It seemed like a crazy idea. Send two Bay Area journalists to open a pop-up shop in Berlin to showcase an investigation into Jehovah’s Witnesses, produced in virtual reality.
Last year, we hosted a conference in Berlin, where we met Stephan Gensch and Linda Rath-Wiggins, founders of Vragments, a Berlin-based VR startup. They wanted to build a tool that would help journalists put their stories into VR.
We spent the next year helping them. Together we created a VR experience called Disfellowshipped, based on our investigation into Jehovah’s Witnesses and child sexual abuse.
In April, during one of our trips to Berlin, I was walking through Kreuzberg with Reveal from The Center of Investigative Reporting CEO Joaquin Alvarado. He spotted a small, storefront art gallery and crossed the street to peer in the window. It was empty.
“When the VR story is done, we should open a pop-up VR studio here to show it,” he said. “We have to do this.”
It sounded weird. I didn’t think it would happen.
Five months later, I was back at that gallery with Gensch, Rath-Wiggins and Reveal senior supervising editor David Ritsher.
The morning of the launch in September, we were still setting up. We didn’t know what to expect, and there was a lot left to do. Pedestrians on the sidewalk stopped and stared in the window at the new neighbors in the funny goggles, unpacking computers and crates of beer.
By that Monday afternoon, we’d swept out front, set a table and bench on the sidewalk and stuck a sign in the window: Reveal Labs.
We weren’t selling anything. Admission was free and visitors got to strap on the headgear and watch our VR story, Disfellowshipped.
The next day, we showcased more VR experiences and gave away Google Cardboard viewing devices to everyone who stopped in. We held a workshop for journalists on how to shoot and stitch 360-degree video.
After all that work, we put on some Lou Reed, opened beers and our first pop-up social hour was underway. The shop and the sidewalk out front were packed. We were stunned.
On Wednesday and Thursday, Vragments conducted a VR hackathon in the neighborhood.
One thing we learned: There’s demand for this. On Friday, Rath-Wiggins co-hosted a sold-out VR conference in an old converted crematorium across town.
Back at the shop, people came in off the street all day. Some had heard about it online or from their friends. Others were just curious.
We connected with journalists from Germany, France, Spain, Denmark, Italy, Mexico and the U.S. We met grade school teachers, college professors, activists, artists, musicians, shopkeepers, bartenders, parents, kids and a Canadian punk rock band on tour in Europe.
It felt like a clubhouse. A hangout for people whose interests intersect.
As a journalist, you don’t usually get to watch people engage with your work in person and in real time. But by inviting people into our shop and putting the VR goggles on them, we were able to see their reactions and then talk with them about it right after.
Whether VR has an important role in future of journalism is still up for debate. It’s too new to really know. But connecting with hundreds of people face to face in a single week is unquestionably powerful. Not such a crazy idea at all.