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Truly immersive journalism takes form in ABC’s virtual reality tour of Syria

virtual reality brings journalism into the 21st century in a major way screen shot 2015 09 18 at 10 00 57 am
Storytelling is at the heart of good journalism. And in the 21st century, the tools available to storytellers are more diverse and more powerful than ever. On Wednesday, ABC News became the first news organization to employ virtual reality in their newscast, taking viewers on a truly immersive journey through Damascus, Syria, an area of the world that remains largely unexplored by the world at large, even though it figures highly in today’s volatile times.

“This rare access also included the streets and historical sights of Damascus, now largely cut off from the outside world,” James Goldston, president of the news network, told his staff in a memo. “[Alexander Marquardt] and his team explored those streets with one of Jaunt’s stereographic cinematic VR cameras, documenting the city’s sites – which include historical treasures now in peril.”

The 360-degree experience was the product of a collaboration between ABC News and Jaunt VR, a studio based in California that specializes in live-action virtual reality productions. By using a device that actually had 16 different cameras mounted  on it, the team was able to “stitch” together several different images taken from several different vantage points, giving viewers a truly unique and highly realistic experience. This new technology “takes our storytelling to a new frontier,” Goldston said, “And I can’t wait to see how you use this new technology to engage our audience in thrilling new ways.”

While the dire situation in Syria served as the debut for the Jaunt and ABC partnership, the news network hopes to employ the same techniques in a number of other major stories throughout the next few months and year, including Pope Francis’ upcoming visit to the U.S. and perhaps even the 2016 presidential race.

Though the current history of virtual reality seems to speak more to gaming and to more, shall we say, self-oriented applications (pornography for Oculus, anyone?), the introduction of the technology in investigative, on-site journalism may aid in creating a more powerful, hard-hitting story, and in turn, a more empathetic audience. Dan Silver, who serves as an executive producer of digital at ABC News and as a leader of the VR project, told Digiday, “The way I viewed VR in the places I had seen it — it was, ‘Wow, that’s a pretty landscape, there’s a mountain and there’s someone climbing and now I feel like I’m climbing, yay’ — but I was never emotionally invested.”

But now, Silver says, the potential uses of VR have expanded significantly. “Listen, if we put our talent in [the film] and have them be the guide, you as a viewer are still able to be passive and look around but can also be directed,” said Silver. “Once you start doing that, you’re filmmaking, you’re actively engaging [the audience] and deepening the experience.”

Michael Fasciano, vice president and director of strategy and content at DigitasLB, concurred with Silver’s take on the situation. “I don’t think they’re just doing something to wave a shiny object out there,” he said of ABC’s employment of VR, “It’s actually to help people truly appreciate the stark and dire situation [in Syria].”

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