Spatial journalism is the future of reporting that uses VR and AR

Virtual reality is changing the face of modern reporting. The days of printed media are dwindling. Imagine experiencing world events – (almost) first hand!
Cover image of the USA Today series The Wall
USA Today won a Pulitzer prize for their series The Wall. Image: USA Today

What is spatial journalism?

Spatial journalism is the next step forward. It is defined as ‘an emergent kind of journalism that incorporates space, place and/or location (physical, augmented and virtual) into the process and practice of journalism’.

VR & AR technologies can allow the viewer to experience breaking events as if they are really there. There is potential to completely change not only the way we receive news, but also the way we perceive it.

Spatial journalism could include viewing live concerts and events from the audience or from the stage. It could allow viewers to walk through war zones, and see for themselves what is happening in crisis situations. We could all ‘be there’ to experience space exploration. Sounds pretty exciting!

The other aspect isn’t just what we see, but is how we feel about it. Spatial journalism has the capacity to make global events accessible for everybody. No longer would we rely on the opinion or reporting of a journalist or news outlet.

Concerned about what is happening? Go and take a look for yourself.

AR experience of the Apollo 11 space landings via mobile app
Time Immersive offers AR experiences. Image: Time

How does it work?

Spatial journalism is something new. It builds on the foundations of existing technologies to provide a more fully immersive experience.

User-directed spatial dynamics enable the viewer to dictate the perspective and movement of what they are seeing. This is not like watching a video, or seeing something from a static viewpoint. Check out our reporting of The Void, which uses exactly this technology.

Whilst spatial journalism is still being developed, this will work on the basis of 5G. This will allow huge volumes of data to be broadcast onto multitudes of devices. The user could decide where to ‘drop’ themselves into live footage or within 360 degree images.

One early example was developed by Dr. Amy Schmitz Weiss at San Diego State University in 2012. Schmitz Weiss produced a mobile news app called AztecCast. The app used geo-location tech to see where the user was on campus, and deliver them information relevant to their position.

The technology already exists; but it is how to scale this for global use which is yet to be defined.

There are limitations in the large file sizes needed to transmit huge volumes of data, and the costs of producing 3D images. This is where further developments are needed to enable whole datasets to be shared in homes and to mobile devices throughout the world.

NY Times 3D mobile app
The NY Times offers 3D experiences via mobile app. Image: Arpost

What other new technologies are being introduced in reporting?

Both social media and TV have evolved to change the way we receive and communicate current events.

The New York Times uses webGL to allow readers to experience events in 3D through their mobiles. An example of this is their award winning 3D broadcasting of the war zone in Syria.

Time launched Time Immersive earlier this year, which is an AR and VR app. The app creates ‘historically accurate cinematic recreations’. The flagship launch was of the Apollo 11 space landing.

The 2018 Pulitzer Prize was awarded to the Arizona Republic and USA Today Network. The award was given for their work surrounding Trump’s border wall between the US and Mexico.

Pulitzer describe this as; ‘vivid and timely reporting that masterfully combined text, video, podcasts and virtual reality to examine, from multiple perspectives, the difficulties and unintended consequences’.

Black and white newspapers on a wooden table
Immersive journalism is taking over from printed media. Image: Flickr

Will we be seeing this new media in the mainstream any time soon?

The big barrier is implementing the technology to make AR and VR accessible on a wide scale. Journalism continues to innovate, using immersive media more and more to communicate stories and events.

AR and VR are innovating quickly. With tech giants and social media platforms developing them such as Google, Apple and Facebook, it is a matter of time before spatial journalism becomes the norm.

Another big factor is wearable technology. Wearable tech glasses could be the first way in which viewers start watching the news through a VR experience. Apple are due to launch an AR headset next year, so this is not in the distant future.

Responsiveness is a tricky part; having the infrastructure which allows footage to move and adapt according to the viewers movements and instructions. We have already seen how this tech has been developed for Google Stadia.


Time magazine XR broadcast showing the destruction of the Amazon rainforest
New technologies allow events such as the destruction of the Amazon rainforest to be visualised. Image: VentureBeat

Is this a positive?

The demise of printed media always feels a little sad to me. Newspapers are still being widely printed, but production rates drop around 10% each year. Perhaps I am just being a little nostalgic!

Other big concerns are around privacy and sensitivity. This is particularly important when vulnerable communities are affected by an event.

Morbid curiosity is a well-documented human trait. It seems likely that the more unethical media outlets will jump on the opportunity to produce click-bait. Gaining viewers on the back of misery is not something we need in the world. I’d hope that rigorous standards and policies will be implemented to prevent this.

Concerns aside, I think spatial reporting will be groundbreaking. Fake news can’t possible persist when viewers can access first-hand the events taking place.

Journalistic integrity is the linchpin of reported media, and this technology will allow excellent journalists to share and explain events to us all in a profound way.

All told, I feel that having a better understanding of the world’s issues has to be a good thing. After all, climate change cannot be denied whilst you are standing on a melting glacier.

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