Creating Stories You Can Walk Through

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When Jesse Yerkes and Jan Huybrechs arrived last month at the home of the e-sports organization FaZe Clan, a 36,000-square-foot compound on a lake near Los Angeles, they had an ambitious mission: Capture every object in two of the bedrooms from multiple angles.

Mr. Yerkes and Mr. Huybrechs, freelance technicians working for The Times’s Research and Development team, spent nine hours at the mansion. Mr. Yerkes took nearly 3,000 photos of the state-of-the-art monitors, oversize mouse pads and color-changing lighting rigs. Mr. Huybrechs followed with a lidar scanner, which emits rapid pulses of laser light and measures the amount of time it takes each to bounce back. (Lidar stands for light detection and ranging.)

The two efforts would later be combined to create depth on a high-resolution 3-D map for a Styles desk project that gives readers a peek into the lives of influencers who live in the FaZe mansion, a gamer’s dream house that was once rented by Justin Bieber.

Readers can explore the tricked-out space at their own pace, perusing shelves lined with Darth Vader and Homer Simpson dolls or lingering over the pleasantly plump bear pillow commandeering a couch. By rotating the screen a few degrees at each stop, viewers can explore nearby objects like the gamers’ YouTube plaques or album collections.

The interactive experience was made possible by a 3-D image process known as photogrammetry. Members of The Times’s R&D team uploaded the thousands of photos and lidar data to photogrammetry software, which recreated the exact position where each image was taken and stitched them together to create a virtual map of the rooms.

The technology gives news and features editors another way to inform readers when deciding how best to cover a topic. “It’s good for stories where the environment is immersive and you want to be able to move through a space,” Jon Cohrs, a senior technical producer on the team, said. “Or for when you want to look at objects in detail from multiple angles.”

The FaZe Clan project is part of a new Times series, “From Here,” that harnesses multimedia and interactive storytelling techniques to take readers inside communities around the country, like a crew of mountain climbers or a group of young Black poets. A few stories in the series have published online, and several more will appear between now and April, according to Marcelle Hopkins, a visual editor on special projects.

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The Graphics desk has employed photogrammetry a number of times over the years, but the Styles piece is only the second instance when The Times has used the technique to create a scrollable virtual environment on a large scale, like a room. In September, the team worked with the Culture desk to pair the architecture critic Michael Kimmelman’s virtual walk-through of the Jackson Heights neighborhood in Queens with an immersive map of the locations. That project took more than a dozen people about three weeks to execute.

“It’s one thing to see a picture or watch a video showing, say, the inside of an empty sports arena,” Mr. Kimmelman said. “It’s another to be able to then zero in and read the fine print on a discarded ticket stub in the upper balcony.”

“Photogrammetry can take you somewhere you’ve never been,” Dodai Stewart, The Times’s deputy editor for Narrative Projects, added. “But it can also show you a familiar place from a new perspective. You notice all the things you wouldn’t if you were just walking through.”

For the Jackson Heights story, Mint Boonyapanachoti, a creative technologist at The Times, and Guilherme Rambelli, a senior 3-D artist, captured about 2,000 photos of the neighborhood. But they did not use specialized cameras, and the shooting process was more straightforward. Think “take a step, take a photo,” Mr. Rambelli said.

But that is just the basic idea. Mr. Rambelli said they try to capture at least two images from different angles of the same feature of an object. That’s necessary, he said, if you want to have left, front and right views. “You want to make sure you’re creating a path that connects one thing to the next,” Mr. Rambelli added. “For areas with many objects, you want to build from an anchor point and go in a circle around the whole scene.”

Niko Koppel, a production technologist on the team, said that the photogrammetry software then takes the images and ties together elements that appear in multiple photos to create a virtual world you can walk through.

In the team’s early experiments, they were shooting as many as 6,000 photos for one room and not following the most efficient capture paths, which slowed the processing time, Mr. Koppel said. “Now we approach it like a scientific experiment,” he said. “We use a more rigorous plan than shooting a ton of photos and crossing our fingers.”

The photogrammetry program still has its shortcomings, namely, that it struggles to recreate featureless surfaces like bare white walls.

Ms. Boonyapanachoti said the team intends to increase the scale and enhance the quality of 3-D captures of New York City streets, though it is difficult to realistically capture bustling areas when the software strips out people in motion. And dark spaces, like night scenes, are still difficult to render.

But the team hopes to one day be able to include people moving around in a space like Times Square, as well as to apply the technology to news stories with more immediate deadlines.

Imagine, for instance, a story on New York retail that lets you virtually walk through a shopping district full of people, or one that lets you see what a tennis player sees all around her on the court at the United States Open, or stroll the Smorgasburg market in Brooklyn without leaving your house.

“Those are a little far off,” Ms. Boonyapanachoti said. “But this is another tool the newsroom can reach for to tell a story.”

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