Last week, The New York Times introduced the latest in its rollout of digitally enhanced journalism: augmented reality delivered straight to your iPhone. (An Android-friendly version is on its way.)
The post announcing the new AR capabilities, states: “This technology also allows us to explore the evolving nature of how we share ideas and tell stories. This is all part of our effort to lean toward the future of storytelling. We invite our readers to come along.”
Today, the newspaper published a story about the Winter Olympics using AR. Athletes will be displayed in 3D, their bodies ripe for viewers’ inspection.
Augmented and virtual reality isn’t new.
According to a study from the Center for Digital Ethics & Policy, the technology began development in the 1960s for flight-simulation tests. Some may also remember a brief spike in the form’s popularity during the 1990s, when it seemed AR might really be the future—before it was relegated to the sidelines. Later, it was wholly embraced by the video-game industry.
Over the past few years, journalists have used the tech to deepen coverage—and empathy. The above-mentioned study cites an immersive experience, “Clouds of Sidra,” that allows viewers to follow a Syrian refugee girl. Released by the United Nations, it was created by documentary filmmaker Nonny de la Pena, who has incorporated AR into her work, even going so far as to develop hardware.
In an interview with the BBC, de la Pena states: “It creates a duality of presence. You know you’re ‘here,’ but you feel like you’re ‘there,’ too. The experience is much more visceral. It’s really a kind of a whole-body experience and is very unique — different than radio, than television, than any other kind of format for experiencing a story.”
Despite the increased interest and new uses for the medium, AR creates a sense of unease in some journalists and media experts. They wonder how the immersive experience might change or influence the way a story is told.
“[AR] is a new pathway that can lead away from the abstract depiction of objects and toward a more visceral sense of real-life scale and physicality,” The New York Times states.
Kathleen Bartzen Culver, assistant professor in the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Journalism and Mass Communication, associate director of the Center for Journalism Ethics and author of the study, poses ethical questions, such as: “How real is the virtual?” and “Whose reality is it?” She cities examples of how immersive journalism could be damaging for viewers, like those who suffer from PTSD, which may be triggered by coverage of war, torture and other atrocities.
While it’s highly unlikely the NYT’s AR coverage of the Winter Olympics will broach many or any of those ethical quandaries, it is important to examine the ramifications of new forms of technology and how they could alter the “reality” we expect from journalism. Also, how reality might be altered or fabricated without standards in place.