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How Virtual Reality Is Revolutionizing the Role of Activists

An early look at a Pacific Standard story that's currently only available to subscribers.
A woman enters "Project Syria" at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. (Photo: Emblematic Group)

A woman enters "Project Syria" at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. (Photo: Emblematic Group)

Immersive journalism uses virtual reality to insert viewers directly into the story—using intimate, true-life reporting to illustrate big-picture problems such as police brutality, overstrained food banks, refugee crises, and domestic violence. Rachel Nuwer tries on a Samsung Gear VR headset to see for herself how the technology can potentially revolutionizing how reporters and activists do their work.

Nuwer's Pacific Standard story is currently available to subscribers and will be posted online on Wednesday, November 18. Until then, an excerpt:

I look down from the clear blue sky and gently swaying pines and am suddenly privy to the domestic turmoil unfolding within a tidy white trailer in a grassy South Carolina suburb. Earlier this morning, Kiya Lawson arrived home from work to find Peter Centil Williams, the father of her youngest son, waiting for her. Kiya broke up with Centil months before, and he was not welcome.

Unable to get him to leave, Kiya calls her sisters, Toni and Niki. Standing outside Kiya’s trailer, I watch them pull up, and follow them inside. Toni already has the police on the phone, who listen as Kiya heatedly reiterates to Centil—standing uncomfortably close to her—that she wants nothing to do with him.

“He’s mad because I don’t want to be with him!” she yells. “He don’t treat me right!”

Centil, however, does not budge.

That’s when we spot the gun.

Centil has a revolver. I get goosebumps on my arms as Kiya’s sisters implore Centil to think about what he is doing—to remember that he has a son.

Just then, Centil, who has been quiet until now, looks out of the window and spots a police car. “Get out of the house now!” he bellows at the sisters and me, grabbing Kiya and pushing the gun against her body. “Get off of me!” we hear her yell as Toni, Niki, and I run outside, leaving Kiya in the trailer with Centil.

Moments later, a gunshot rings out, and then another. Screaming, Toni and Niki collapse in despair: “He shot my sister! My sister!”

I reach up and shakily remove the Samsung Gear VR headset. As though emerging from a vivid nightmare, I am abruptly back in Manhattan, blinking against the bright summer light streaming into an airy third-floor apartment, where I’m seated on the edge of a chaise lounge. Yet I cannot escape the feeling that, seconds earlier, I was in South Carolina, witnessing the moment of Kiya Lawson’s death, and sharing the grief of her sisters as if it were my own. I swallow, trying to resist an urge to cry.


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