A new dimension of storytelling

By Francesco Marconi

Virtual reality provides a 360-degree view of the story and breaks both physical and economic barriers, says AP’s manager of strategy and corporate development.

Following the Ebola crisis in West Africa in 2014, most of us have not had the chance to walk through the communities ravaged by the disease. We have not felt the impact of losing a friend or even a relative to the outbreak, having instead been relegated to viewing videos and images shot by another’s camera lens.

But what if we could go one step further and – while not actually traveling to Africa – actually feel immersed in an affected township? Feel as if we’re walking next to and listening to a survivor share her story?

Viewers screen “Waves of Grace” at a recent United Nations event in New York City. Courtesy of Francesco Marconi.

Gabo Arora, a new media adviser for the United Nations, wanted to feel that way. So he co-directed the virtual reality documentary “Waves of Grace,” which follows a young woman’s struggle for survival following the outbreak. At just five minutes in length, the film transported me thousands of miles away, providing a 360-degree view into the story.

“Reporters have always taken readers to spots they could not otherwise access,” said Scott Mayerowitz, who covers the travel industry for The Associated Press. “Virtual reality is the next step in that evolution.”

Although it’s still in its infancy, virtual reality has the potential to shift the landscape in storytelling, especially as costs fall for viewers. It catapults users right into the middle of the action, breaking physical and economic barriers by enabling them to travel into different environments and explore new realities.

Another example of this is “The suite life,” an AP project that enables viewers to “walk” through and experience exclusive suites in a hotel, aboard a cruise ship and on an airplane. These locations allow our customers and their audiences to visualize the rising opulence of the luxury world in a way previously inaccessible to them.

AP has been careful to align its use of virtual reality with its long-standing standards for accuracy and image integrity. In a recent post on Medium, Standards Editor Tom Kent addressed how “real” viewers should expect virtual reality to be as well as the ethical disclosures producers should make to their audiences.

“With such new technology and a still-limited number of journalists making use of it, the standards and ethics around virtual reality are obviously still developing,” said Nathan Griffiths, AP’s interactive editor.

When we first saw our colleagues wearing the headsets in our newsroom, some of us weren’t sure what to think. But when it was my turn, I saw – and felt – what the commotion is about. Feeling like we’re in a new physical space and being part of the action can make us closer to the story and more empathetic to its subjects.

Rest assured, we are excited to see how virtual reality continues to unfold!

Francesco Marconi

Francesco was the manager of strategy and corporate development at The Associated Press. He is also an affiliate researcher at the MIT Media Lab and an Innovation Fellow at the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia University.

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