Now that virtual reality has shed its initial "for entertainment purposes only" hat, the question seems to be: does journalism have a use for it?
Almost like being there
This can be answered with the launch of Project Syria, an ambitious yet timely piece of journalism involving immersive viewer experience on Syrians fleeing their homeland after a bombing. Launched in 2014, Project Syria was commissioned by the World Economic Forum as an effective way of telling the story of Syrian refugees, particularly of its children. The project's audio, video, and photographs are drawn from actual events.
What Project Syria has accomplished in the name of journalism is to go beyond story-telling and well into a parallel reality that makes viewers feel as if they are going through the horrors themselves. This is immersive journalism. For as far back as we can remember, the bravest journalists have been in the thick of things, right in the middle of political or environmental upheavals, telling their stories in clouds of smoke or immersed in floodwater - all in the name of truthful journalism. Virtual and immersive reality have the capacity to make the audience see these stories in a more honest light because they can "experience" it.
A tool for education and best practice
After the stories are told, virtual reality can be used to educate people on best-practice methods for different important issues. For example, a collaborative work between the Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism and an interactive digital agency called Secret Location is bent on producing a documentary on the Ebola crisis. In line with this, the project also aims to provide best practice strategies using virtual reality applications to educate viewers.
Yes, there is room for virtual reality in journalism. Providing that emotional hook to engage audience more actively is one good reason to consider it in a newsroom context. News stories can be about triumph or defeat, local or international news, or anything in between, but with immersive journalism, all of them can be about empathy.