Grantee Spotlight: From Digital News to Virtual Reality

Welcome to the FBF Grantee Spotlight, our new series showcasing successful France-Berkeley collaborations. Our first conversation features Berkeley School of Journalism professor Richard Koci Hernandez, who revisits his 2016 “Digital Storytelling Workshop” project with Valerie Jeanne-Perrier (CELSA, Sorbonne Université).

Richard Koci Hernandez
FBF '16 grantee Richard Koci Hernandez

Can you introduce your research to our readers? What are the core questions your research aims to address?

I am mainly interested in the digital form that storytelling is taking, how words and pictures have made their way online, and how the online space is a new space in which to tell stories. How can we harness this new platform? How is news reformed and reshaped through this new technology? Valerie and I both have a real interest in how news stories will be presented in the near future, and it's all very speculative. Already our experience of the news has jumped from the TV screen, to the phone and now to your watch; eventually, it will come to your glasses, like Google Glass or Oculus, which was bought by Facebook a few years ago. We’re not at the point where we have abandoned cell phones yet. But what happens when the new norm is somewhere else?

You won an FBF grant in 2016. What is the background to your FBF grant funding? What particular circumstances led you to collaborate with Valerie Jeanne-Perrier?

Valerie and I met through a visiting scholar at Berkeley whose first job after happened to be at the Sorbonne. She raved about Valerie, and how we needed to do a project. We had actually been discussing an exchange between our schools when I saw the FBF call for proposals. I remembered seeing it a few years prior, but didn’t know what to do with it back then since I did not yet have the connections. The call came at the perfect time, and without the Fund we would not have had the opportunity that we did. 

Tell us a bit about your project: What are its real-world/practical applications? What have been some important results?

The first part of the project was a one-day symposium in France that brought together students and experts from varying disciplines--art, music, dance, journalism, tech companies--to talk about the future of news. We then returned to Berkeley with the French students and Valerie so they could take part in the launch of the Virtual Reality center that opened here. Her students and mine came together and actually created an immersive VR experience called “The Living Room.” This was the biggest outcome, a real working proposal for a project that immerses the user into the realities of population growth and resource scarcity. Since then have sought to bring partners together to move from the prototype to an actual platform, exploring how news is told and experienced through landscapes. Years later, the conversation is ongoing.

What have you learned from your collaborator? How does your expertise/knowledge differ or complement each other ?

Valerie and I have the same interests but we also come from two different environments. Here at Berkeley we are physically, and spiritually, closer to Silicon Valley. The French journalistic landscape is completely different from what is happening here. TV news is still very popular and has a strong core in France, whereas here it is suffering. What really brought us together was a passion for trying to figure out what that next phase of storytelling is going to look like on news platforms. We continue to explore whether we can set up another exchange with the Sorbonne. The FBF really opened a whole new world of opportunity for us.

What impact did the FBF grant have on your work? What’s next?

There is something about working with someone from a different culture that makes a big difference. Culturally, the experience of going to France gave me a deeper appreciation of balancing life and work. Academically, I teach and approach things more collaboratively than I did before. The collaboration taught me that it’s safe to leave your comfort zone and try new things. Now I’m constantly looking for ways to collaborate cross-departmentally because I realize that there is much to gain from that. During our collaboration, our students worked together without prompting, immediately wanting to make and do new things. I want to incorporate that more in my curriculum.

Any words of wisdom to share with other researchers interested in applying to the FBF?

Be as ambitious as possible with your ideas. The FBF is open to innovative projects that think outside the box. I really hope researchers take advantage of this amazing opportunity.


Interview conducted by FBF undergraduate research apprentice Julie De Vaulx