6 Important things journalists forget when creating immersive design

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As the Director of Data Visualization at the Los Angeles Times, Len De Groot is at the frontier of integrating of virtual reality (VR) technology into journalism.

In a Friday afternoon session titled “Effective Data Visualization for Immersive Narratives,” he highlighted key factors for designers, data journalists, and news organizations to pay attention to when creating effective VR and data visualization.

1. Control

At the start of his presentation, De Groot simultaneously applauds and criticizes the field of journalism for its role in compressing information.

“This problem with [data compression] is as we compress more data, we end up leaving more things unseen and some data unrecognizable,” De Groot said.

By deciding what element to emphasize and where, designers are able to manipulate how the story is told and what each user experiences. But when it comes to the actual execution of the projects, that fine balance of control between the users and designers is something journalists are still working to figure out.

“How much control do you want, how much control do you need, and how much control do you give up is something we are working on every day,” De Groot said.

2. Immersion

Audience immersion was a theme woven through the entire presentation.

Surprisingly, De Groot’s inspiration for immersing audiences into his visualizations did not come from the work of another journalist, but from the opening scene to “Game of Thrones” where the audience is physically brought into the world of Westeros.

3. Motion

According to De Groot, motion is a new thing to VR, but it is essential in effective story telling.

“Sudden starts and stops in motion will make people nauseous,” said De Groot, “So it is really important to think about the movement going through the visualization.”

De Groot showed examples of his own work for the Los Angeles Times creating a virtual reality tour of the Gale Crater on Mars as an example of motion.

4. Charts and Diagrams

“We all know 3D charts suck,” De Groot said to a room full of laughter. However, he continued, with the new canvas brought about through with data visualization, designers are now given the opportunity to “illustrate more dimensions of data” and allow users to interact on a more personal level with the information.

5. Optimization

How your audience is consuming your content, whether it is using a desktop computer or a mobile device, according to De Groot, one of the most constraining factors in terms to VR and data visualizations. Considering how and where your content will be viewed is one of the most essential steps in terms of creating great visualizations and VR.

De Groot even used one of his own designs for the Los Angeles Times titled “The Big Campaign-Prop 47” as an example of what happens when the optimization of a visualization is not fully thought out.

“Put this on a phone, and it gets worse; it’s unreadable on a phone,” said De Groot.

6. Not embracing VR

In journalism, there is a tendency to want to wait and see what happens to avoid following fads by jumping the gun too soon, but according to De Groot, this is a major mistake.

“News organizations took a ‘wait-and-see” approach to the web and we blew it,” De Groot said. “We could have been amazing! We had the resources to take off with it and we blew it because we thought it was a fad. Obviously it was not.”

By restricting experimentation with VR, De Groot inferred that journalism is risking repeating the same mistake that they made when they did not embrace the Internet.