Matt Kelly on the power of virtual reality

Young man wearing virtual reality headset looking up

Young man wearing virtual reality headset looking up - Credit: Getty Images/Cultura RF

It's the world of news where VR has, perhaps, the capacity to make the greatest impact, says Editor of The New European, Matt Kelly

It's not just the world of gaming that has the potential to be turned upside down by virtual reality technology.

Innovators in the fields of sports broadcasting – watch the game from the best seat in the stadium! – and pornography (no need to spell out the advantages virtual reality would here in a family newspaper like The New European) are all experimenting in how VR will bring the action closer to you, the paying public, than ever before.

But it's the world of news where VR has, perhaps, the capacity to make the greatest impact.

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At this year's Global Editor's Network conference in Vienna, I had first hand experience of the power of VR.

A short, five minute video of Syria's White Helmets – the civil defence team in Aleppo whose job it is to react to bombings and try to dig the living and the dead from the rubble - is probably the most stunning piece of footage I have ever experienced.

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Entitled Nobel's Nightmare and produced by Syrian news agency SMART, the VR begins with you – yes, you.. right there, in the middle of dusty Aleppo – gazing around you as kids play on swings in a rundown playground in a district of town. Then the alarm goes. You race to the back of a pick-up truck, jump in and hold on as you hurtle towards what was until a few minutes before an intact block of houses and is now a mass of dust and rubble. People run past you for cover, fearful of a second raid from the Russian bombers. Then you are there, on the bombsite.

This is where the astonishing power of virtual reality really kicks in. You stand, able to gaze around you, as the white helmet heroes pull at chunks of rubble in a bid to free trapped civilians. Little children pull their way through the scene. You want to reach out to them and offer help.

You see everything. It's right in front of you, below and above you, behind you, beneath you. You are standing on the rubble itself, at the place where an entire family is dead and buried beneath a wrecked home. The white helmets have been digging to get them out for a whole day. They carry on digging in front of you. The only thing you cannot do is help. And that's the only thing you want to do. Nobody who has witnessed the completely devastating horror of a civilian bombing, and the poor children on those swings, could ever think of Aleppo in the same way again.

It makes you appreciate just how hopelessly distant even the bravest front-line report is. Since I experienced that – several times, since no two viewing will ever be the same (another extraordinary reality of virtual reality) my interest and concern for the people of Aleppo has magnified many times over.

That, ultimately, is the potential of virtual reality.

Not just a new technology, but a human empathy machine.

*Nobel's Nightmare is available to view on Youtube in 360 degree, with or without VR glasses

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