Augmented Reality to Boost local Economy in Italian Village

by Gina Marcello

Over the past few months I’ve been exploring how 360, virtual reality, and augmented communication technologies can be incorporated into the journalism and media production courses I teach at Georgian Court University in Lakewood, New Jersey. While not every communication tool is appropriate to tell every story, the newer technologies offer promise. Most virtual, augmented, and 360 experiences are currently associated with gaming, but this is quickly changing. Journalists and newsrooms are exploring ways to use the technology to share immersive stories. The New York Times now produces one 360 news story a day and other major news outlets are following suite including the Washington Post and USA Today.

Scientific research in the field is scant but quickly growing as more people adopt and experiment. Those who research VR and augmented technologies believe these types of immersive experiences can create empathy in the viewer and provide a sense of presence not possible with traditional storytelling techniques.

The nuances of the VR experience are difficult to explain. To fully understand you must experience it. Content development possibilities are only realized after you’ve seen what an Occulus Rift or a Vive headset offers the user.  This technology is nothing short of a modern day miracle. It feels as if you are dreaming, but you’re not. It feels as if you just might just fall over the edge of the cliff but you are standing safely in your home. While less expensive alternatives offer an introduction to the experience they are not fully immersive. The effectiveness of the stories told in 360/AR and VR are intimately tied to how it makes the viewer feel while participating in the experience. The more immersive, the better.

Stories selected for virtual, augmented, and 360 experiences are more complicated than traditional forms of digital storytelling to produce. Because the viewer needs to feel part of the environment, where the story occurs is vital to the experience. Why? Because not all environments lend themselves to immersion. Everyday life can be rather boring. Standing in line at the supermarket might be novel for the first time VR/AR viewer, but once the novelty has worn off there must be something more to the location. There must be a story the audience can interact with using the headset. As a content creator always remember it is not the technology telling the story, it is you. The technology extends our natural ability to tell stories, and some stories are simply more engaging than others.

The technologies do present unique challenges to the creator because the viewer is in total and complete control of where he or she looks. In VR, AR & 360 environments the creator gives up control to the viewer. Traditionally the journalist, storyteller, photographer, videographer, or author edits and shapes the experience. Immersive media removes the locus of control from creator to consumer. Content produced using AR/VR and 360 must be able direct but not force attention within the setting. The production and creative process required to produce in this environment changes how and why we tell the story.

As a writer, researcher, visual artist, and college professor the most impactful immersive experiences are intimately tied to what can be seen and heard while using the headset. While the technology is not telling the story, it does enable and force us to tell the story differently. The best viewing experiences are location based. Early adopters are now exploring how, why, and when to use the technology. As an early adopter I am experimenting with the technology to expand a multimedia story I’ve been developing to bring awareness and tourism to the Emilia-Romagna region of Italy.

Immersive Storytelling and the five senses of Emilia-Romagna exhibit will provide a lens through which people can experience the region.  After THREAD at Yale I am traveling to Italy with an assistant to develop my first 360 and augmented story. A well curated selection of print, moving images, audio, still images, drone photography and videography will be exhibited alongside augmented and 360 content so viewers can experience the region using all of their senses. The exhibit will display the power and limitation of each communication technology to help us tell engaging stories.IMG_2005

While a multimedia approach to storytelling is not new and could potentially focus on any one of many beautiful locations on earth, a small community in northern Italy was chosen. The region boasts the highest point in the Apennine Mountains where you can see the Swiss Alps, the Ligurian Sea, and Tuscany from the apex of Mounte Penna. It was also selected because the community is in need of assistance. Over the past few years, the region has suffered job loss and the flight of its younger residents.  Many locals are deeply concerned this simple way of life will become extinct if steps are not taken to bring visitors back to the region.

Like many small towns with local business, the downtown area is the heart of the community. Unlike many small towns, this community offers locally grown foods homemade by the restaurant owners and served to customers. One establishment, La Pergola, has been consistently in business since the late 1700’s. The region also boasts medieval villages where people still live. This way of life is based on the interdependency all community members and the land. In the afternoons local businesses close so shop owners can go home and enjoy time with their families. During the school year even the children head home for lunch. This community provides a way life long forgotten by most Americans.

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Using augmented, 360, and more common digital storytelling tools, I have dedicated my time to help the community. During the spring 2016 semester students in my Professional Practices class worked on a semester long project to help the Bedonia Office of Tourism. Students conducted an in-depth communication audit and developed digital content to share with an American audience. The work was limited, however. In order to really promote a location as a tourist destination it is important to do research at the location.

DuIMG_0006ring the 2016 summer, I traveled with nine students to the region to continue the project. We traveled for three weeks throughout the region. Many students had never traveled outside of the United States. The experience revealed important insights. Memorable activities and locations were on top of the list for reasons to visit. An emphasis on eco-tourism was born. 

This summer I will finalize a multimedia exhibit about the region. I believe Bedonia, Italy in the Emilia-Romagna region is just the beginning of how augmented, 360 and VR technologies can benefit small communities and boost the local economy.

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