‘Immersive journalism’ achieves the objective of putting viewers on the scene of world events.
You’re standing on a busy street corner in the Aleppo district of Syria. People are going about their business and somewhere a young girl is singing when without warning a rocket strike hits, sending dust and debris flying everywhere. The scene dissolves and you find yourself in a refugee camp where thousands of people affected by the conflict are trying to get on with their lives.
Luckily, returning to the safety of your real life is as simple as removing the virtual reality headset through which you’ve been experiencing the sights and sounds of war and its aftermath. Unlike watching similar scenes on television however, the emotions you’re feeling are likely to be more intense and stay with you much longer.
This is immersive journalism, a technique using virtual reality to put the public in the middle of the scene as news unfolds that - if it catches on - could transform the way we witness events around the world.
The ‘Project Syria’ piece was commissioned by the World Economic Forum for its meeting in Davos in January 2014, with the aim of encouraging world leaders to do more about the vast numbers of people who have been displaced in the country. Instead of just listening to reports though, delegates donned headsets to get a real sense of what’s happening based on audio, video and photographs taken at scene.
It was written and directed by Nonny de la Peña, an award-winning documentary filmmaker with 20 years’ journalism experience writing for titles like Newsweek and the New York Times who has been dubbed the ‘godmother of virtual reality’. Currently a graduate fellow at the University of Southern California’s Interactive Media Arts department, and creator of the website immersivejournalism.com, she is co-founder of the company Emblematic which has built several pioneering news-based VR constructs.
De la Peña’s first foray into this type of reporting was 2012’s ‘Hunger’, the true story of a diabetic’s collapse due to starvation while waiting in line at a food bank in Los Angeles. Palmer Luckey, one of the creators of the Oculus Rift headset, was an intern working on the project.
In a talk at the TEDWomen 2015 event in Monterey, California, de la Peña told the audience how she went about turning the incident into a VR experience.
“I knew I couldn’t make people feel hungry, but maybe I could figure out a way to get them to feel something physical. We didn’t have very much funding, so I had to reproduce it with virtual humans that were donated, and people begged and borrowed favours to help me create the models and make things as accurate as we could. And then we tried to convey what happened that day with as much as accuracy as is possible.”
The reaction to ‘Hunger’ at the 2012 Sundance film festival proved how effective this could be. Even though the headsets used were roughly built prototypes, audiences were left in tears, with some actually crouching to try and help the seizure victim or talk reassuringly to them.
It was after watching ‘Hunger’ that the head of the World Economic Forum commissioned the piece which was to become Project Syria. De la Peña sent a crew to the region to gather material and the results were just as effective, invoking a level of emotional engagement in viewers that stirs up feelings of empathy not witnessed with other ways of reporting events.
“My whole life as a journalist, I’ve really been compelled to try to make stories that can make a difference and maybe inspire people to care,” says de la Peña. “But it really wasn’t until I got involved with virtual reality that I started seeing these really intense, authentic reactions from people that really blew my mind.”
The 360° solution
Building a virtual construct of a scene that a user can move around in and interact with, similar to the way VR gaming works, is effective, but it’s expensive and requires a lot of planning. In contrast, 360° video based on actual footage from a number of small, cheap cameras like those made by GoPro is a quick way of putting the viewer in the middle of a scene. They can look around by moving their head, but their movement is restricted to where the person who took the film went.
One example of how this works is the film of Hong Kong pro-democracy protests made by UK-based firm Immersiv.ly. Founder and CEO Louis Jebb, previously a journalist with the Spectator and the Independent, believes this type of reporting can recapture the interest of a public who have lost faith in mainstream news they find depressing and alienating.
“Traditional news sources have for generations been supplying content with an aim to ‘beating’ their rivals or winning awards, rather than with a concern for the effect that their content has on its audience,” he writes in a blog on the Immersive.ly website. “Over time this ‘professionalisation’ has created an emotional disconnect between newsmaker and news consumer.”
The company started life in 2014 as a WordPress test site where users could record the effect consuming a story had on them, as well as discussing it with the site’s editor via Skype. What Jebb describes as “the ‘ah-ha’ moment” came when Facebook bought Oculus Rift in March 2014.
“If we wanted people to care about news, what could be more compelling than putting them at the heart of the action?” he says.
The company’s first proof-of-concept piece was the seven-minute documentary ‘Hong Kong Unrest’, filmed and edited by one-man crew Edward Miller, a pioneer in 360° video who later became the company’s head of visuals. It was demonstrated on Oculus Rift in December 2014 and released first on an immersiv.ly microsite, then on YouTube when that platform started supporting 360° video in March 2015. It’s now available for Oculus Rift using the immersiv.ly app.
As with any technology that threatens to disrupt the established media, some in the industry are raising concerns about this sort of immersive reporting. Whether it’s a full-blown virtual environment or a 360° film, one of the main benefits claimed by evangelists is that it brings viewers closer to the truth by placing them in the story and letting them interpret the evidence themselves. Potentially, users could even run through the same events from different perspectives to see how witness reports complement or contradict each other.
That creates problems for reporters and editors though. TV news often comes with a warning that “The following report contains scenes that some viewers may find upsetting,” but with VR, there’s no ability to frame a shot to exclude, say, dead bodies. They could be blurred, or omitted from a scene but that would lead to the editor exercising some form of censorship, immediately eliminating the idea that viewers are seeing the unvarnished truth and raising doubts about reliability.
The solution, Nonny de la Peña says, is to ensure that the same best practice that would be followed in any other area of journalism is exercised when using VR. If the producers of an immersive experience didn’t capture the source material themselves, they have to be exacting about identifying its provenance and authenticity.
‘One Dark Night’, an Emblematic production telling the story of how teenager Trayvon Martin was shot and killed by neighbourhood watch volunteer George Zimmerman, was based on real recordings of calls to emergency services, witness trial testimony and architectural drawings of the area where events took place. In this instance, the process added to the story, as forensic specialists who reconstructed audio recordings made on the night claimed that Zimmerman had cocked his gun at a crucial moment.
According to de la Peña, this illustrates how the basic tenets of journalism don’t change. “We’re still following the same principles that we would always. What is different is the sense of being on scene, whether you’re watching a guy collapse from hunger or feeling like you’re in the middle of a bomb scene.”
Another concern is that this way of consuming news can be so emotionally exhausting, and the nature of news means that subjects are invariably challenging. Emblematic has a construct that allow users to experience life in the Guantanomo Bay detention camp, while another, ‘Use of Force’, shows what happened when 35-year-old Anastasio Hernandez Rojas was beaten and tasered to death by a patrol on the US-Mexican border.
Animations may be crude compared to what the latest generation of games consoles are capable of, but viewers frequently describe having a physical reaction to what they’re seeing. It’s clearly a powerful technique, but do audiences really want to experience that depth of involvement in traumatic events on a regular basis?