From halftone to volumetric video: Empathy and emerging technology

A story I wrote for McClatchy New Ventures Lab.

On March 4, 1880, the New York Daily Graphic let its readers into another world through a grainy, black and white photo. The halftone image was the first photograph printed in American newspaper: “A Scene in Shantytown, New York.”

Photography later proved to be transformational, not just in journalism, but in how people experienced and understood the world.

As cameras became smaller and quicker, newspaper readers were transported into the trenches of World War II and the migrant worker camps of the Great Depression. And then, the pictures moved. TVs brought the Vietnam War into America’s living rooms.

Virtual reality, augmented reality and volumetric video have the potential to similarly transform how people experience their worlds and empathize with others. VR headsets have even been called “empathy machines.

But what is empathy? What is the difference between empathy and voyeurism?

McClatchy New Ventures Lab’s brand new Storytellers in Residence had a lot of great answers to those questions.

Empathy requires a two-way relationship. Empathy isn’t sympathy. Empathy is understanding. Empathy drives you to act — but sometimes the act is simply listening. Empathy requires you to think about your role in a given system.

Two teams of creators, Cassandra Herrman and Nani Sahra Walker, and Eric Howard and Stan Okumura, will spend the next six months creating nonfiction augmented reality experiences for mobile devices. Read more from the Storytellers in Residence program director Theresa Poulson here.

The teams got started with a design-thinking workshop, merging with core team members at New Ventures Lab to learn the design-thinking process and discuss how they might create truly human-centered AR experiences.

I was excited to spend a couple days with the Lab’s storytellers and technologists at their new offices in the Sacramento Valley Station. As innovation manager at McClatchy, I run design-thinking workshops for employees across the company and for partners such as The innovation team works to create a culture of empathy and inclusion throughout McClatchy. You can read more about design thinking at McClatchy on our blog.

We always start our design-thinking sessions the same way: with a discussion on empathy. It’s the first step of the design-thinking process, and it’s at the core of our team’s work.

I asked the teams to view three different experiences: Facebook’s controversial VR “tour” of post-hurricane Puerto Rico; ProPublica’s “The Waiting Game,” which brings people into the experience of an asylum seeker; and Urban Ministries of Durham’s “Spent,” a “game” about surviving poverty and homelessness. We discussed how these experiences built empathy (or didn’t) and the different techniques they used to engage and move audiences.

The Storytellers in Residence will put their new design-thinking skills to use immediately: interviewing users, creating prototypes and testing the desirability of their ideas. They will continue to think deeply about what users need (or want) and how they can fulfill those needs in innovative ways.

The teams are exploring, and shaping, brand-new technologies.

But in many ways, they’re wrestling with some of the same questions technologists and journalists have pondered for generations. How do you build trust in a new medium? How do you build empathy?

Like those very first photojournalists, the Storytellers in Residence are right in the middle of an empathy transformation in nonfiction storytelling.

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