By Noah J. Nelson (@noahjnelson)
The Associated Press, the venerable news organization that has been part of the backbone of news gathering for nearly 170 years, launched a brand new virtual reality portal today. The company is partnering with Advanced Micro Devices, better known to all of us as AMD, to develop a new set of tools for developers working on VR and 360 video news experiences.
Last week I had the opportunity to talk with Paul Cheung, AP's Director of Interactive and Digital News Production and AMD's Sasa Marinkovic about the partnership, the platform, and what AP sees as the near horizon potential for delivering the news via virtual experiences.
"Our number one focus is to figure out how to tell stories in VR," said Cheung.
AP has already been experimenting 360 videos such as one that takes viewers into the refuge camp in Calais and another that puts users in the "shoes" of a package at the world's largest package sorting facility. The current crop of 360 videos and a VR explainer about Supermoons are available at the AP's Big Story VR360 page.
"That's our landing page for all the 360 content that we have produced so far," said Cheung, "and we will also use that as a vehicle to showcase future VR and 360 content that AP will be working on."
While the majority of the content available now are 360 videos Cheung sees great potential in using VR to create dynamic explainers for science and engineering stories. (It doesn't take much imagination to see how infographics--popular as they are--could suddenly be a lot more interesting when its possible to "walk" around in them.)
The partnership with AMD, Cheung said is about "leverage AMD's expertise in image rendering and graphic technology." AMD builds the chips that power the graphics cards which in turn power the head mounted displays which make immersion VR possible.While the current crop of content is fairly agnostic--VR videos can be run on most Cardboard-capable devices--the future is going to open up the possibility of increasingly immersive and realistic experiences.
"How do we make the experience more interactive," asked AMD's Marinkovic. "How do we make it more immersive? How to we make it more real so that the people get a better sense of reality inside the virtual world?"
For AMD the issue is wringing out as much power as possible from the existing graphics technology while laying the groundwork for the next generation of chips. It is a cycle that the computer and graphics industry has seen numerous times before.
"We jumped from 1080p to 4K," told me, "from 4K to VR is going to be an even bigger [jump]. We have to make sure that developers have enough technology to make the experience seamless."
Seamless is the watchword--from the stitching that goes on in 360 videos to the latency issues that plagued the first new generation of HMDs. For the later concern AMD developed Liquid VR to help reduce motion sickness, a software side solution that uses their graphics card and chips. As we've seen before AMD is being very aggressive in the VR marketplace. The hope is clearly that a virtuous cycle of increasing performance will drive the VR market in much the way that the home PC market was driven in the 1990s.
But to get to that point there needs to be content--mainstream content--which is where the AP partnership makes sense for AMD. Great experiences that help users explore the world in a deep, narrative way is more of an attraction to your average end user than a list of big numbers on a spec sheet.
Meanwhile the Associated Press gets to take up a position on the forefront of a new medium, much in the way they did back in the early days of the telephone.
Whether it's the PC boom or the start of the telephone era history, it seems, has a way of repeating itself.
Public media's TurnstyleNews.com, covers tech and digital culture from the West Coast.