The immersive infographic

How we want to utilise Virtual Realiy in local journalism

by Lorenz Matzat

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[Artikel auf Deutsch]

Since the end of last year, we’ve been working on a virtual-reality project about the planned motorway expansion in Berlin. We think VR is a wonderful medium for discussing urban planning projects as it can create a tangible spatial experience of a situation long before it is actually realised. In this respect, VR shouldn’t be solely understood as an “empathy machine”, but also as a space-and-time machine.

With our “A100 VR” project, we want to show what the seventeenth construction phase of the city motorway might look like. To accomplish this we’re using a 3D city model of the German capital and combining 360-degree photos with computer-generated images. This isn’t going to be a 360-degree film, but instead we’re realising a non-linear interactive piece based on 3D graphics.

What’s special about the aforementioned construction phase is that it is supposed to cut through a densely populated area of Berlin. Almost one kilometre of it is planned as a double-decker tunnel which will be sunk into the ground from above along a quite narrow residential street. While construction isn’t likely to get started before 2022 (if at all – this construction phase is as controversial as the previous was), a final decision about its construction is sure to have been made well beforehand.

Mockups for mixing photographs with the 3D model

Mockups for mixing photographs with the 3D model

The motorway project itself has pros and cons, of course. VR can assist in providing information: abstract plans become visible – we can realise a sort of “immersive infographic”. We anticipate being able to release this VR piece in June of this year in cooperation with RBB, the local public broadcaster. Users stand in the application at a table, with the city model of Berlin before them: there they can obtain an overview of the planned route. Users will be able to “move” to several locations along this route, where they can see a scene captured as a 360-degree photo at each one. We will blend a 3D model of the planned motorway route into the photo. Furthermore, an audio track will include short interviews and street noises (before/after).

HIGH COSTS

Assuming that VR catches on as a medium – which cannot yet be considered a sure thing – a great challenge for journalism in VR is the complexity of production, something that is already substantial for a linear 360-degree film. Using 3D graphics raises the bar for complexity another notch. We currently have a four-person team busy on the motorway project: one person is working on research, the idea and directing; one is programming; one is assigned to the 3D models; and the last is coordinating the project. In addition, there are also the journalists and editors at the public broadcaster who are conducting research, interviewing people and producing background pieces.

VR beyond 360-degree video may not be able to prevail as an everyday medium due to its cost. Developments over the past several years have shown how difficult interactive pieces and data journalism are for many journalistic media. And VR is even more technology-dependent, meaning that devices and software must be purchased that, in turn, will require additional skill sets of team members.

Yet another aspect is that it isn’t easy to maintain a clear narrative thread in a non-linear environment in which viewers can freely look around. In the end, that was why we shelved our work on a tour through Berlin’s new airport building site (BER VR); aside from inadequate funding, we lacked information such as specific construction plans that would allow us to properly address the problems – the scandal surrounding this money pit of a permanent construction site at Berlin’s outskirts is many-layered and complex. In contrast, the planned motorway construction is much simpler to report about.

PRODUCTION WILL GET EASIER

However, it can be expected that software and production pipelines will become established over the coming years that will considerably reduce costs. Tools that simplify VR publishing are already available right now, including the Unity3D engine (Project Carte Blanche for non-programmers was just announced for 2017) and Vizor to name just two examples. Furthermore, continual progress is being made for capturing environments as 3D objects – along with Lidar, the technology behind Google’s Project Tango, which incorporates relevant sensors in tablets and (eventually) smartphones, seems promising.

The efforts required and costs of VR journalism may also be warranted by the fact that the same materials can be used to create quite simple, classic interactive applications for browsers, in videos and (print) graphics in parallel to the VR presentation. What also plays a role is that the idea of Open Data is slowly but surely catching on: many city governments are working with 3D models for urban planning and development. In Berlin, there are even two city models in 3D formats available (this one and this one – why these two Berlin Senate agencies didn’t develop a joint model probably must be based on the logic of bureaucracies).

VR is an exciting medium. After about a year working in virtual reality, there’s one thing that’s certain: an extensively fallow field is waiting to be exploited through formats that we only have the vaguest inklings of at the moment.

Lorenz Matzat is the founder of Lokaler Infosystems in Berlin and author of this blog (@vrjournalist). He is one of the organisers of the VR Conference for Journalism and Documentary. It will take place in Berlin on September 23rd, 2016 for the second time.

3D model source: Senatsverwaltung für Stadtentwicklung und Umwelt Berlin, Abt. II / Stadtmodelle – Digitale Innenstadt

The development of the A100 VR-project is partly funded by Medieninnovationszemtrum Babelsberg (MIZ).

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21. Mrz. 2016

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