ASU's Cronkite School receives challenge grant for innovative virtual-reality project

Monday, July 17, 2017

Arizona State University’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication has received a grant to fund a new virtual-reality project through a news initiative from Google News Lab, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and the Online News Association.

Journalism 360 awarded the Cronkite School a $30,000 grant for “Data Real,” in which students in the New Media Innovation and Entrepreneurship Lab will develop a tool that easily enables journalists and content creators to add location-based data visualizations to virtual-reality content.

The Data Real tool would allow journalists to add statistics, data, pricing and other information on particular neighborhoods through data overlays on VR footage. Users would search neighborhoods by entering a ZIP code.

“This grant will help our students push the limits of storytelling through cutting-edge technologies,” said Kristin Gilger, Cronkite School senior associate dean. “We sincerely appreciate the support of Google News Lab, Knight Foundation and the Online News Association.”

The Cronkite School’s project was one of 11 challenge winners in the contest. The winning projects will help advance Journalism 360’s mission of developing an international network of journalists to explore and share knowledge about their work in immersive storytelling. This is the third time the Cronkite School has received a challenge grant with Knight Foundation support.

Cronkite’s New Media Innovation and Entrepreneurship Lab, which connects journalism, computer engineering, design and business students at ASU to create pioneering media products, will work on the Data Real project over the next several months. They are invited to the ONA conference in Washington, D.C., in October. They also will share their findings at a special Journalism 360 demo day in early 2018.

Retha Hill, director of the New Media Innovation and Entrepreneurship Lab, said the Data Real tool will enhance VR experiences by allowing users to more deeply interact with the content. Users could explore a neighborhood by wearing a VR headset and interact with data around them by clicking on 3-D visualizations with a controller that reveals information such as crime statistics, school data, dining information and more.

“The data visualization tool will help storytellers bring localized data alive,” Hill said. “I can’t wait to see what my colleagues in journalism will do with the tool once it is available. My students in the lab can’t wait to get started.”

The New Media Innovation and Entrepreneurship Lab was conceived by ASU President Michael M. Crow and the late Sue Clark-Johnson, who headed Gannett’s newspaper division. Over the past 10 years, students in the lab have created mobile and VR apps, interactive games and social-media sites for a variety of media companies and nonprofits.

Announced in September 2016, Journalism 360 was designed to help accelerate the use of immersive storytelling in the news through innovative technologies such as VR, augmented and mixed reality, and 360-degree video.

Other Journalism 360 projects ranged from the use of augmented reality and data visualization to document the building of a border wall between the United States and Mexico to a tool that allows users to create virtual-reality photo experiences from their smartphones. Grant recipients included media organizations, such as The Arizona Republic and NPR, as well as universities and multimedia companies.

“The overwhelming response to the open call demonstrated that journalists are seizing the opportunity to use immersive storytelling to engage people in new ways,” said Jennifer Preston, Knight Foundation vice president for journalism. “There is still much to learn, and the winners will help lead the way by identifying best practices and tools and expanding the Journalism 360 network.”