Make a virtual visit to the sewer.

Join the sewer during a flood: VR in local journalism

Translation of the article that appeared in Breda Vandaag: In het Riool in VR. Breda Vandaag

BREDA – How does the Breda sewerage system work? Why will millions be invested in it in the coming years? How do you make that clear to your readers? And how do you reach the public with a topic that may not be of immediate interest? Can Virtual Reality contribute to this?

By Wijnand Nijs and Marnix van Gisbergen

In recent months, BredaVandaag has worked with Omroep Brabant and Breda University of Applied Sciences on the VIRGiN (Virtual Reality Regional and Local News) project, in which we looked at what Virtual Reality can add to regional and local news.

More than VR

Experience the sewer in Virtual Reality (VR)? That is possible now. However, it has become more than just a Virtual Reality video recording. It turned out to be a Computer-generated imagery (CGI) production, with interactive possibilities. So you go into the sewer through your VR glasses and experience what happens when the water level rises and how it used to be, all from the comfortable living room couch.

But how did we come to this subject in VR? And what have we learned from this project for what purpose? First, the background of the project. This project, co-financed by RAAK-KIEM, aims to find out what the added value of VR can be for regional and local journalism.

Two concepts

To get an impression of this, the idea was to make two concepts and learn from them. Here the initial search began to finding suitable topics. How do you select a relevant topic for local and regional journalistic purposes that fits the VR medium? In a number of meetings with scientists, journalists and VR experts, we tried to clarify why a story is worth the extra VR sauce. The result of these conversations and existing models was a list of criteria.

  1. The story must appeal to or generate attention for other stories
  2. The story must have news value
  3. The story must be local
  4. The story must have extra value in VR. After all, in VR we offer viewers, readers and followers a place where they themselves could not end up so easily or quickly (see also the five VR aspects)
  5. In addition, such a place must be visually attractive. After all, we are not talking about radio, but about images
  6. The story must be produced in a reasonable amount of time.

Five distinctive aspects for VR

From previous research we also know that the subject must respond to five aspects that distinguish VR from other media:

  1. Presence: it must be a place where you want to feel like you are really there
  2. Proximity: it must be a situation that you want to be close to, which for example is normally not possible because it is too dangerous.
  3. Perspective: because it is a 360-degree image and you can look all around you, it is important that the situation is suitable for that. It must be interesting to look around and must have triggers to look down or up
  4. Point of View: with VR it is relatively easier to film from a certain perspective (just like with games from the viewer’s perspective)
  5. Place: because VR requires movement but can also make nauseous movement too much, the situation must be suitable for viewing in a VR context.

For each point we will discuss the selection of the subject, in which we also discuss the five aspects of VR.

An appealing story

This seems like an open door. In our learning curve during the conversations we started where probably everyone starts working with VR for the first time: the obvious stories or images. Various topics were discussed, but in the end we came up with three topics, next to the sewer: (1) riding on a carnival wagon, (2) driving with an ambulance and (3) filming at the now familiar cuddling oak on the A58.

These subjects also met the second and third criteria and there were also many starting points for VR aspects. For example, you want to see how large this oak tree is (perspective), and experiencing an ambulance from the perspective of a patient or driver also sounds interesting (point of view). However, the latter also proved more difficult. Because, for example, looking from a carnival car perspective, how special is that? At the cuddle oak tree, proximity, being close to a dangerous situation, was also the bottleneck. Because do we get permission to take VR shots in that dangerous situation (the oak is between two highways)? The ambulance idea was killed in particular based on point six. In an ambulance the space is limited and you cannot just film from a privacy point of view. You soon end up with a staged story.

The choice for the sewer

Then the sewer. A place that is not easily accessible, but where you can sometimes go with guidance. A system in which a lot will be invested in Breda in the coming years. How do you make clear to your readers why this is necessary? And what does such a sewer actually look like?

Sewer fits all aspects of VR

  • Presence: who doesn’t want to experience the sewer once in a safe way, while it is not easily accessible in real life? During a few “open days” you can enter the oldest part of the sewer. Until now you had to descend through a manhole cover, and moreover, only a small group could go on a tour.
  • Perspective: interesting to feel how big the sewer is now.
  • Proximity: hmm close to the smelly (?) water and walls in a safe clean way, also interesting.
  • Point of View: experience from your perspective as a visitor through time?
  • Place: sewer can be viewed in a quiet way. Check.

With this, this story met at least points 1 to 5. With news value, but also with the challenge of getting people interested. So we went forward with creation. With a small team we descended into the sewer, we interviewed the alderman, spoke to the city archive and gathered information and stories in this way.

Only 360 recordings will not do it

Gradually it became clear that the story needed more than just VR 360 film recordings. Because how do we show renovations? How do we show what it was like in the past and what has changed and how do we give you the experience that something bad can happen? The circumstances in combination with the way we wanted to tell the story drove us to the Computer Generated version of VR. So not using 360 recordings, but using computer generated images in the same way as games are made. The images taken during a second descent were reconstructed in the computer and provided with interactive additions. However, this also meant that we suddenly do not have a fast paced recording and reporting of a local event. Instead, it became a time consuming project.

Most important lesson

As such, we come to the most important lesson of this project: lack of time and therefore money. Production of VR appears to be more time consuming than we thought, especially if you want to do more than register with a 360 camera. At VR all aspects of effective storytelling are discussed. A good story, good images, a head and a tail, good sound and the right tension. VR also requires more knowledge, especially if you combine it with CGI. So you need more hands.

Whereas a local reporter when he works with images also operates as a camjo (as an independent journalist who is also a cameraman), VR does not get away with that. You need more people, especially for post-processing and when it comes to CG, next to an artist, a programmer and a designer.

Suitable or unsuitable?

Is VR therefore unsuitable for a local medium? Yes, if you want to use it for topics that are close to current news, where speed is important and that you have to pay for yourself. No, if you get the chance to produce subjects with a longer lifespan with multiple partners, for example because the subject is part of a long-term project. This means that a VR approach to regional journalism also requires a different business model and possibly also a different role for the “traditional” journalist.

The sewer is such a project that seems suitable for that new journalistic (VR) role. That makes this virtual sewer experience a success. Of course we see areas for improvement in the VR experience itself, because as said: time turned out not to be our friend. So we also miss that cool flood at the end, just to mention something. We don’t mind that at the moment.

This project was much more about the road to it than about the end result. But of course we are not ready either. In addition to looking for opportunities to improve the VR project, we will also measure the effect. What does this VR experience do to you? Does it also increase your interest in reading about the need to renovate the sewer system? But one way to find out. Join.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *