What If Journalists Used VR To Depict A Sanctuary For An Immigrant Facing Deportation? #EMPJ

To find a story that could be told through virtual reality for my Syracuse Emerging Media Platforms course, I’ve gone back to the summer of 2017 when Nury Chavarria, a mother of four from Norwalk, Connecticut, was faced with deportation because of her status as an undocumented immigrant.
On the eve of her deportation to Guatemala, Chavarria took sanctuary at Iglesia De Dios Pentecostal Church in New Haven, Connecticut. While supporters on the outside worked for a stay to her deportation, religious leaders inside provided her a safe place to avoid ICE agents.
Her four children are U.S. citizens, including two who are in college. Chavarria’s case drew the attention of CNN and other national news outlets, and Gov. Dannel P. Malloy went to the church to meet with her to hear her plea for assistance.

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Hers is one of several compelling cases of undocumented immigrants who are facing deportation across the U.S. The New Haven church is part of the sanctuary movement, a group of 800 faith communities in the U.S. who are safeguarding immigrants facing deportation.
I couldn’t find a story that described in detail where Chavarria was staying in the church, but I think virtual reality would have been a great way for us to understand what her place of sanctuary looked like.
I imagine they weren’t palatial surroundings. Let’s suppose she was staying in a small room in the church with makeshift bedding and a couple of drawers in which to keep her clothes. Imagine that she had few belongings with her except for a photo of her four children. I can even imagine the 43-year-old housekeeper pacing in that small room while politicians and activists were working outside to keep her from being sent back to Guatemala after 24 years.
My hypothesis would be that people might be more empathetic and supportive of her cause if they could virtually see where she was staying. I would create a VR video for a news outlet showing her sanctuary and post it on the news website and then measure reader engagement on the site and through social media.
My analytics would include how many times it was watched, shared on Facebook and retweeted and how many comments it was getting. I could then call Connecticut’s senators, representatives and the governor’s office to see if calls, letters and emails of support for her had increased after my VR video aired. I could check with the church to see if messages of support had increased. None of these would be precise measurements as to whether the VR video worked, but they could be powerful anecdotal evidence.
In real life, Chavarria was granted an emergency stay of her deportation and was able to leave the church after three days. Here she is, fourth from the left, in a photo by Catherine Avalone of Hearst Connecticut Media, as she and her supporters held a victory march.920x920.jpg

She didn’t need her story told with VR technology, but this is an idea that might work for journalists covering such a story in the future.



The Future of Journalism in 3D #EMPJ

Reality capture? Scanning a person in 3D? Photogrammetry? I had no clue about any of this technology before learning about it this week in Prof. Dan Pacheco’s Emerging Media Platforms class at Syracuse University.

Reality capture is using technology to capture a digital 3D model representation of an object or person from the real world.

Pacheco showed a colleague using a structure sensor to completely scan him, which produced a 3D model that could then be printed on a 3D printer, creating a professor action figure. This 3D model of the professor was also animated by auto-rigging a virtual skeleton beneath his virtual skin.

We then learned about photogrammetry, which is using multiple 2D photos to reconstruct a 3D image. The Smithsonian Institute is using this technique to make 3D scans available of its entire collection of artifacts. Curators are then annotating the 3D models so you can take virtual tours without visiting Washington, D.C.

This is fascinating stuff. The class had to try its hand at annotating an artifact with facts to tell a story. I struggled with the assignment, but on, I was able to download this 3D model of Il Duomo di Firenze, the magnificent cathedral in Florence, Italy and tell a bit of a story about its construction.

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As this reality capture technology improves and becomes easier to use, I can see it being used in journalism. A sportswriter who wanted to analyze the swing of Red Sox slugger Mookie Betts could create 3D models and animation and have a physicist explain the physics of his hitting style.

I’m a health writer who has written about long delays in emergency rooms, so I could see creating a 3D model of a hospital emergency department and tracking patients as they travel through it, to see where the process bogs down.

I could see a virtual Anderson Cooper being placed at the scene of a wildfire so that he could safely walk us through how the fire is spreading and how firefighters are trying to contain it.

For readers to understand how a crime scene investigation works, I can see creating 3D models of a CSI tech moving about the scene, fingerprinting, checking for DNA and blood spatter. This could give viewers an understanding of how forensics works without reporters contaminating the crime scene.

How might we field test this ideas? One hypothesis would be that a 3D model of Cooper at the wildfire would cost less than flying him there. To measure if that was the case, we’d have to pay the 3D techs to do the production, have aerial drone footage for them to build the scene and make scans of Cooper. We could total the cost of that and compare it to a flight, housing, equipment and meals for Cooper and a film crew.

That would give us a cost breakdown to measure our success, but what about the intangibles? On the plus side, it’s safer, but wouldn’t the viewers lose Cooper’s real world reporting on the scene as he talked to the fire victims fleeing their homes? How about the empathy factor? That’s hard to measure, but if we’re showing a sanitized 3D version from a distance, viewers might not see the horror of the victims and might be less likely to donate to help their cause.

If I tried the 3D re-creation of the hospital ER, my hypothesis is that viewers might engage with the story in greater numbers than simply showing them still photos or a video of patients going through the ER. I could produce a behind-the-scenes video of an ER and survey the viewers, asking them what they thought of it, what they would change at the ER and whether what they saw made them angry. I could measure their engagement on social media with the video. I could then produce a 3D re-creation of the ER and show it to viewers and ask them the same questions and see if I received more likes, shares, comments and retweets.

I’m not convinced that going to all this trouble would be better than simply videotaping these scenes for viewers, but as the technology improves, it might be worth exploring for some stories like these.






Thinking of drumlins and domes in 360 degrees #EMPJ

This week in my Syracuse Emerging Media Platforms class, we dug into 360 and 3D video technology, a completely new topic for me to study.
So far in my journalism career, none of my news stories have been illustrated by 360 or 3D video, but the possibility is intriguing. I remember being fascinated in 2015 to watch The New York Times’ virtual reality film, “The Displaced,” about three children displaced by war, and thought it was quite amazing that the newspaper included a Google Cardboard viewer with each newspaper.
That caused quite a splash. The film won awards, but also prompted Robert Kaiser, a former managing editor of The Washington Post, to complain that the feature wasn’t true journalism because elements of it were staged.
That was a valid question to raise, but I was fine with the ethics of the project because Jake Silverstein, the editor of the Times magazine, who oversaw the project, was transparent, writing that in VR, “a subject may be asked to repeat an action, or wait until the filmmaker is out of sight to complete a task.”
Our task in class this week was to generate some ideas for new types of stories we could best tell in 360. I think if you wanted to show how homeless people in your area live in an encampment, particularly in winter, a 360 video could really immerse the viewers in that experience in a new way. This type of video raises privacy issues, so you would have to have permission to film any of the homeless residents.
This semester, our final project involves doing a field test using some of the emerging storytelling technology such as 360 video. I have two ideas that might work at the University of Connecticut campus in Storrs, where I teach journalism.
Most days on the way to my 8 a.m. class, I stop at Horsebarn Hill, a picturesque drumlin on the edge of campus. What’s a drumlin, you ask? It’s a hill or geological formation created by the last ice age. I look at the view, get out for a quick walk and often take a photo of the sunrise if I’m early enough. Here’s a photo I took on Wednesday, Jan. 31:


Though it was only 14 degrees Wednesday morning, I was among five people who were walking on the hill or who had stopped to take a photo. Horsebarn Hill has many devotees who walk their dogs there, jog and even do yoga at sunrise (when it’s not 14 degrees out.) People love this spot so much that in 2002, an art gallery had a showing of photos of Horsebarn Hill.
One field test I could do would be to buy one of the new 360 cameras like the Ricoh Theta S for about $300, stand at the top of Horsebarn Hill and take a 360 video. My hypothesis would be that it would be a visually arresting way to capture the beauty of the hill and would be the best way to illustrate a feature story about this beloved spot. I would then show it to people and interview them about their feelings about the hill. One person I would interview would be Hartford Courant photographer Mark Mirko, who has taken many beautiful photos there, including this one:


If I could gain access, another cool feature that would benefit from a 360 video is a story about the recent $10 million replacement of the roof of Gampel Pavilion at UConn, home to the storied men’s and women’s basketball teams.


My hypothesis is that a 360-degree video would be a perfect way to show off the newly repaired roof during a game. I could talk to fans and UConn students about what they think of the project that involved the removal and replacement of 2,093 triangular roof tiles, according to the Courant. In the photo above from UConn Athletics, you can see the dark spots on the white roof that needed fixing.
I think either story would showcase the value of 360 video because of the circular nature of Horsebarn Hill and Gampel Pavilion and would test the power of 360 video to engage an audience. Let’s see what Prof. Dan Pacheco thinks.








Way Cool: I Built a 3D Scene with Tigers

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.


Podcasts are the New Blogs #EMPJ

While I was talking with two of my Syracuse classmates, Jonathan Raber and Ken Espinosa, this week about revolutionary changes in the media, they said they love podcasts.


I sheepishly admitted that I hadn’t listened to many podcasts until last semester when I had to produce three episodes for a class. I do enjoy “The Workup,” a podcast produced by Colleen Shaddox for the website I write for, the Connecticut Health Investigative Team.

When I was still an editor at the Hartford Courant in the mid-2000s, blogs were the next great thing, and our beat reporters had to start them. There was an appeal to blog writing, with its fun, conversational tone, that forged a stronger connection with readers and helped the newspaper market its reporters and columnists as personalities and brands.


I’ve noticed that the Courant sportswriters stopped blogging a few years ago and now appear on the newspaper’s “UConn Insider” podcast. Started last spring, the podcast regularly features Dom Amore and Mike Anthony, who cover the UConn men’s and women’s basketball teams, and online producer Chris Brodeur, who break down the games and provide insider insight into the teams. Other news outlets have taken the same step, and even Geno Auriemma, UConn’s Hall of Fame women’s basketball coach, has a podcast now. “Holding Court with Geno Auriemma” launched last October with lively interviews with Kyrie Irving and Sue Bird. Since then, he’s had Tiger Woods and Kobe Bryant on the show.


I’ve concluded that podcasts are the new blogs, and the experts agree. Writing for last summer, Andrew Arnold said that surveys show that millennials are abandoning blogs for podcasts. He says the research shows that they have no patience for text content that is too long.

Edison Research recently reported that 24 percent of Americans over age 12 – or 67 million people – had listened to a podcast in 2017, up from 21 percent in 2016.

In class, we’ve been learning about the Innovator’s Dilemma, a concept developed by Harvard Business School Prof. Clayton Christensen, who has also coined the term “disruption innovation.” The dilemma means that while legacy companies continue to polish and invest in their traditional, successful products, competitors can swoop in with disruptive new products that, in the words of our professor, Dan Pacheco, are just “good enough.” As an example, he cites the way Craigslist upended the newspaper classified ad industry by offering simple, free ads while the newspapers continued investing in ads in higher quality designs.

Sometimes it’s better to disrupt yourself, Pacheco says.

Legacy media is facing this dilemma as the popularity of podcasts soars. The Courant and other media are smart to embrace podcasts. I think it would be wise to keep providing digital and online coverage of the news but spend more time on podcasts, even if the reporters are still getting comfortable with the format.

I promise that I’ll be listening.