What lessons can journalists learn from the use of virtual reality in gaming and filmmaking?
The fourth edition of a storytelling hackathon called Hackastory brought together 20 coders, designers, journalists and writers in Breda, the Netherlands, at the end of October. They used nine Google Cardboard devices, six Oculus Rifts, and their imagination to tackle the issue.
Albertine Piels, a journalist, documentary filmmaker and one of the hackathon's organisers, said they chose virtual reality because "the possibilities [with VR] are endless, but I don't think anybody has a clue yet of how to deal with it".
"We believe in learning by making and I don't think we're going to find out things during summits or at work, running from deadline to deadline.
"Unless you're really diving into this new era of storytelling, you can't really grasp the walls you're going to hit, the obstacles you have to overcome and all of the opportunities you have available."
As this was the first edition which focused solely on one theme, as opposed to exploring storytelling formats in general, Piels said there was more interest from technologists and the aim was to "try to connect all these different islands of storytelling, coding and design".
The teams experimented with the idea of not having storyboards as their starting point – the final projects included a documentary called 360 Wall, and Dilemma, a mutiplayer VR game.
"As a storyteller, I'm very used to creating the story and drafting it for the viewer or the reader in a way that would get them from point A to point B," Piels said, "but they were thinking that the user needs to have the freedom and the possibility to build their own story."
To create 360 Wall, storyteller Frederik Duerinck and developer Roelof Tijdens used footage filmed by Duerinck while he was in Israel, at the heart of the country's ongoing protests.
He used 16 cameras and a VR rig to record the footage and his aim is to produce a longer documentary after the two-minute sequence they experimented with during the hackathon.
VR and 360 video can make people part of the story and help them "feel more empathy" towards the people involved, said Piels, as the abundance of news now available online has made people consume news in a way that "doesn't really touch you anymore".
Virtual reality also tends to be something viewers experience by themselves, rather than a collaborative experience between more two or more people.
In Dilemma, the multiplayer game created by one of the other teams at the hackathon, the two players need each other for guidance in order to get out of a maze.
The player inside the maze can only walk forward and backwards, while the second player can rotate the maze, or the first player's 'world', to help them turn left or right.
A demo of the Dilemma prototype
Although the team did not develop the game with a particular story in mind, Piels said that in journalism, the concept could help the user experience a story from multiple perspectives.
"If you talk about the refugee crisis, for example, you could start out by being the refugee.
"But if your perspective gets switched, maybe you're on the other side as the person working in the government, who has to decide whether or not you're granted asylum in the country."
Some of the projects are built on concepts from previous editions of Hackastory. Following the event in May, one of the teams and the organisers started putting together a guide to filmmaking in virtual reality, which is still being developed.
One of the ideas born out of the summer hackathon was Story of Lon, an interactive about a a puppeteer who lived and worked in captivity during WWII.
The project consisting of rebuilding his workspace, where viewers could roam around and interact with different objects in the room to discover his life story.
The refugee crisis was also explored during the September hackathon in Istanbul, where one of the teams built a game app called 'Want to be a refugee?'.
The group wanted to give users a better understanding of what being a refugee actually meant, and an idea of the life-changing decisions people are confronted with on a daily basis.
The app was linked to players' individual Facebook accounts and users had to answer different questions which would ultimately influence the outcome of the game.
"This actually got people thinking and all of a sudden, an issue that seems so far away from you, such as the refugee crisis, becomes much closer," said Piels.
"This sort of immersive storytelling lets you, the user or the viewer, take the lead in creating your own story."
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