Our Experience With Data VR: A Semester In Review

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What does data journalism look like in virtual reality? This is one of the questions that the JOVRNALISM team chose to explore this past semester, resulting in a 3D interactive data journalism story we created using Unity.

Download the apk (made for Samsung Gear VR) for our overfishing experience here: http://www.vrjournalism.io/overfishing/overfishing.zip

Data journalism has gone largely unexplored in the realm of virtual reality. There is WSJ’s NASDAQ ride and work done by Brian Chirls, but not much else.

So when we combed the Internet looking for inspiration for dataviz VR stories, we relied more on 2D experiences like Debtris and spent some time imagining what these might look like in 3D. Would Tetris blocks come flying at our face? Would they fall down from the sky and pile on top of each other? The possibilities were endless.

When it came time to brainstorm, the class was overflowing with data sets to work with–anywhere from gun violence in the United States to shark deaths compared to human deaths by shark. An essential part of the project was combining an accurate and usable data set with an interactive 3D experience that engages and informs the user.

Without the amount of teamwork in the class, I’m not sure we would’ve been able to complete our project, since everyone had so much to say and contribute whenever we ran into a problem. 

Because virtual reality is a much more intimate medium than reading an article or even watching a 2D video, we ran into some more problems when it came time to decide which data set we wanted to cover.

Originally we wanted to focus on the number of deaths every year in America from gun violence and compare them to the number of deaths from cancer, sharks, etc., but determined that using such a gory data set might be too traumatic for users new to the world of VR.

Other data sets we were exploring like the number of people sent to death row every year proved to be too sensitive a topic as well, and so we went back to the drawing board and came up with some less traumatic ideas.

Thanks to our colleagues and a class-long brainstorming session we didn’t have to start from square one, and so we went back to our pile of ideas and decided instead to pursue a data visualization of overfishing and how the oceans have become severely depleted over the decades.

Another idea we almost considered pursuing was the drought in Los Angeles and figuring out how to visualize how much water is being used in Los Angeles, particularly by the water wasters in the county.

Once we chose our topic, the next question was how to visualize it. Almost immediately, our in-house gaming expert Si had the idea to make it an interactive underwater experience and within a week we had a basic demo ready to go. The entire experience was viewed from the viewpoint of a fish, and you had to fight not to be captured by the ever-present nets.

Once we figured out the general concept of the game, we had to decide how to incorporate data into our story.

We determined that the best way to do this was through a recorded voiceover that would play before the interactive portion of the experience began, and so we went about writing a script that detailed the rapid decline of fish populations all over the world.

As an added bonus, when the user zeroes in on a specific fish in our ocean environment, a fun fact will come up about that fish to inform them about the diverse underwater species.

Finding data for overfishing was surprisingly hard, given the turmoil surrounding the topic.

When we wanted to find out specifically how many fish were overfished over a period of time, it proved to be nearly impossible, and so our data sets had to become a little more broad to incorporate these discrepancies.

Perhaps our biggest issue was the data set itself, which seemed to be lacking entirely due to the complexity of overfishing, because how can one track an entire fish population?

When it came time to test our overfishing project, we were able to upload it to the Samsung VR Headset, but had problems making it compatible with the Oculus Rift or Google Cardboard.

Regardless, the data visualization project was testable, and people gave us helpful feedback on many aspects of the game, including that the instructions could be more clear and the experience felt too long.

In general, people were impressed with the interactiveness of the experience and it certainly engaged the user.

After many trials and tribulations, the overfishing experience turned out to be both fun and informative. We hope to see more data visualization in VR in the future.

Download the apk (made for Samsung Gear VR) for our overfishing experience here: http://www.vrjournalism.io/overfishing/overfishing.zip

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On December 2, 2015
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