When CNN launched in 1980, the idea of a 24-hour news network was unheard of. People could hardly fathom the concept of constant coverage, and now, in the internet age, we find it hard to imagine life without it. Thanks to VR, reporters can take us with them, on the ground and inside the story—letting us connect with the headlines, interact with content, and understand the full gravity of events both near and far. Today, we’re excited to announce that CNNVR is now optimized for Rift and available on the Oculus Store!
We sat down with CNN VP and CNNVR Executive Producer Jason Farkas to talk about the app and the future of immersive journalism.
How and why did CNN first get involved in 360° journalism? What motivated you to bring these stories into VR?
Jason Farkas: My first experience using VR was a few years back at SXSW. It was an early Google Cardboard demo showing Studio 8H at Rockefeller Center during a taping of Saturday Night Live. I was immediately struck by VR’s power to make me feel transported—not least because my very first job was working as an NBC Page at SNL—so this experience literally took me 10 years into my own past. At that moment, the technology’s potential for journalism seemed obvious and a few months later, CNN broke into VR at a 2015 Presidential Debate, pioneering the first-ever live news event in virtual reality.
Since then, we’ve taken viewers to the front lines of Aleppo and Mosul, inside reclusive North Korea, on a journey to relocate hundreds of African elephants, and over glaciers and under coral reefs to show the impact of global warming. We’ve taken viewers on the ride of a lifetime in Formula-E racecars, Airforce F-16s, running with the bulls in Pamplona, and skydiving with the US Army. We’ve used VR to show the true scale of natural disasters, including the hurricanes in the Florida Keys, wildfires in California, and an earthquake in Italy. We’ve even transported our audiences in real-time to witness the wonder of a total eclipse in seven locations across America—a moment that became the most-watched live VR event in history.
The immersive impact of 360° video is undeniable, and it’s a part of how CNN journalists take you inside stories every day.
Who would you identify as your target demographic? Why is VR a compelling way for you to reach your audience?
JF: All journalists have a single goal: to help their readers and viewers feel and understand the story they are trying to tell. By creating “presence,” virtual reality can deepen that understanding in a way no other medium can. Our target audience is anyone who’s looking to experience the news with an added dimension—and truly pay witness to the events shaping our world.
In summary: We’re looking for news junkies with a sense of adventure.
How does CNNVR differentiate itself from other news-related VR apps currently available?
JF: One problem we observed with other virtual reality news apps is that they become static galleries of 360° video content that only change when a new VR story is added. We wanted our experience to feel like an active newsroom, responsive to what was happening that minute. So in addition to our 360° stories, we included other types of breaking content: an updated feed of 2D CNN digital videos that refresh throughout the day, urgent alerts from CNN’s Twitter accounts, and the CNN live news ticker built into the environment. You are at the controls of a living environment that is changing constantly.
How many experiences will be included at launch? At what sort of cadence do you anticipate rolling out new content moving forward?
JF: We’ll launch with over 100 virtual reality videos that take you to more than 75 countries, adding new 360° stories every week. And thanks to the live elements described above, every time you open the app, you’re getting a new experience with the latest news.
If people take away one thing from the experience of CNNVR, what do you hope it would be and why?
JF: I would love for them to feel more connected to a story because they experienced the journey in virtual reality—to walk away with the sense they’ve lived the news, not just watched it on a screen.
What best practices would you point to for the relatively new field of VR journalism?
JF: Choose stories where understanding the environment is key to understanding the story. Pick camera positions where the viewer is in the center of the action, but also given cues on where to focus their attention. Don’t be afraid to move the camera, but take the time to carefully stabilize your footage to maximize comfort.
How do you think VR and AR will affect the nature of journalism moving forward?
JF: I think we’re just scratching the surface of the power of AR and VR in all aspects of life, not just journalism. But past is prologue: in journalism, the written word was enhanced by the photograph; the photograph was enhanced by film and video; video was enhanced by social distribution. VR/AR is another step forward in magnifying the realism of the news. As the medium matures, it will bring viewers a more vivid, memorable, and impactful understanding of the world we live in.
We believe in telling all shades of stories in VR, from witnessing the realities of war, to accessing the world’s rarest places, to experiencing the wonders of flight. Like any medium, VR has the power to create intense emotions; we’re committed to exploring its range by telling diverse stories.
Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Jason. We’re excited to see where CNN takes us next.
Step inside the newsroom with CNNVR on Rift today.
— The Oculus Team