IBC 2015: Virtual Reality for Storytelling


part of the Al Jazeera 360-degree camera mountAl Jazeera is famous for many things, but virtual reality is probably not one of them – at least not yet. At last week’s International Broadcasting Convention (IBC) in Amsterdam, in the Future Zone, however, Al Jazeera was very prominent in the field. At one “stand” (what Americans might call a “booth”), Al Jazeera Media Network’s Innovation and Research Group (I&R) was showcasing a 360 degree camera mount that employs 14 standard GoPro cameras. Al Jazeera I&R had both designed and 3D-printed it and is making the “StoryMount” rig available online for modification and re-use by anyone.

The North Face ClimbPerhaps more significant was the virtual-reality content in the Future Zone. A few steps from the Al Jazeera I&R group stand, I watched one grown man in a suit and tie put on an Oculus Rift headset and earphones and soon start jerking his head around and shrieking out loud. He was watching people climbing and jumping off high mountains in Jaunt’s The North Face: Climb <Jaunt virtual-reality content>. It didn’t do as much for me.

20150911_103854 (1)A few steps in the other direction, however, was the stand of the Emblematic Group <Emblematic Group>, co-founded by journalist Nonny de la Peña. There, I donned the visual and aural virtual-reality gear to watch Kiya, funded by Al Jazeera America. It’s a tale of domestic violence. The audio is from actual 911 recordings. The images are computer-graphic reconstructions of what was going on at the time.

I found the piece very moving, but, until the end, I wondered whether I might have found it just as moving – or even more so – had I been simply listening to the audio with no visuals or perhaps hearing it while watching photographs of the people involved. The headset allowed me to look around by moving my head, but, most of the time, I had little or no desire to do so; the mountain scenery of Climb was more inviting to me. The Kiya computer-graphics of the people and their motion were crude, like those of an old video game. And, as in Climb, the video resolution through the headset was even worse, and I was conscious of the chromatic aberration of the optics.

kiya2Then the story came to its end. The final scene was of a room, empty of people. I won’t give away the plot, but, although part of me wanted to shut my eyes, another part wanted to look at everything, the headset allowed me to do so, and I found it all exceptionally moving. It wasn’t the dialogue; there was none. This time, there was no question that it was the virtual reality, putting me in that room, that was pulling on my heartstrings.

The resolution will only get better from here. Welcome, new medium, to the storytelling business.


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