The Online News Association’s annual conference last month in Chicago was a who’s who of movers and shakers in the industry, from the predictable tech giants down to the first-time indie developer. I was delighted to be part of the Donald W. Reynolds Journalism Institute cadre, and as one of this year’s fellows, held office hours with Trina Chiasson, a pioneering data visualization expert who’s the brains behind, a freeware data viz tool for the numerically challenged. (Chiasson is a 2013-2014 Reynolds Fellow.)

The city of Ferguson, Missouri, rightly dominated much of the conference, a tone set by the keynote, which featured leading reporters and photographers who had covered the shooting of Michael Brown on August 9 and subsequent protests. Wesley Lowery from The Washington Post and David Carson from the St. Louis Post-Dispatch were some of the speakers who nodded to the power of Twitter for keeping abreast of breaking news.

Virtual reality: A theme at ONA14

One new addition to the reporter’s storytelling toolkit was virtual reality (VR), typically mentioned in the same breath as the Oculus Rift head-mounted display, which can transform any home computer into a VR world that responds to the user’s head movements in real time. Ground zero for this sort of technology was near the RJI booth, where Gannett, in partnership with The Des Moines Register, had set up a handful of stalls with Oculus Rifts (second-generation developer models; the consumer version is expected mid-2015) for curious conference-goers to try for themselves.

Virtual reality is one of the many deliverables I’ve been experimenting with while setting up Empathetic Media’s transmedia portfolio. However, at ONA I consciously made the decision to focus primarily on the desktop version. With the headset not out yet, there are still some conspicuous barriers to its widespread adoption (though I don’t imagine Palmer Luckey, Oculus founder who sold it to Facebook for $2 billion, is concerned just yet). One barrier is the price. Even though it’s infinitely more affordable that it was even a few years ago (Development Kit 2 currently retails at $350), the cost is still enough to dissuade all but the hardcore gamers at this point.

It’s still very early for this sort of technology, particularly in a journalistic context.

Positive feedback on Ferguson shootings prototype 

My prototype of the Ferguson shooting works differently than traditional VR: it is tailored to a cross-platform experience that links desktop to mobile. Users navigate through a reconstructed scene of the Canfield Green apartment complex, searching out different colored beacons. Each beacon represents an eyewitness. When those beacons are crossed, the user’s phone is notified by the app that they have unlocked another eyewitness story, which they can read — panel by panel — on their smartphone.

The panels are graphic representations (drawn by yours truly) of eyewitness accounts. Raw audio and video are also included, as well as richer documents such as the autopsy and police reports, which in turn ping tablet devices. (The prototype at ONA uses the Apple operating system; our Android version will be out next month).

Feedback was unilaterally positive, and has led to some future collaborations, which are currently in the works.  One distinguishing factor that set Empathetic Media apart from the Gannett presentation was the deliberate decision to keep things on a small scale with a tight turnaround. For a virtual reality environment the size of the Ferguson piece, our team was able to turn it around in four weeks.

Questions or comments? Feel free to send me an email me at or follow me on Twitter at @empatheticmedia and @archcomix.

Dan Archer  
Residential fellow


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