Return to site

Can VR change the way we consume news?

An interview with Louis Jebb , CEO of and UK father of VR Journalism. Louis will be also speaker at ORAMA on the 31.01

· Interviews

Louis Jebb is founder and CEO of, a pioneering company in the production of news content in virtual reality (VR) since 2014. Jebb is an ambassador for Journalism 360, an initiative to share knowledge and best practices in immersive journalism backed by Google News Lab, Knight Foundation and the Online News Association. is co-developing Svhere, a machine learning-enhanced platform for news content in VR, with funding from the Google Digital News Initiative Fund.

We met him for a fascinating chat before the kick off of ORAMA on the 31.03

Could you tell us a bit about the ethos of was founded in 2014 to:

  • Help people care about the news
  • Acquire, or bring back, news audiences across all age groups
  • Achieve these aims by developing news formats in virtual

And to do so by :

1) Employing a context-heavy approach to reporting and editing news, where
a) Is explicit about its intention “to help people care about news” and the values that lie behind it – to stay clear and simple on intentions.
b) Has a mission of explaining why things are as they are – to allow complexity in explanations.
c) Aims to become a trusted, authentic voice.
d) Helps audiences to understand how they, and the rest of the world, acquire a cognitive bias on any news topic.
e) Gives audiences a sense of control of how they learn of news, and are educated by it. A recent report finds that the brain unconsciously edits and filters for us all day. And uses “information avoidance” to manage the volume of data it is consciously processing – whether the data is beneficial or not. The more intelligently we can work with those functions, and the audience’s actual tolerance for information, the better we can communicate with our audience.
f) Earns quality of attention from its audience.
g) Remembers to inform people of how a story finishes. The importance of showing closure.
h) Tells great stories.


Engaging in, and promoting, research into the effect that news has on its audience – and how in particular that effect can be measured, and understood, when news is presented in virtual reality.

How do you think virtual reality can change the way that people consume the news?

When assessing how news consumption changes, it is useful to view it as a multi-faceted engagement between reporter, subject, publisher and audience. And to acknowledge that all these parties have some influence on the consumption of news – especially in the early history of a new format like VR. The way that these four parties engage will dictate how people view news in VR.

Engagement (publisher/audience)


In an age of attention deficit, and fragmented distribution of news, a new media format gives publishers a fresh chance to catch people’s attention and bypass some of the audience’s existing information filters.
With 360-degree video, publishers can reach anyone with a smartphone, a laptop or tablet. While audiences for fully immersive head-mounted displays – Oculus Rift, HTC Vive, Sony Playstation VR – continue to grow.


With VR (whether 360-degree video or CGI narratives) there are some “immediate” sources of engagement
Novel/new angle on a story

The audience can acquire a feeling of being at the heart of the story (and thus gain a strong sense of presence)
The audience has a “say” in the final edit. A content maker can guide where the audience looks, their arc of attention – using cuts, audio prompts and graphics – but the viewer ultimately chooses where to look in the sphere.

The audience can acquire a feeling of being at the heart of the story (and thus gain a strong sense of presence)
The audience has a “say” in the final edit. A content maker can guide where the audience looks, their arc of attention – using cuts, audio prompts and graphics – but the viewer ultimately chooses where to look in the sphere.

Understanding context – seeing abnormality in context of normality (publisher/audience)


In its 30-month life, consumer VR has acquired a reputation as an “empathy machine”.


The film-maker Chris Milk made a memorable statement in a TED talk, early in 2015, in relation to Clouds over Sidra, a 360-degree video documentary set in a refugee camp in Syria, and co-produced with Gabo Arora of the United Nations. VR is a format, he said, that “connects humans to other humans in a way I have never seen in any other medium…. It’s a machine, but through this machine we become more compassionate, more empathetic, and ultimately we become more human.”

By connecting “humans to humans”, news in VR can help address what the philosopher Alain de Botton – in his insightful book The News: A user’s manual (2014) – identifies as the “abnormality” or “body-count” register for curating news. “Unless we have some sense of what passes for normality in a given location,” De Botton writes, “we may find it very hard to calibrate or care about abnormal conditions”.

I was struck by the potential for this calibration of the normal/abnormal when we filmed Hong Kong Unrest (filmed September 2014, released January 2015), our first news documentary in 360-degree video. The most dramatic scene in the video shows Hong Kong police using pepper spray and batons against pro-democracy demonstrators, filmed from a slightly elevated position (the film’s director, Edward Miller, used a sound boom to elevate his Freedom 360 rig above the heads of the crowds). The police intervention draws the viewer’s attention. But if, at the same time, the viewer looks 90 degrees left or 90 degrees right they see local life (people boarding buses, going in and out of shops) continuing as normal, despite the impressive size of the demonstration.

In this case there is, simultaneously (rather than through sequential editing), a wide register of normality/abnormality in one piece of content:

One part of the sphere shows the normality of daily life.
Another part of the sphere shows an abnormal political demonstration, one of world significance.

It is a new kind of context for telling stories in news. One that should encourage the user to take a second look.

Understanding the process, without being subject to it (publisher, reporter)

In the last 25 years, established media outlets have struggled to engage with new platforms or tools, and their accessibility (websites, mobile, social media). A research-based, stakeholder-driven investigation of how news in VR affects audiences can help publishers avoid the same mistake with immersive storytelling, and to answer the following questions:
What does it change about how we regard reporting, capture and editing? While remembering that a good story is a good story whatever the format.
How do we use the advent of a new format as powerful as this to re-engage with audiences old and new?
How does this format require us to re-examine the ethics of what we do as a publishing company?
Is there a new business model to be built around news in VR? One based on quality of attention rather than quantity of attention (which has proved inadequate, with existing digital formats, to fund a newsroom).
The way we avoid being subject to the process is to remember that a good story is a good story, whatever the format it is told in. And that news reports have an ambition beyond being a pixel-perfect, politically balanced, prize-winning demonstration of professional competence. The way we present them has an effect on our audiences, their outlook on life, and the health of society. This is a more important consideration than ever, given the increasinglys precarious nature of journalistic employment in the years since the old advertising-fuelled business model ceased to work.

Understanding the effect on the user (publisher, audience)

We need ethical standards for news in VR, established by engaging with stakeholders from the media industry: a programme to run concurrently with the VR hardware and software standards initiative launched in December 2016 by Khronos, an open consortium of leading hardware and software companies

In part to meet that need, Journalism 360 was launched in late 2016. It is an initiative of pioneers in news in VR, backed by Knight Foundation, the Google News Labs and Online News Association. Journalism 360 has ethics and standards as one of its main concerns, and is running a grant-making challenge for innovation in immersive storytelling. (Declaration of interest: I am an ambassador and adviser for Journalism 360.)

We will need to build on this initiative – by engaging with a wide variety of content-makers and audiences, and applying academic rigour to the process – in order understand to what extent content made in 360 video or CGI encourages a sense of empathy, engagement and emotional connection, compared with the same story covered by conventional video.

This research would also engage with:
The power of VR to recover data) on how VR content affects users (using eye-tracking and haptic technologies to gather emotional and physiological reaction). This data recovery raises powerful questions about privacy.
Helping guide audiences in understanding the nature of propaganda in formats old and new. At the 2016 Game Developers’ Conference in Washington DC, Nonny De la Peña, the acclaimed pioneer of VR, described creating awareness of propaganda as a huge challenge for VR, as it has been for all new publishing formats.

Understanding the audience’s changed engagement with news


We can anticipate that audiences of news in VR may well acquire a fresh attitude to:
What news is and how they regard being a subject of news. If we return to Clouds over Sidra as a case study, a lot of the power of the piece is not just in the quality of the capture and the storytelling but in the way in which the film’s maker, Gabor Arora, of the United Nations, won the trust of his subjects. By engaging with them and their daily lives. He was clear in his intentions toward his subjects as he later was in the UN’s intentions towards the audience. He explains why in an interview with Kent Bye on the Voices of VR podcast.


How will individuals change their attitude to being the subject of news, once they grasp the power of news in virtual reality?

Do you believe that virtual reality can play a role in solving the problem of ‘fake news’?
VR, whether as a format, or a platform clearly has no active agency of its own. It’s not a magic wand, with some intrinsic power of truth.
Everything depends on how it is used.

That said, there are cases to be made for and against using virtual reality as a tool to countering the power of fake news. The case against VR having a special role to play in countering “fake news” VR is not, intrinsically, a “more trustworthy” format. The intentions of makers, audiences, publishers and governments won’t be modified by the tech per se. VR is going to be used for propaganda (ill-intentioned or well-intentioned) and for fake news, just as every new publishing format has been since the invention of moveable type (where the killer “app” that brought printing technology into the mass market wasn’t the “tortoise” of the Gutenberg bibles but the “hare” of flyers carrying political or commercial propaganda). VR has already been used to great effect as a form of soft power by national broadcasters and brands: to give a nation, a company or a non-profit organisation a wow factor.
Since the early days of consumer VR (2014-15), pioneers have shown the power of VR for good – Gabo Arora and Chris Milk’s Clouds over Sidra (January 2015) is a case study in fund-raising powered by VR storytelling’s capacity for arousing empathy (when well done).


In a recent study of ethical conduct in VR technology, Michael Madary and Thomas K. Metzinger find that VR “enables a powerful form of non-invasive psychological manipulation”. For good or bad.


The case for saying that VR can be deployed to counter “fake news”
To answer this question we have to consider VR as both a platform and a content format.

As a platform
With VR (rather than a website) as a platform – where content is sorted, selected and viewed within a VR interface (Samsung Gear store was one of the first applications to show this approach) – there is a clear challenge: to develop algorithms and business models that avoid favouring the clickbait-driven revenue that privileged profit-focused fake news during the US election of 2016. It’s a question of the intention behind such processes.


As a format
There are forms of VR – specifically 360-degree video – where all-encompassing live or as-live capture can be used as a yardstick for judging other formats.
At a most basic level, a politician campaigning on the hustings, who packs a small number of supporters behind him to fill the standard video frame, can give the impression that this small, but carefully choreographed, troupe is bigger than it is. And thus “faking” the news narrative by also controlling the position from which video journalists are able to capture the event. The same scene, filmed from the same position, but in 360-degree video, will show the full narrative: the campaigning politician with a small, carefully choreographed group behind him will be revealed as being surrounded by otherwise empty parks or pavements.


Another case of how cinematic VR footage could be employed as a yardstick for judging news coverage to be fake or otherwise, derives from a recent live event – the US Senate’s confirmation hearing of Rex Tillerson as Secretary of State, broadcast live by PBS and on YouTube in February 2017.

As is the style with such broadcasts, in standard video, the nominee was filmed from straight in front, with a static camera position and a slow-burn approach to cutting to a different shot (say the nominee’s questioners). To match the sobriety of the proceedings, and the public service aspect of the coverage.

At one stage during Tillerson’s hearing there was a loud protest from the public balcony above and behind him. At this point, proceedings were halted, apparently while the protesters were removed. The camera stayed on Tillerson and did not pan up to investigate the protest.

With the standard video frame remaining static, the viewer could see nothing of the protesters or how they were behaving, or indeed the manner in which they were being removed from proceedings.

If the feed had been captured, instead, in cinematic VR, using a 360-degree video camera, the PBS audience would have had the option to look in the direction of the protest, and to witness and judge proceedings for themselves.

And in the eventuality that details of these proceedings, and the related protest, had been subject to claims and counterclaims surrounding “fake” news, the 360-degree video capture of the event would have been a powerful tool in assessing the validity of such claims.

Do you want to know more about Immersive Storytelling?

Join us at ORAMA

All Posts

Almost done…

We just sent you an email. Please click the link in the email to confirm your subscription!