Virtual reality shows Syria war in different light
London - 2016 is set to be the year of virtual reality (VR). With the release of the Oculus Rift, Vive HTC and Sony Playstation VR, among others, some 15 million VR headsets are expected to be sold by the end of the year.
While most virtual reality VR will focus on games and other entertainment sectors, this exciting new technology also creates a new kind of immersive journalism.
Euronews, a multilingual news media company based in France, is the latest media outlet to look into VR, launching its No Comment 360 service, which includes interactive and immersive video reports.
“We are delighted to be implanting this new interactive video production method, giving our audience the power to view the story from their own perspective” said Duncan Hooper, editor-in-chief of digital platforms at Euronews.
The New York Times entered the VR field by creating a series of VR films to wow visitors to its website and distributing more than 1 million Google Cardboard headsets to subscribers. As VR gear becomes more commercially available, more media outlets will no doubt jump on the VR bandwagon.
“After all the hype, this is the year when consumers will start to get their hands on new headsets and experience fully immersive content,” the Journalism, Media and Technology Predictions 2016 report by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism forecast.
Amnesty International UK in March launched 360Syria.com, a VR experience that allows users to go on a virtual tour and witness devastation caused by Syrian government bombing of Aleppo. Making use of 360-degree photography, narration, sound recordings, 3D data graphs and videos gathered by Syrian activists on the ground, the aim is produce an “immersive experience”.
“If a picture is worth a thousand words, then a virtual reality experience is worth a whole book. This truly frightening virtual tour takes a person sitting at their computer in Aldershot or Aberystwyth straight to the bombed-out streets of Aleppo,” Amnesty International UK Director Kate Allen said in a release.
“Many of us might think we know what’s been happening with the Syrian government’s barrel bombing of places like Aleppo but viewing these apocalyptic scenes from 360 degrees provides a new level of understanding.”
Syria, in its sixth year of civil war, has been the subject of other immersive journalism attempts, including Project Syria — launched in 2014 — which was commissioned by the World Economic Forum to tell the plight of Syrian children.
The VR experience allows users to “explore” the street scene before, during and after a bomb blast. Project Syria demonstrates the difficult middle ground that VR journalism must inhabit, halfway between traditional journalism and narrative.
Speaking during the Symposium on Virtual Reality Journalism in Vancouver in June, documentary producer Cassandra Herrman acknowledged that VR documentary makers have a difficult task in marrying non-fiction with narrative.
“What I often see is just a collection of scenes. Just because it’s immersive, it doesn’t mean it has a narrative. It doesn’t mean you don’t have to guide the audience with traditional storytelling techniques. You can find a marriage between the two,” she said.
Nonny de la Pena, who wrote and directed Project Syria, concurs. “Immersive journalism is about using the unique qualities of VR — its power to generate empathy and its ability to convey the spatial, physical dimensions of a story — to shine a new, different kind of light on major issues. There are some stories that are better told in this medium than in any other,” she said.
Known as the godmother of virtual reality, de la Pena said: “VR can generate an incredible sense of empathy with characters and situations because of that sense of presence, of really being there on the scene.”
“VR is absolutely becoming much more of a phenomenon. There are a lot of companies springing up making this kind of content and a lot of big media organisations are now getting into it and the technology is getting cheaper and easier to use,” she said.