Technology

Smith: Development of virtual storytelling, audience immersion in news content controversial

Part of a journalist’s role in society is to bring the audience into the story. Immersive journalism uses gaming platforms and virtual reality to take this idea to the next level and puts users inside a re-construction of events.

Nonny de la Peña, manager of the University of Southern California MxR lab, presented this technology in the Joyce Hergenhan Auditorium on March 4. Many of the audience members reported that the experience felt real and responded emotionally.

In a 3-D environment based on actual new stories and through a virtual reality headset provided in the lab, the user can experience the story as if he or she was a first-person witness.

The project is in its early stages, but if it receives enough funding in the future, it could be expanded so that the headsets are available at home for day-to-day use.

While this immersive experience could be a great way to get audiences engaged with the news, it could turn facts into a subjective experience, and bring journalism even further into the realm of infotainment.

One of the simulations de la Peña presented, “Hunger in Los Angeles,” was a rendering of a news story in which a man collapsed into a diabetic coma outside of a Los Angeles food bank. Once inside the game-like environment, the user is a helpless observer in a six-and-a-half-minute narrative that was re-created using audio from the original event.

Media influencers and policy makers alike frequently cite violent video games as a catalyst for real-world violence, although de la Peña is quick to dismiss this correlation.

Many virtual reality games put the user into the role of the aggressor in society, but it might be better for our collective psychology to become compassionate observers instead. This immersion experience could help inspire more altruistic behavior in any reality.

There’s also a question of how realistic to make these simulations. The Uncanny Valley Theory states people are turned off by likenesses that seem almost, but not quite, like real humans.

Jeff Sonstein, associate professor in the College of Computing at the Rochester Institute of Technology, says, ‘“Don’t make it too real.” But de la Peña remains optimistic, saying, “I think we’re gonna be able to break that,” and that it’s only a matter of time before those limitations will be overcome.

By putting people in an event that’s purely based on fact, this experiential narrative may help curb reporter bias and allow audiences to feel more in control of the news they are digesting.

This idea of combining virtual reality and news storytelling is not entirely new. One of de la Peña’s first virtual reality projects was Gone Gitmo, in which users were able to experience life as a detainee at Guantanamo Bay. The experiment began as a documentary called “Unconstitutional,”and was created using pictures and first-person accounts from Guantanamo.

If this medium becomes more widespread, it won’t be without controversy. It may help the audience become more involved in a news story, but if immersive journalism becomes the norm, it could threaten the written word as a method of communication.

I doubt virtual storytelling will replace traditional journalism, as most news would be irrelevant by the time these virtual worlds are built.

But we are shifting toward a society made to be more aware, and maybe even more paranoid, about what is and isn’t real in a world completely immersed in virtual communication.

Kat Smith is a senior creative advertising major. Her column appears weekly. She can be reached at kesmit11@syr.edu, on Twitter at @WhateverKator by telepathy, if possible. 

Top Stories