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Immersive journalism: What if you could experience a news event in 3D by using an Oculus Rift?

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If you’ve heard of the Oculus Rift at all, you probably think of it as the off-the-charts geeky, facemask-style VR headset that’s designed for playing 3D video games. And that’s true — but virtual reality has other applications as well, including potentially journalistic ones: USC fellow and documentary filmmaker Nonny de la Peña, for example, is creating immersive experiences that give participants an inside look at a news story, such as the war in Syria, or the military prison in Guantanamo Bay.

As Wired explains, de la Peña talked about her work at a recent conference in Sweden, and how she got the idea from early versions of “documentary games” like JFK Reloaded, which put players in Dallas at the time of the president’s shooting. So much of journalism is about “capturing a moment in time,” said de la Peña, a former journalist who has written for Newsweek and the New York Times — what better way to do that than by doing it in three dimensions?

De la Peña’s first project was called “Gone Gitmo,” and it used documentary evidence about the detention center and the experiences of inmates there to create a life-like representation of what being imprisoned there would be like, including audio clips that recreated certain sounds, and diary entries that detailed the behavior of guards and other inmates. Another project de la Peña did for the World Economic Forum recreated what it was like to be a child refugee in Syria.

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What if journalists or documentarians could create realistic three-dimensional depictions of news events like the shooting of an unarmed black man by police in Ferguson, Missouri last week — would that help convey facts and impressions about the event that TV reports or newspaper stories and tweets couldn’t? Would it make it easier for those trying to understand the incident to appreciate how it happened?

One risk of using the kind of approach de la Peña is taking for current events is that there is so much about them that is in dispute: in Ferguson, for example, there is no consensus on how far away from the police officer Michael Brown was when he was shot, whether his back was turned, and whether there was a struggle before shots were fired. But at least with a Rift, those who wanted to explore the different scenarios would be able to do so in a much more realistic way.

Post and thumbnail images courtesy of Thinkstock / Oleksiy Mark

4 Responses to “Immersive journalism: What if you could experience a news event in 3D by using an Oculus Rift?”

  1. See “Through A Scanner, Anaheim”, a 2012 3D experiment from the site of the 2012 police shooting and subsequent police riots in Anaheim:

    Downloadable 3D maps of the scene of the shooting, the memorial, the corner where the police fired on and let a dog loose on the gathering neighbors, the police station, and outside city hall, where the police again fired on protesters and journalists. Also see “tech related observations” at very end.

    Video of 3D flythrough:

  2. resunatrue

    I have been resisting the news apps, I see no point in them over a browser, but if a news service came out with an app compatible with Google Cardboard (they could throw in a kit with the subscription – it would cost less to produce than the Sunday paper) I would be SO tempted to buy it.

    Oculus, no, too expensive for a single-use device.

  3. Of course this is really closer to a video game than journalism in that the figures are the creation of 3D modeling. Be that as it may however, I am not sure that bringing the ordinary individual into such an up close and personal relationship with such an emotion provoking tragedy as the fate of Syrian children is especially useful or productive. Suppose such exposure led to an upsurge of demands for US direct intervention in the Syrian civil war? US experience intervening in Iraq should have taught us how useless that would be. This is a fascinating use of virtual reality but it has serious potential downsides.