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PHOENIX — The USA TODAY NETWORK has been a pioneer in using virtual reality in news reporting, launching the country’s first weekly VR news show.

Viewers have been given never-before-accessible experiences, such as a flight aboard a legendary Blue Angels jet or a launch off the deck of the USS Dwight D. Eisenhower in an F-18.

“The Wall” is the network’s most advanced use of virtual-reality storytelling to date, enabling viewers to have “on the ground” experiences to see what the border looks like in three locations. 

“This is by far leaps and bounds from any of the virtual-reality work we’ve done to date. I think it really sets us apart in this space,” said Maribel Perez Wadsworth, senior vice president and chief transformation officer for Gannett.

“We have created a groundbreaking, immersive experience that allows the audience to place themselves in the story, offering a view of the people, places, issues and habitats along our southern border many would not otherwise be able to experience firsthand.” 

Virtual reality, known as VR, is a computer-generated experience that simulates your physical presence in a 3-D environment. You wear a headset, and the experience allows you to move yourself around within each location.

To experience “The Wall” in virtual reality, you need a HTC Vive virtual reality system.

Virtual reality allows you to stand inside a virtual space in real proportions, in this case looking at the terrain and vegetation of border regions, and even hearing original sound from the area.

“The Wall” project used a helicopter equipped with video and LIDAR technology, essentially a laser that measures distances, to help re-create geographical features of the border for the VR experience.

The three on-the-ground experiences for “The Wall” allow you to immerse yourself into a virtual representation of three locations along the border:

  • Near Tecate, where a steel border fence marks the line through rocky hillsides between California and Mexico.
  • In the middle of a canyon in Big Bend National Park in southwest Texas, where thousand-foot cliffs soar higher than any border wall could be built.
  • At the foot of Mount Cristo Rey, home of a religious shrine near El Paso, which serves as a pilgrimage site for people in both the U.S. and Mexico. 

In addition to the virtual reality, you can also experience a dozen videos and accompanying slideshows that capture stories along the border. One is the story of U.S. citizen Selene Ramirez as she searches for her brother, who went missing days after he crossed the border illegally into the U.S.

To download “The Wall” in virtual reality, click on this link. 

The multimedia innovations in “The Wall” were a key reason the project received a $28,000 grant earlier this year from Journalism 360, a news initiative by Google News Lab and the Knight Foundation.

Journalism 360 was launched in September 2016 with the goal of accelerating the use of immersive storytelling in news. The focus is on virtual, augmented and mixed reality, as well as 360-degree video.

Laura Hertzfeld, director of Journalism 360, said the network’s goal of flying every mile of the border was “quite ambitious and bold.” 

The project “was really interesting to us because VR can take you to places most people don’t have access to and can’t go.”

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