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The new journalism

Virtual reality technology turns stories into experiences

Dylan Roberts and Christian Stephen

I was standing amid the rubble—children dressed in patchwork outfits running around me in all directions. Everything looked dusty. 

“I lost my mom, older brother, and sister. They died of suffocation when they were buried in the debris,” a little girl told me as I surveyed the devastation that surrounded us. I looked up at the sky and then to the Himalaya mountains in the distance. I turned my head again and saw journalist Christian Stephen walking toward me. 

That’s when the goggles started to feel funny. I took them off and was back in Tulsa. 

Dylan Roberts, Stephen’s business and creative partner at Freelance Society, stood in front of me, smiling. A Texan by birthright, Roberts recently moved to Tulsa and will be at the Tulsa Overground Film & Music Festival to show off the virtual reality (VR) technology behind his reporting techniques and give insight to the possibilities VR brings to the storytelling world. 

Freelance Society’s immersive VR documentary “TheirWorld: Safe Schools Nepal” follows a group of children as they trek to school—crossing a fast-moving river, traversing steep inclines—in the months following Nepal’s 2015 earthquake, which killed 9,000 people. 

Before seeing the ruins, the children, the mountains, a quote in white letters scrawled across the screen: “Tell me and I’ll forget. Show me and I may remember. Involve me and I’ll understand.” The epigraph—an ancient proverb—could be the mission statement of Freelance Society. 

Roberts explained how he and Stephen travel all over the world to report stories through 360-degree film and VR experiences. They’re often heading to places from which everyone else is fleeing: Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan—and Nepal. By immersing a viewer in the totality of a situation, stories become immediate and more visceral.

“VR is great for the [journalism] industry—just another way to tell stories,” Roberts said. “You can’t hype a situation, you can’t mimic or hide anything.” 

Still, without a good story, VR can be just another gimmick. Roberts and Stephen don’t have a shortage of compelling stories.

Stephen won’t be at the festival because he can’t enter the United States right now—the British-born reporter has too recently been in several of the countries on President Trump’s travel ban list.

Roberts has been working with VR and 360-degree filming techniques for three years, but he’s been a journalist for close to a decade, mostly covering war and disaster zones. Freelance Society will present the VR Experience Room at Fly Loft on May 5 and 6, giving festival-goers the opportunity to experience their work firsthand. Roberts said the VR storytelling experience is really about “figuring out how to get the audience engaging with a story into a new world and a new atmosphere.”

Other VR industry leaders in attendance: Michael McCormack, founder and CEO of Eolian, a software and content development firm specializing in VR as well as artificial intelligence and augmented reality (Pokémon Go is a type of AR); Stephen Greenwood, who had the genius idea to “combine an isolation tank—where you float in a dark, silent room, alone—with virtual reality”; Tyson Sadler, award-winning VR journalist who covered the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, 2013 coup d’état in Egypt, and a long list of other significant events. Springboard VR, a company pioneering in AR, will bring immersive arcade experiences. 

Freelance Society will bring 10 VR headsets, such as the HTC Vive and Oculus Rift, and will screen 360-degree films and documentaries. 

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