Political conventions are proving grounds for VR

Live video might be all the rage during this year’s presidential conventions, but a few publishers are taking it a step further by producing virtual reality and 360-degree videos from the events.

During the Republican National Convention last week, ABC News, CNN and The Huffington Post were among the news outlets that published VR and 360-degree videos to give viewers a more immersive snapshot of what was happening on the ground in Cleveland. All three publishers plan to produce more VR and 360-degree video pieces for the Democratic National Convention this week in Philadelphia. (YouTube, meanwhile, is live streaming both conventions in 360 degrees.)

“VR has the ability to help people step inside someone else’s shoes,” said Bryn Mooser, co-founder of Oscar-nominated VR company Ryot, which was acquired by The Huffington Post in April. “In this case, we want to give a full look at what a convention in 2016 looks like.”

Huffington Post’s Ryot team had six people on the ground in Cleveland, with the same team currently in Philadelphia, to produce multiple VR videos per day. The group has a set of pre-programmed VR pieces planned for every day. These videos focus on different aspects of the conventions and their host cities. For instance, one video published last week showed different shots of Cleveland with former Ohio state senator Nina Turner delivering a monologue about the city. Another video, embedded inside a reported piece on how the Tamir Rice shooting affected his community, shows the park and grounds where the shooting occurred. The videos don’t run more than two minutes long and are published on Huffington Post’s website and Ryot apps as well as on Facebook, YouTube and Samsung’s Milk VR app.

These videos are not the only VR pieces The Huffington Post plans to do during the conventions. It’s also publishing quicker hits that capture what’s happening at each convention — such as this minute-long clip of Republicans celebrating the ceremonial balloon drop after Donald Trump’s acceptance speech.

Other publishers including ABC News, CNN and “PBS NewsHour” are giving viewers inside access to the convention frenzy. CNN, which has two VR staffers on the ground in Cleveland and Philadelphia, published VR videos showing a protest outside the RNC as well as Trump’s aforementioned entrance.

“There’s an opportunity with 360 [degree video] and true VR where it’s almost cinema verité,” said Mooser. “I want to be standing in the middle of a crowd during a protest. I want to be standing in the middle of the hall when the balloons drop — rather than see a photograph of it.”

For all the hype surrounding VR, the medium still has a long way to go before it can justify the investments being made in it by tech giants and publishers alike. Simply put, most people don’t have VR headsets to watch this content in a fully immersive environment. It’s why 360-degree video, which doesn’t require a headset and which can be quickly published to Facebook and YouTube, is the dominant format in the early stages of VR.

For instance, Ryot’s balloon-drop video has 230,000 views on Facebook. Courageous’ first Norfolk Southern film has 317,000 views on Facebook and another 100,000 views on YouTube. While the companies did not provide stats on how many people watched these videos off of Facebook and YouTube, it’s highly unlikely the owned-platform numbers come close.

“There is a long way to go for audience penetration,” said Jason Farkas, executive producer for CNN VR. “Every day more people are converting to the medium. And as people begin to get used to [VR], it’s important to be everywhere, especially the platforms that have the biggest footprint.”

It’s with this mindset that publishers continue to experiment with VR — continuing this week with the Democratic National Convention.

ABC News, which published four VR pieces last week including a David Muir-led tour of the Quicken Loans Arena, said it plans to do more this week. “PBS NewsHour” went live yesterday to give a tour of the convention arena.

Even CNN’s branded content studio Courageous has joined in on the effort. As part of Norfolk Southern’s election sponsorship on CNN, Courageous filmed three VR films spotlighting how the company and its employees are improving the railroad system. The films will be available on a branded page on CNN.com and distributed through Facebook and YouTube.

“They wanted to demonstrate Norfolk Southern’s role in the economy,” said Otto Bell, vp and group creative director for Courageous. “To transport people into this grassroots, blue-collar world and show things like the Horseshoe Curve — which is a feat of human engineering — VR just made a lot of sense.”


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