Some of the biggest news events of the past few years–the shooting of Trayvon Martin, the war in Syria, violence on the U.S.-Mexico border–can now be experienced from thousands of miles away, without ever having been there.
A group of journalists and animators have developed virtual reality technology that utilizes a headset, wireless transmitters, and motion-tracking cameras to put consumers directly in the middle of a news event.
“You get a stronger connection to the story, I think you get a quicker, deeper, and visceral understanding of the story of what’s going on in front of you,” said Nonny de la Peña, founder and CEO of Emblematic Group, a virtual reality content developer, based in California. Peña, a former Newsweek correspondent, was recently called the “Godmother of Virtual Reality,” by Engadget.
De la Peña and her team have created about a half dozen experiences, including Project Syria, Hunger in Los Angeles, Use of Force, and Singapore Formula 1 Grand Prix. The technology has been displayed at festivals like Sundance and SXSW.
“We can take any space and turn it into the virtual reality stage,” she said.
De la Peña installed about 18 cameras to track a participant’s motion in a room at the University of Southern California campus, where Fusion spoke with her. As goggle-wearing test subjects walked around, the virtual reality space adapted to their motion.
“The cameras know what’s moving around and they take that data and they instantly send it to the computer and tell the computer to change where your view is,” she said.
Although you can hear and see the action, you can’t interact with anyone or change the outcome of an event.
“When I first tried this sort of technology it just dawned on me that I could give people a much more visual understanding of what’s happening,” she said. “It’s undivided attention. You’re not on your cell phone, you’re not talking to anybody.”
Project Syria, which was commissioned by the World Economic Forum and took about six weeks to develop, takes you onto a busy street in Aleppo, where a girl is singing until a mortar round explodes, leaving screams and dust in its wake. Part two of the piece brings you into a refugee camp and includes a reminder of the numbers of children forced to flee the country due to civil war.
De la Peña called the reactions to her human-rights oriented pieces “astonishing.” Some people have been brought to tears, while others reached into their pockets to call 911.
“That feeling of wanting to help, I hope people take with them and carry it back into the real world,” she said.
Use of Force is the story of Anastacio Hernández-Rojas, an undocumented immigrant from Mexico, who was struck with a baton and shocked by Border Patrol officers during a deportation incident.
To recreate this scene, De la Peña brought one of the witnesses into the lab for body and facial scanning, and combined that with audio and cell phone footage from the scene.
Most recently, Emblematic Group released One Dark Night, the story of Trayvon Martin’s fatal shooting by George Zimmerman, which is available to download on Google Play for Cardboard. Witness trial testimony, 911 call recordings, and architectural drawings of the condo complex where Martin was killed were used to create the virtual reality experience.
“I had to make these intense, strong pieces that I personally really cared about, in order to get people to understand the power and potential of using virtual reality for telling news and documentary stories,” De la Peña said.
As of now, most of Emblematic Group’s virtual reality stories are experienced by visiting her lab or at conferences around the country, but she is working towards a future where people can pop on a headset, like Oculus Rift or Samsung Gear VR, and immerse themselves in the news from the comfort of their living rooms.
De la Peña said she believes virtual reality will “absolutely” be one of the platforms people get their news from in the future. “It doesn’t mean that paper is going away or radio is going away or broadcast is going away, it’s just going to join those as another format,” she said.