Gannett’s Next Oculus Rift Experiment Takes You Onto The Ski Slopes Of Vail

Last fall, Gannett unveiled its first attempt at journalism for the Oculus RiftHarvest of Change, a series of stories in the Des Moines Register. Specifically, the series used Oculus to give readers a tour of the farm featured in one of the stories.

Now the media company is launching its second experiment in this vein, this time taking viewers to the FIS Alpine World Ski Championships in Vail, Colorado.

Steven Ahlberg, vice president of ad solutions and product management at Gannett Digital, showed me the, ahem, “World Championships Skiing Virtual Reality Experience” while at the Consumer Electronics Show at Las Vegas. Once you put the glasses on, you can view time-lapse, 360-degree footage of the mountain where the championships will take place, and you can watch similarly panoramic footage of skiers as they train, talk, and hang out.

Ahlberg said this represents a big step forward from Harvest of Change. Most obviously, it involves motion, and pretty fast motion at that — the coolest part of the experience is virtually skiing down the hill, looking left, right, up, and down as you go.

Now, it might seem a little odd to be creating content for a platform that still isn’t officially available to consumers yet. (The versions of the Oculus Rift that have been sold thus far are billed as developer kits.) Ahlberg acknowledged that there’s not a huge audience yet, and that his team is still “proving this out as a medium.” However, he said that there’s a lot of unique storytelling potential here, because virtual reality can give people an unprecedented sense that they’re actually somewhere else, whether it’s looking around a farm or whizzing down a hillside.

Ahlberg also pointed to the interest his team is getting from other journalists as a sign that this isn’t just “niche, navel-gazing stuff.”

The current project was created in partnership with Gannett’s local news channel, KUSA9, and with participation from the Vail Valley Foundation, which puts on the championships.

Asked whether creating this kind of VR experience requires a ton of extra work compared to a normal news report, Ahlberg said, “Yes and no.” He noted that his team has “templatized a lot of this stuff,” so that it can be repeated more quickly. He also said the technology (for example the cameras’ capability to stitch together 360-degree footage) is advancing quickly, even just in the past few months. As a result, where the Harvest of Change Project took “three to four months,” this one took four weeks.

If you’d like to view the results of that work, you can check out the virtual reality experience here. And yes, there’s a 2D version for those of you who don’t own an Oculus Rift.

Ahlberg already has some ideas about what comes next, too. For one thing, he said he’d like to do more serialized content, for example following a professional athlete as they go through training. For another, he said there are interesting opportunities for advertising. In fact, there’s a version of the app showing off one “ad concept” — a replica of downtown Vail that features an advertiser’s cars.