Using Oculus Rift to build immersive news experiences (Wired UK)

Oculus Rift
Oculus Rift

In the online world more than ever, we’re bombarded with news
and imagery and the stories of strangers to the point that we can
become numb to them. In this environment, it takes some seriously
smart journalism to make you feel as though you’re there, to really
put you in the shoes of others. Nonny de la Peña from
USC Scool of Cinematic Arts has taken on this challenge though. She
creates immersive journalism experience using gaming platforms and
virtual reality.

Speaking at The Conference in Malmo, de la Peña
explains how the first time the question of how people could feel
like they were really in a virtual world, how they felt like they
could be in two places at once, was raised by publication of the
article A Rape in Cyberspace in The Village Voice.

The article concerned an online gaming community, members of
whom described suffering real-life trauma after one of the players
had used his avatar to rape another player’s avatar in the virtual
environment. Further research into the subject has revealed that
we’re hardwired as humans to adopt these virtual representations of
ourselves and that traumatic events can cause us to respond as if

Journalism has long attempted to convey a sense of presence in
its representation of events, with journalists gathering all sorts
of media and interviews to help people understand what is like to
be there. This in itself is not a new idea, but de la
Peña spotted a new trend in documentary games, which
allowed players to put themselves into news stories to determine
the outcome of events.

The first of these was the game JFK
which allowed people to play out the
assassination of JFK in the role of the shooter, and as such
exploring all the possible conspiracy theories about how the
shooting occurred to establish the most likely scenario. A similar
game allowed players to determine whether or not John Kerry
deserved his military medal, by playing him during the Vietnam war.
The idea appealed to de la Peña because, she says, as
journalists “we’re always trying to capture that moment in time”.
The first experience she built herself was a simulation of
Guantanamo Bay for Oculus Rift — a place that was off limits in
real life but which could be explored with virtual reality. “I
wanted to create a place that was accessible,” she says.

“We were very careful to draw on original source material.” This
included reports from detainees about how they were taken to
‘Gitmo’ and the noises they remember hearing, military footage and
freedom of information material about how detainees were put in
stress positions. She combined the logs of one particular detainee
with audio and then introduced Oculus Rift to see if she could put
people into the body of a detainee. The results were as she’d
hoped. With his hands tied behind his back and muffled sound
deliberately made to sound like he had a hood over his head in his
ears, one participant quickly ended up in a stress position.

If these virtual reality experiences are built with integrity,
says de la Peña, it can give you a completely
different kind of experience — a subjective editorial

Several other projects followed, including one about hunger in
Los Angeles, which utilised audio recorded at a food bank when a
diabetic man collapsed. Another utilised the memories of a guard
who saw a man being beaten to death at a border crossing to
reconstruct the scene. De la Peña also worked on a
project for the World Economic Forum to show what it was like when
a bomb went off in the street in Aleppo in Syria. This was shown
off at the Victoria & Albert museum in London this year and
elicited the greatest number of comments the museum had ever seen
in its visitor’s book.

The best feedback that de la Peña has had is that
for the people encountering her work “these experiences feel like
reality to them”. Even though she works in what she describes as
“these very difficult technologies in terms of motion capture”, the
technology itself is moving very fast and is proving that “you
really can immerse yourself in news”.

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20 August 2014 | 1:12 pm – Source:

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