Journalism Is Entering the Age of Virtual Reality

Come and experience, in virtual reality, the horrible taser death of a Mexican migrant at the US border in 2010.

Oct 24 2014, 4:50pm

A view inside the VR story. Image: Use of Force

The independent video game sector is a launchpad for good games, novel concepts, and creativity for the sake of fun. But it's also been a platform for growing maturity in the gaming world: taking video games and their technology beyond 'kill the bad guys' or 'defend your base from zombies.'

One of these exciting new ideas is the emerging field of "immersive journalism" using virtual reality, which I was able to experience firsthand recently at IndieCade Los Angeles. The new VR storytelling technique is pioneered by Nonny de la Peña, a journalist and innovator based in L.A. 

It uses virtual reality technology (in this case, wearable goggles with screens in them complemented by motion-tracking cameras) to place the viewer into virtual recreations of real events.

The author tries out the VR experience Use of Force.

At IndieCade, de la Peña's team was showing a project called Use of Force. The story figures around the distressing fate of a Mexican migrant, Anastasio Hernandez Rojas, who was beaten and tasered to death by US border patrol agents in 2010. The incident was captured by witnesses recording with their cell phones. 

It's certainly not your usual video game: there are no levels, and you can't "win"—you're simply a witness to the shocking violence as it unfolds.

Related: A New Virtual Reality Tool Brings the Daily Trauma of the Syrian War to Life

According to its website, the immersive documentary "plans to highlight and create awareness of the dehumanization of migrants on our borders" by using a new "revolutionary immersive nonfiction story" and a pair of virtual reality goggles to take you deep into the belly of the story.

Having been through the experience, I can attest to the fact that it's a moving piece of work. Even though I knew it was a simulation, I was walking around and felt a mounting unease as I could do nothing but watch as agents brutally beat a prone, handcuffed man.

There were a few factors that increased the immersion and immediacy of the story. First, de la Peña's team worked carefully recreated the event as it happened by using recorded cellphone video from two eyewitnesses.

Not only is the audio taken from these recordings, but as de la Peña described via telephone, "one of the really cool things we did with Use of Force was take a witness, bring her to the lab, scan her face, and recreate her movements and voice in the experience."


Using motion capture to recreate witness movements in the virtual space

Secondly, as you experience Use of Force, you are invited to hold a device in your hand. This is your virtual mobile phone camera with sixty seconds of video memory. As a VR witness, you can record your own version of what takes place, just like the real witnesses did in 2010. When you hit the record button, your virtual phone appears on screen, and its orientation and position are tracked.

Vangelis Lympouridis, a project producer, explained to me via email that having the cellphone was "something tactile to offer" the audience, as well as giving the user the feeling of "agency in the VR world." By recording a video, users can also re-live the experience and share it with others, added de la Peña.

Finally, the experience is unique in the VR world thanks to the tracking cameras that monitor the position of the user at all times, relaying it to the virtual space. As you walk around physically, your in-game position and point of view also shifts accordingly.

Scene Recreation.jpg

The San Ysidro border crossing where the events took place

I asked de la Peña what kind of impact she wanted immersive journalism to have on people who experience it and the world at large. 

"First, I think giving people the visceral experience of feeling like they are 'present' on scenes helps them really understand certain stories in ways other platforms do not offer," she said. "This connection allows them to be informed about their world in ways that I hope will make them become better civic actors, which can only enhance democracy."

For a team that has already been involved in a few other lauded immersive journalism projects like Hunger in Los Angeles and Project Syria, where to go next? Both Lympouridis and de la Peña both said that the team will continue to build immersive pieces, potentially accommodating multiple users simultaneously. They also plan to release Oculus Rift and mobile-VR versions of their work.

As VR technology improves and moves into the mainstream, expect immersive journalism to grow alongside storytelling of all kinds. In the latest example, BBC reports that a team of scientists now plans to beam video back from the moon to VR users' headsets. For viewers, "the incredible sensation of spatial narrative can be utilized for telling many powerful stories," said de la Peña. "We are a moment truly not unlike the dawn of cinema." 

Having experienced its potential myself, I'm inclined to agree.