Pilot: Engagement VR Provides New Look at Local Communities

The Pilot Innovation Challenge, an initiative of the National Association of Broadcasters, “recognizes creative ideas that leverage technological advances in the production, distribution and display of engaging content.” More than 150 ideas were submitted to address the challenge question, “What is an unconventional way broadcasters and other local media could serve communities?

TV Technology recently spoke with Hans Meyer, an associate professor at Ohio University, about Engagement VR, which has been named a finalist in the Challenge. Winners will be announced on Nov. 13.

TV TECHNOLOGY:Please describe the Engagement VR project and technology behind it.

Hans Meyer: Engagement VR is a simple solution for broadcast news organizations to connect with the parts of their viewership areas they don’t report on often in a way that brings the community together around something positive. Too often small towns get coverage only when something bad happens and reporters parachute in. Instead, Engagement VR encourages reporters to talk to the community to build interactive tours of the places they find important. VR technology and 360-degree video ensures the presentations are transparent and show everything about the community, not just what reporters choose to focus their cameras on.

TVT:What was the inspiration behind the service?

HM: As a community newspaper reporter, I was always discouraged when the national media would descend on my town to cover a big news story. The last city I worked in, Barstow, Calif., was constantly shown as a run-down, economically disadvantaged hamlet and the butt of Jay Leno’s jokes. But I knew differently. I knew the diversity the community offered, but I lacked the tools to show it. I see the same thing happening in the Appalachian area I live in now. When I hear about Ironton, Ohio or Harlan County, Ky., it’s only because a crime or natural disaster has happened. I know the TV reporters that serve these communities do their best, but they are limited by time, distance, and budgets.

We hope Engagement VR shows news organizations they can cover communities without relying on a “news peg.” We also hope it engenders goodwill and helps journalists fulfill their community building role, especially in areas they don’t often reach.

TVT:How do you expect Engagement VR to impact the broadcast industry?

HM: I see two key impacts Engagement VR could have on the broadcast industry. First, we hope these simple VR stories can encourage and model how broadcasters can apply their skills to digital media. Local newsrooms aren’t providing enough unique content to the web, relying instead on broadcast programs to keep traditional audiences and online shovelware to build digital ones. As a new and immersive technology, VR has the potential to attract new viewers, and Engagement VR shows how simple it is to create compelling, guided tours with the tools and tracts broadcast journalists already have.

TVT:You stress that the technology can be used with cell phone technology, why was that an important issue for Engagement VR?

HM: Cell phone technology is intrinsic to this project because many of the rural communities TV newsrooms don’t often reach suffer from limited broadband internet access. A cell phone, however, can bridge the gap because they’ve become nearly ubiquitous. In addition, it’s much easier to connect far flung cities and towns with cellular towers than fiber optic cables.

Just as important, however, is overcoming the hurdle that keeps many people away from VR. They think they need an expensive and cumbersome headset and a beefy PC to experience it. We’ve spent a lot of time researching existing and inexpensive technologies that will provide a true VR experience with a cell phone. We anticipate these technologies will propel VR into the mainstream, not Oculus or Vive or Playstation Vue.

TVT:What should readers know about the technology and its practical implications?

HM: We think this technology has many practical applications outside of journalism. Community organizations could create their own virtual tours using one of the platforms that already exist. Most already offer free trials that allow a user to create one project.

We think journalists could serve as valuable guides in the process, and that’s one reason why we created this project. We strongly believe journalism enjoys First Amendment protection because communities need someone to bring them together in a spirit of public comment and compromise. By virtue of their jobs, journalists are often the best informed citizens. We hope Engagement VR empowers them with the tools to share their knowledge and informed opinions toward bringing people together in a time where the media is increasingly being accused of driving them apart.