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How virtual reality could put us into news stories

News reports often feel remote and irrelevant to our lives. But will that change with “immersive journalism” that places viewers in the centre of the story?

News events across from distant countries can feel so far away, it is difficult to grasp their importance. But that may change as journalists create reports with virtual reality, so that viewers feel as if they are witnesses to the unfolding action.

Nonny de la Pena, senior research fellow at the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School of Journalism, does this by mixing traditional journalism with immersive gaming technology. Her team might record sound clips on the ground before combining them with visual reconstructions of the scene.

The viewer would then wear virtual reality goggles that track their position in the room and translate their movements into the scene in front of their eyes. In a documentary about Syria, for instance, de la Pena placed viewers in a street as a bomb exploded so that they could witness the terror unfolding – before then taking them for a walk around a refugee site.

So far she says the users’ experiences have been extraordinary, with many reacting very emotionally to the stories.

"It creates a duality of presence. You know you’re ‘here', but you feel like you’re 'there” too. And the experience is much more visceral,” says de la Pena. “It’s really a kind of a whole-body experience and is very unique - different than radio, than television, than any other kind of format for experiencing a story.”

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