Talk about getting outside of your comfort zone. In my Syracuse master’s program this week, we’re learning about “experiential media,” such as virtual reality and augmented reality, that transports people into new virtual worlds.

From Prof. Dan Pacheco, we’re learning about Palmer Luckey, the pioneer of Oculus Rift, and Nonny de la Pena, “the godmother of virtual reality.” I’m in awe of the virtual reality work she has done to depict hunger in Los Angeles and to recreate the Trayvon Martin shooting in ways that immerse readers in these stories in previously unimaginable ways.

Then the professor gave us a challenging assignment: use Unity, a game development platform, to make our own 3D scene. I’m always nervous about using new technology and generally have a steep learning curve (after all, I am 50-something.)

It took me six hours, with a lot of trial and error, to create my first 3D scene as I stumbled to figure out how to make grass and mountains and navigate through my scene without getting dizzy as I spun the navigation tool in all directions.

I do love shopping, so the next part was fun. You have to visit the online Unity “asset store” and buy items to add to your scene. Since I’m cheap, I only wanted free stuff. I found a cool, orange-y sky and “bought” that. Thanks to Pacheco’s step-by-step directions, it was pretty easy to change the default sky to my sky of choice.

Then what to put into my scene? Elephants cost money. Robots didn’t seem like the right fit, but then I hit upon olive trees and tigers. I downloaded the free versions and then had a lot of fun pasting tigers and olive trees all over my scene.

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I had to Google whether tigers live where olive trees grow. Apparently, in Indonesia, olive trees go, and you can find tigers in Sumatra, which is part of Indonesia, so why not? In my virtual scene, the tigers run amid the olive trees.

You can check out my first 3D scene here on YouTube. Hope you like my tigers and olive trees.

So where is all of this headed? Watching de la Pena’s work and creating my own 3D scene makes me curious to learn more about how virtual reality can be used in journalism.

The New York Times has used virtual reality to make viewers feel they were embedded with Iraqi forces as they fought to retake Fallujah from ISIS. They’ve let us feel like we were climbing the spire of the World Trade Center with mountaineer Jimmy Chin or that we were exploring the face of Pluto.

Though there are thorny ethical considerations about the use of VR in journalism, and some of the technology can cause “simulation sickness,” I think these can be overcome and solved. For now, I’m excited about the promise VR holds for storytelling that immerses viewers right in the story. The Times calls them “stories with no limits,” so I think there’s a future out there way beyond olive trees and virtual tigers.


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