Putting a reader inside a story is nothing new for journalists. That’s part of the job description. You’re the witness. You’re the reporter. You’re the proxy for the person who’s not there. You use the tools and tricks of the trade to help them see the events as you’ve reported them.
But what if one of those tools helped to actually put the reader in the middle of the story, so they could see events unfold around them? That would be kind of a cool thing, right?
That’s one of the promises of Oculus Rift, a three-dimensional, immersive, virtual-reality technology being tested by Gannett Digital.
To access the Oculus Rift experience, a viewer dons a headset that contains a smartphone-sized screen that takes up the entire field of vision. Motion tracking and an accelerometer are incorporated into the headset, so as the viewer moves, the image projected on the screen moves with them.
“The total effect is that when you’re viewing an experience, the experience is all around you,” said Anthony DeBarros, director of Interactive Applications at Gannett Digital. “It’s as if you’ve stepped inside of a world. If you move your head to look up in the experience you’re looking up. If you look to the left or right, in the experience you’re looking left or right.”
The experience DeBarros is describing should be understandable to anyone who’s played a 3-D video game. Oculus Rift and similar technologies are the next step in immersive storytelling within the gaming realm. Big companies like Facebook and Sony are investing heavily in developing the technology.
But, journalists may have a hard time seeing the practical application for reporting the news.
“Most of the early interest in this has come from the gaming world, and that’s to be expected, because something that’s so immersive and so interactive is going to naturally lend itself very well to existing gaming environments,” DeBarros said. “But once you start to get an understanding of what the technology does, it’s not very hard to be able to set aside the whole idea of gaming and start to think about, ‘Well, what are the other applications for this?'”
DeBarros and his team at Gannett took the journalistic plunge last summer with Harvest of Change, a project they developed with The Des Moines Register. Rather than telling a whizz-bang story with video-game like visuals, they chose a visually mundane — though journalistically important — story to tell about the current state of family farming in Iowa.
“What we do as journalists is really all about telling stories,” DeBarros said. “Traditionally, as writers, as photographers, as builders of interactive applications, the thing that we try to do is bring our readers or bring our viewers into the story. We either do that with very good descriptive writing or we do it with well-produced audio and video or we do it with interactive applications that let people dive into the data. Virtual reality is just simply an extension of those kinds of storytelling tools. It’s another medium that journalists could make use of to tell stories.”