Virtual Reality: A tool for story-living

Virtual reality is a three-dimensional, computer-generated environment, which a user can explore and interact with, and it’s journalism’s newest tool

Journalism is tasked to capture our complex world as it is, and good journalism also helps us understand what is going on. So, how can virtual reality (VR) – which involves simulating reality or creating near-real experiences – fit into journalistic storytelling?

That was my initial question when Deutsche Welle (DW), Germany’s international public broadcaster, invited me to join a week-long workshop on virtual reality journalism, held ahead of their annual Global Media Forum in Bonn in mid-June 2018.

The workshop was conducted by Vragments (vragments. com), a German company focusing on VR projects in journalism.Over the past three years, Vragments has produced numerous immersive VR projects in collaboration with public broadcasters and international journalists. After five days of immersion (pun intended!) in the topic, I am now convinced that VR can be a formidable addition to journalism’s toolkit. VR journalism is still in its early days, in both creating and consuming content. But, as technology gets more user-friendly and costs come down, democratisation of the medium is underway – and more journalists are experimenting and innovating with VR.

Virtual reality is a three-dimensional, computer-generated environment, which a user can explore and interact with. The user  becomes a part of the virtual world, or is immersed within that environment: while there, he/she is able to manipulate objects or perform various actions. VR isn’t exactly new. Technologists have been developing simulated environments for decades, while science fiction writers have imagined their positive and negative uses for even longer.

A still from “Project Syria,” a virtual reality project by the Emblematic Group made in collaboration with Al Jazeera

A well-known VR application is the flight simulator (to train pilots): the first such unit, entirely electromechanical, was patented in 1931. A 1930s science fiction story by Stanley G. Weinbaum, titled Pygmalion’s Spectacles, talked of a pair of goggles that let the wearer experience an imaginary world through holographics, smell, taste and touch. Then, in the 1950s, cinematographer Morton Heilig developed the Sensorama, an arcade-style theatre cabinet that could stimulate all five senses.

More innovations followed, and in 1987, computer scientist and visual artist Jaron Lanier coined the term “virtual reality”. And as computer processing power increased, the scope for VR innovations expanded.

Today, VR has applications in areas as diverse as entertainment, military, healthcare and specialised training. VR is increasingly used in museums, corporate brand promotions and exhibitions. The marketing and propaganda potential is mind-boggling. Global corporations like Google and Facebook are investing heavily in taking it to mass scale.

Experiencing VR requires the user to have a headset – a device like a thick pair of goggles that goes over the eyes. The higher quality headsets (e.g. Oculus Rift and HTC Vive) need to be connected (or tethered) to a computer to run apps and games, while cheaper ones (e.g. Samsung Gear VR, Google Daydream) use certain models of smartphones clipped to the front of the headset.

VR devices have their own app stores, similar to smartphone app stores, from where content can be downloaded. Some content is available on the web. Producing VR content requires devices that can capture audio and video more vividly than conventional audio-visual recording equipment. The cameras and editing software needed to film and then knit together VR stories were initially expensive, but here too, costs have been coming down significantly.

The Samsung Corporation has been promoting its Gear 360 spherical camera, which costs around $300, by giving away units to selected filmmakers and journalists. With front and rear lenses to capture 180-degree shots both horizontally and vertically to create panoramic videos or photos, the globular-shaped Gear 360 looks like an oversized eyeball.

Although the terms “360” and “virtual reality” are often used interchangeably, they are different. The 360-degree photos and videos are actually panoramic images and videos that have been seamlessly stitched together (by software), so we can turn our head to look around. But we don’t have free movement as in full virtual reality experiences. Nevertheless, 360 is a major step forward in experiencing a pre-packed reality, and a growing number of news organisations have ventured into producing 360 videos and films. The New York Times, The Guardian of UK and BBC have all set up 360 and VR production teams.


From Nonny de la Pena’s virtual reality project ‘Hunger’ in Los ngeles. (Courtesy of Nonny de la Pena.)

American journalist, documentary filmmaker and entrepreneur Nonny de la Pena is widely credited for pioneering the field of immersive journalism using VR technologies.

In 2007, she collaborated with digital media artist Peggy Weil to bring a portion of a documentary into an immersive environment. There was a Guantanamo Bay prison sequence, for which they built a virtual prison in the online game called ‘Second Life’. It allowed users to be (virtually) incarcerated and subjected to torture techniques. In 2010, de la Pena worked on Hunger in Los Angeles, which became the first VR documentary to be showcased at the famous Sundance Film Festival in January 2012. Through her company, Emblematic Group, she has since produced many path-breaking documentaries that cleverly use immersive storytelling techniques. Her VR journalism has taken users to a street corner in Aleppo, Syria, when a rocket hits; to the Mexico-US border while a patrol agent beats a Mexican immigrant; and to places where police brutality or domestic violence was unfolding.

“I think the real point of journalism is always to create an informed global citizenry, and at a moment in time where newspapers and broadcast media maybe aren’t attracting younger audiences, immersive journalism can,” de la Pena said in a 2015 interview. Known as the ‘godmother of virtual reality’, she focuses mainly on the younger generation of digital natives – those who have grown up taking digital technologies for granted. They already feel comfortable navigating virtual spaces and creating digital identities, and in some cases, she says, they don’t prioritize real-world experiences over simulated ones.

De la Pena says that VR journalism works at both intellectual and emotional levels, making its users better aware, as well as more concerned. Others journalists have followed her path. Among them is US filmmaker and ‘immersive artist’ Chris Milk. He started his VR company in 2014 and has done VR stories in New York, Cuba and Syria. As Milk said in a 2015 interview: “I’m interested in the foundations for a medium that could be more powerful than cinema, than theatre, than literature, than any other medium we’ve had before to connect one human being to another.”

When 360 and full VR stories are consumed, the user is no longer passively watching it but immersively experiencing it. When used in journalistic contexts, it goes beyond storytelling to ‘story-living’. Dr. Linda Rath-Wiggins, co-founder and chief executive of Vragments and a former innovation manager at Deutsche Welle Innovations, says the basic rules of good storytelling still apply in VR: there is a start and an end, leading to a climax; there can be protagonists and heroes (user can be one); and there is conflict between two sides or within one’s own self.


‘Hunger in Los Angeles’ VR experience by Nonny de la Pena

Beyond these basics, however, 360/VR allows new dimensions to be explored, offering plenty more choice to consumers. The new creative rules are still being discovered through experimentation, she says.

“In a well-made 360 or VR story, the journalist is merely setting the scene, and the media consumer becomes the (de facto) director. The producing journalist has to decide how much freedom and impact is to be offered to consumers,” she explains.

Paul Chadwick, the readers’ editor at The Guardian newspaper, shares a similar view. “Virtual reality journalism is in the infancy of developing a shared language. It will need to give audiences confidence in what they are offered as journalism. It will need to maintain trust. Useful touchstones are fidelity to truth, transparency and appropriate signposting.”

Depending on the nature of the content, Chadwick says, warnings will be necessary “because virtual reality is so powerful. It affects your senses in ways very different from reading, watching television or playing computer games”.

A case in point is “6×9” – The Guardian’s first virtual reality story published in April 2016. It places the user inside a solitary confinement prison cell in the US and talks of the psychological damage from such isolation. It was based on extensive research, drawing on former prisoners’ testimonies, and collaborating with a charity working on the issue.

Consuming “6×9” through a Google Daydream headset was an eerie experience. I felt claustrophobic within minutes. The film lasts only nine minutes, but is long enough to make us wonder: what is it like to spend 23 hours each day in a cell measuring 6×9 feet for days, weeks, months or even years? An estimated 80,000 to 100,000 prisoners are in such confinement in the US alone.

When done well, VR journalism (and even VR advocacy pieces) can have a deep emotional impact. For this reason, the VR headset has been called an ‘empathy machine’.

“VR can transport you to places you have never been. It can also allow you to see the world through another’s eyes,” says a recent BBC video that offers glimpses into the world of VR.


Google Daydream headset

It continues: “How does it feel to be old, or colour blind, or the victim of bullying? Virtual reality can now help us to temporarily live others’ experiences, and this may have important psychological benefits.” At my Bonn workshop, fellow participants were quick to see this potential. They wondered how VR stories could offer new insights on what it feels like to be sexually harassed, gender stereotyped or racially profiled. The possibilities are endless.

But evoking emotional reactions from an audience can also be manipulated. Just as VR stories can conjure genuine fear, sympathy or concern for a cause, they can also inspire hatred or reinforce racial supremacy. Propagandists can have a field day with these tools.

This is why VR content production in general, and VR journalism in particular, needs to be anchored in a strong code of ethics. Evolving these ethics is just as important as experimenting and innovating with the new medium.

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