Virtual Haiti

The Toronto Star’s 360-degree photography shows the earthquake’s aftermath

The earthquake that rocked Haiti in January leveled its capital, killed at least 230,000 people, and made another million homeless. Almost one year later, with so much of the country still damaged, how do news sites continue to tell this story?

One way is to try and give readers the sense, as much as is possible, of what it is like to be there., the website of Canada’s largest newspaper, the Toronto Star, has centered its coverage around the story of one three-year-old Haitian girl, named Lovely, who was trapped under rubble for six days before her rescue. The collection of coverage, called “Lovely’s Haiti,” includes interactive features, audio slideshows, and several very compelling documentary videos. One piece very effectively uses an amateur video taken from YouTube as the earthquake shook the city—on it, a young girl cries “The world is coming to an end!”

The most effective “you-are-there” piece on the site, though, is the 360-degree virtual reality tour of one neighborhood, created by multimedia producer Chris So. The instructions are simple: “Click & drag the image in any direction. Shift to zoom in, ctrl to zoom out.” At several points in the landscape, the reader is invited to click to enter a building or walk farther up the path. Crumbled buildings and piles of garbage and rubble sit precariously on a hill, and there isn’t a plumb line in sight. The panoramic view unfolds click by click, like a very primitive video game (King’s Quest comes to mind). But it’s not video, or computer graphics; it’s a series of photographs, seamlessly stitched together.

In an e-mail exchange, Chris So explained how he did it. So used a special ultra wide angle lens, a panoramic head designed for spherical panoramas, and a tripod. He took four still photographs, ninety degrees apart, for the four “compass points,” and then shot the sky and the ground as well. The shot of the ground is always tricky, he said, because he can’t use a tripod and has to be careful not to cast a shadow.

Back at his desk, So stitched those six photographs together and used special software that mapped them into “a virtual cube.” This software then rounded out the photographic cube into a sphere, warping and inflating the photos “like pumping up a beach ball.” It was a delicate process. He wrote,

If you’ve shot it correctly, there will be no seams or overlap errors where things don’t line up and stitch correctly. If you do get errors it’s almost impossible to correct and you have to re-shoot.

For this project, he chose to do three separate spheres from different vantage points in the area, and then link them together, so that the viewer could get the effect of being able to walk through the scene. His editors hadn’t specifically asked him to do a virtual reality tour for this assignment, but he thought the story called out for one. When out on assignment, and choosing whether to make the effort for a VR or not, So said he asks himself the following questions:

First and foremost, is it visually appealing?…[I]s it something that can be done with a regular still or will a 360x360 tell it better? Is it something the average viewer has never seen, will never have the chance to experience or walk through in their lifetime? Is there enough visual interest all around and up and down too? Is there a strong fore, middle and background? The more questions you answer yes to, the more it’ll make for a better VR.

Some other VR projects that he’s done in the past for the Star include tours of the reactor core of a nuclear reactor power plant, the state rooms of a multi-million dollar yacht, and a maximum security prison cell. For the future, So said he’s playing with using smaller, wearable high definition cameras that could collect photographs for a more thorough “tour” of an area. He also said he’s trying to figure out how to install a camera on a remote control helicopter to get better aerial shots in HD, from spots closer to the ground than a traditional television helicopter. He sounds like he’s having some fun with those experiments.

To see examples of more great VR photography, So recommended, a site that collects VR projects from around the world. And he said that his favorite VR ever is a view from the center of the Eiffel Tower. If you have a fear of heights, you might not want to click on that one. Seriously. I’ll add this tour of the Sistine Chapel, which even has some understated organ music accompanying it to set the mood (h/t Melissa Bell and others).

And, of course, the rest of’s Haiti coverage is worth checking out. One of So’s videos is narrated by Catherine Porter, a Star journalist who decided to use her own money to send Lovely to school; following the publication of her article, Star readers, unsolicited, sent in $18,000 to do the same for other students.

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Lauren Kirchner is a freelance writer covering digital security for CJR. Find her on Twitter at @lkirchner