Game on: Financial Times makes its VR debut for Rio Olympics

Let the games begin: The Financial Times has picked Rio de Janeiro as the subject for its first virtual reality project, to coincide with the Olympics.

Like all Olympics host nations, Brazil’s Rio has been under fierce scrutiny from the press over the last few months, with damning headlines — “Rio 2016: Athletes warned to keep mouths closed when swimming in faeces-infested water” — exposing a shaky economic infrastructure.

The FT’s four-minute VR film will go deep on the social dynamics and physical landscape of Rio’s favelas but in a way that shows the positives along with the negatives to create a balanced view of capital.

The film launches today, the same day as the opening ceremony, on a dedicated site and on YouTube, as part of the FT Weekend’s third “Hidden Cities” weekend supplement in collaboration with Google. The aim of Hidden Cities is to unearth unknowns about specific major cities. So far, the FT has picked London and Brussels. Google provides interactive map experiences on the web and mobile microsite, with locations populated with recommendations from FT journalists and local cultural experts.

The Hidden Cities microsite houses all Hidden Cities editorial content and has never been behind the FT paywall, so the video will be free to view. VR distribution is near impossible for publishers to scale without help from one of the VR headset makers. Other publishers like the New York Times have worked with Google to distribute Cardboard headsets for new VR projects, and the FT has gone a similar route. With Google, an existing Hidden Cities partner, it will supply 35,000 Cardboard headsets for FT readers, 9,000 of which will go to top-tier subscribers in Greater London. The remainder will be given out for free at various retail outlets around the country.

VR is new ground for all publishers, and a costly business, so not many have dedicated teams. The FT is no exception. The publisher has a smaller bureau in Brazil, with two staffers, one of whom, Brazil correspondent Samantha Pearson, narrated the video. Five more people flew out from its VR production partner Visualise to help create the film.

Natalie Whittle, deputy editor of FT Weekend, said the project has been an “amazing eye opener” into how to produce immersive journalism. Although all FT reporters are given basic training on how to film footage on their iPhones, which can be turned around fast, VR requires more rigor. “This is a really new testing ground, and the finish is hard to achieve,” she said. “The attention to detail is so critical, and for it to look professional, it requires a lot of equipment and on-site preparation.”

Still, the FT is already planning a second VR project for November, which will feature a fourth city and complement the Hidden Cities supplements. Determining the metrics of success is difficult, though, given there are no previous VR projects to compare with, said Whittle. But for now, the aim is to drive awareness that the FT is exploring the use of VR, rather than being part of a subscriptions drive plan.

“We’ll be watching the engagement,” said Whittle. “We’re keen for people to watch the film to its completion, so that’s what we’ll be tracking: their retention. Does it then attract people to explore other content on the site? So scroll depth and analytics like that will be of interest.”

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