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Telling Stories Through Virtual Reality

By William C. Yang
 | Feb 09, 2016

shutterstock_189269807_x300This fall, I discovered my New York Times delivery newspaper package was bulkier than normal. Attached to the newspaper was the New York Times’ version of Google Cardboard—a foldout cardboard viewer in which you can mount your smartphone and experience virtual reality (VR). More than 1.2 million home subscribers of the newspaper received a cardboard viewer to coincide with the launch of the VR film that accompanied The New York Times Magazine article, “The Displaced.” 

After a quick download of the NYTimes VR apponto my smartphone, I went into the viewer and experienced a heart-wrenching story of three children who have been displaced from their homes by war. I was immersed in a 360-degree environment of their war-torn towns and listened to children narrate their own stories in their native languages while I read the translation in the viewer. One can’t help but feel for what the children are going through as you watch them walk through destroyed buildings that were once their homes or their school or wait on a field as relief efforts drop food from planes in the sky. The VR film not only complemented the text article but also transformed it for the reader. The combination of using 360-degree footage with sound and text provided a unique experience, and this format may provide us with new ways to tell stories.

While VR applications have been around since the 1990s, recent improvements in technology have made it accessible through a handheld device. The VR format has been revitalized thanks to affordable viewers including the Oculus, Samsung Gear, and Google Cardboard along with a number of apps you can download for free. Many of these apps provide us with examples of nonfiction and fiction examples of how this format can be used to tell stories. The Vrse app highlights their collaboration with the The New York Times along with other stories and concerts they’ve developed. You can view other journalistic stories through the VRStories app produced by Gannett and available for iOS and Android. The Discovery VRapphas a number of stories where you can walk alongside wildlife or even walk in space. For lovers of fiction, there are a number of immersive stories that can be found through the Google Spotlight Storiesapp for iOS and Android. These are a few examples of the growing number of authors, media makers, and software developers who are teaming up to develop creative ways to tell stories in this format.

The potential for VR as a learning tool in K–12 schools has yet to be discovered. Google is bringing VR to schools through their Expeditions Pioneer Program. The educational division will come to your school with a set of devices and Cardboard viewers to engage students with content area studies in geography and social studies. Students can begin to experiment with creating their own environments using apps such as Sphere and incorporating them into their online writing. Although the technology for students to author their own VR stories is not yet accessible easily for schools, students can study the unique features of this format and the ways VR is being used to tell a story.

By studying new formats such as VR, learning to author with media, and engaging with the process of writing, students can develop their creative capacity to innovate and create a compelling story not just in a VR format but also in multiple and new formats. As the technology continues to improve and more virtual reality stories emerge, we are reminded that the way we tell stories is also evolving.

William Yang is an assistant principal at the Roaring Brook School in Chappaqua, NY. He is also on Twitter.

This article is part of a series from the International Reading Association’s Technology in Literacy Education Special Interest Group (TILE-SIG).


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