indianapolis 500 race. In the new show's debut, viewers also can jump into the cockpit of an F-18 and take off.
Ex-National Geographic producer David Hamlin will serve as executive producer.
The production is one of several breaking ground in VR, a category that has its roots in gaming but that's branching out into other content, including news. These offer a 360-degree look at the world — up, down, left and right — with a swipe on mobile phones. More immersive experiences use headsets like the Samsung Gear, which connects to Galaxy phones, or Facebook's Oculus Rift, a specialized headset tethered to a powerful computer.
Most folks watch 360° on Facebook and YouTube's mobile 360° channel without a viewer, which “is cool,” says Niko Chauls, director of applied technology for Gannett, the parent company of the USA TODAY Network, the publisher of this report. Add the viewer and “it’s a mind blowing, dazzling experience.”
USA TODAY is not alone in exploring VR for news purposes. The Huffington Post and VR studio RYOT also have a ten-part “The Big Picture: News in Virtual Reality,” planned for the Hulu VR app in November, to be viewed on the new Google Daydream and the Samsung Gear VR virtual reality viewers.
This year, VR drew closer to the mainstream as Facebook opened up the ability to view VR videos in the News Feed, and YouTube launched a dedicated 360° channel. The YouTube channel includes videos from media partners Showtime, Fox, GoPro, Sony, Warner Bros. and Red Bull.
Toyota has signed as the first sponsor for "VRtually There" with a "cubemercial," a 360° ad produced for Toyota's Camry car that whisks the reviewer to Australia's wilderness.
“VRtually There” is produced by journalists at the 110 members of the Network, including USA TODAY and sister publications like the Arizona Republic, Des Moines Register and Indianapolis Star. New episodes will post Thursdays at 2 p.m. ET, with three segments lasting around 5 minutes.
“Our in-house VR content production is unique to the industry, allows us to showcase our great journalism across the NETWORK and allows us to expose our vast audience to this innovative storytelling,” said Joanne Lipman, USA TODAY NETWORK’s chief content officer, in a statement.
With companies like Google, Samsung, Facebook, HTC, Sony and Microsoft investing in virtual reality, it made sense for Gannett to be there as well, notes Kevin Gentzel, chief revenue officer for Gannett. "That's a big tailwind," showing that VR is real, he adds.
While the show is weekly now, Chauls wants to increase to a daily broadcast.
The hurdle is production. The show is shot on multiple cameras which have to be "stitched" together in software, and that can take a lot of time. New automated software from companies like Google promise to greatly cut down on the time it takes to stitch, he adds.
"This is the time to build the audience, get them used to the medium and what’s possible," he says.