With coverage of events such as the recent earthquake in Italy, virtual reality (VR) is increasingly emerging as a vital resource to engage and immerse viewers in stories around the world. We spoke with CNN's Jason Farkas, Vice President of Premium Content Video, to discuss his efforts with CNNVR, and the future possibilities and promise the technology offers.
What sort of storytelling opportunities do you think VR offers? Where can it potentially succeed where other technologies like 3D television have fallen short?
No matter what kind of medium you work in - print, radio, TV, digital video - journalists strive for a common goal: to transport their audience into a story that matters and leave a lasting impression. I believe VR is the most powerful tool we have to accomplish that goal. The whole experience feels like time-travel: you put on a headset, and suddenly you are somewhere else, feeling remarkably close to the story. You are in the story - or at least your senses tell you that you are. The viewer walks away feeling the emotional impact much more viscerally, and memorably. So when we produce a VR piece from the earthquake in Italy, a Donald Trump rally, or a Syrian refugee camp, we try to take that impact into account, and write narration as if the viewer has just arrived to the scene. 3D TV was a nifty gimmick - but it couldn't compare to VR's ability to convincingly transport you to another place.
What does VR mean as it relates to the CNN brand and mission?
CNN broke the mold 35 years ago, using that era's new technology - cable - to bring you the news in a format that at the time was revolutionary. Virtual reality is just an extension of that tradition: a bleeding edge technology brings you inside the news. Our mantra is "Go There." Virtual reality quite literally brings that promise to life. It's the perfect format for what CNN does best.
Jason Farkas exploring CNN VR from the debate stage last fall.
You’ve described yourself as an “evangelist” for VR. What was the breakthrough moment for you, in terms of your belief in the potential of this technology?
It was for me, like so many others, the first time I watched something in virtual reality; that 'aha' moment. I was at SXSW a few years ago and Google was just beginning to showcase their Cardboard viewer. The first thing I watched was a short video from the perspective of an audience member at Saturday Night Live's 40th Anniversary. Everyone who watched the demo was amazed, but for me it was especially moving. Earlier in my career I was an SNL page at NBC; I had stood in that exact spot a decade earlier. This technology sent me right back to the middle of Studio 8H. It was transportive, and I was hooked.
Do you envision a day when VR is another digital channel for CNN, like mobile or radio?
We're working on building that channel right now. Since January, CNNVR has produced more than 30 features from over a dozen countries. Our VR features have more than 20 million views on Facebook. Every week, we're arming another bureau with VR rigs and training reporters and photojournalists to shoot 360 video. It's becoming another way in which we tell immersive stories, and part of every producer's toolkit.
What would you say to those – both in the industry and among consumers – who remain skeptical?
I would say I share a lot of their skepticism. VR headsets are incredible devices, but they're still clunky (and, let's admit it, nerdy looking). There's a dearth of high quality VR content. The distribution is fractured: Oculus, Google, Samsung, and a host of others fighting to own a very small market. But these are early stage problems that will get solved. The fact remains, the first time you try VR your jaw drops. And that's a kind of demand that will be met, sooner or later.