WASHINGTON — The reporting tools of the future were on display at the session titled “When Investigative Gets Immersive: Exploring Scientific Storytelling with Journalism 360” during the Online News Association conference.
Immersive journalism pioneer Nonny de la Peña uses virtual and augmented reality to create an interactive storytelling experience that is beginning break into mainstream reporting. She described her recent projects as CEO of the Emblematic Group to more than 100 reporters from around the world last week at ONA.
Media stalwarts FRONTLINE and NOVA recently partnered with the Emblematic Group to create a project that explored the effects of climate change. “Greenland Melting” uses 360-degree video, computer-generated models and even holograms of two researchers to give viewers an experience designed to “transport” them to heart of the story.
De la Peña talked about the unique challenges of creating a slice of reality that can be transferred and experienced through a headset. Her projects, such as After Solitary, require extensive mapping of subjects from every conceivable angle to create a volumetric space that lets the user move around the area in the same way he or she would if they physically went to that place.
Unlike 360-degree video that is more widespread, Emblematic’s 3-D modeling allows the user to lean in and examine something more closely or move to a different spot in a room to see objects from other angles.
Raney Aronson-Rath, executive producer of FRONTLINE, said this collaboration was different from other projects FRONTLINE has undertaken, adding that she didn’t need any of de la Peña’s “Kool-Aid” to see how useful this technology can be.
Aronson-Rath said that she was first exposed to virtual reality at a fellowship at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
“What I started to see at MIT was this type of storytelling and the potential it had for the kind of filmmaking that we do at FRONTLINE, which is we try to take you to a place,” she said.
Mick Côté, a digital news editor for The Canadian Press based in Montreal, attended the session and said he was struck by the novelty of the technology and its potential.
“It’s a different way to tell stories that we’re not accustomed to,” Côté said.
This newer technology allows a journalist to make a user feel the story instead of just reading it or seeing it, which makes the work much more powerful, he said.
As it stands now, the cost for in-depth projects like the ones Emblematic produces may be prohibitive for most newsrooms. De la Peña said there have been enough video documentaries created to have a good idea of what linear films cost to produce per minute. However, immersive journalism is new, and the technology, time and skills needed to produce it still carry a high price tag.
FRONTLINE and Emblematic were awarded more than $500,0000 in 2015 by the Knight Foundation to work on immersive projects and to create best practices for the medium going forward.
“Start small unless you are really funded well,” Aronson-Rath said. “I feel like if you start trying in short form and then you start to grow, then you’ll understand [the cost].”
Whether this technology ever becomes a mainstay in digital media depends on how widespread and affordable virtual reality equipment becomes.
“If the tech involved becomes something you can start acquiring for a decent price, I could see it as a storytelling format that newsrooms would like to adopt,” Côté said. “It’s so intense and so involved that it really has to be worth it to take the time.”