Virtual Reality makes journalism real beyond words
iDisrupted Commentary – by Laura Cox, Virtual Reality Journalist
A child stands forlornly in a swamp, looking up at you with swimming dark eyes. His name is Chuol, and he tells you that he escaped his village with his mother and grandmother, wading through crocodile-infested water for days until the sounds of gunfire faded. He lost his mother somewhere on the journey, and he doesn’t know whether or not she is alive. Eventually, he reached an island where 80,000 other people had made temporary shelters. Watching Chuol’s story on a televised news report, it’s easy to feel detached. But it’s far more difficult to distance yourself from Chuol’s plight when you’re right next to him, watching him untangle a makeshift fishing net in one of the world’s largest wetlands.
Chuol’s story is part of a virtual reality film called ‘The Displaced’, which tracks the lives of young people effected by conflict in different countries across the world. The film supplements a 30 page edition published in the New York Times (NYT) which follows the journeys of three children living in war-torn countries. The youngest child is nine year old Chuol, who was forced to flee his home in the midst of Sudan’s brutal civil combat. The other two children are Hana, a Syrian refugee in Lebanon, and Oleg, who lives in Eastern Ukraine.
In partnership with Google, the NYT distributed over a million cardboard headsets to their subscribers. A free app called ‘NYTVR’ was released on the 5th of November, followed by branded headsets just two days later. The motivation behind using virtual reality to tell the stories of people affected by humanitarian crises is clear. It’s about moving people, and making them feel in a way that passive recordings and images can’t. Jake Silverstein, the editor of the NYT, said, “The power of VR is that it gives the viewer a unique sense of empathic connection to people and events.”
Watching children struggle to stay alive through what should be the most carefree and easy years of their lives is not easy to see, and the immersive quality of VR really hammers home the uncertainty of their existence, but also the resilient acceptance they have to learn in order to survive. Hana, aged 12, begins work in the early hours of the morning along with countless other children, who work for up to six hours before they are allowed a break. This would still shock you if you were watching an interview on a screen, or reading an article – but no journalist can truly describe how it feels to crouch beside Hana as she cradles her cousin in the jolting bus which ferries the refugee children to the plum orchard. VR, on the other hand, can.
As well as providing a rich emotional dimension, VR has a worldwide geographic reach. The packaging of NYT’s personalised Google VR Cardboard promises that the headset will take wearers half-way across the world, and it’s true – virtual environments are not constrained by air miles. This means that as long as someone can get a few cameras out there, anybody with a smartphone and a workable app can be transported to a different part of the globe. This is invaluable for imparting information on any scale – put somebody
inside a situation, and they will engage with it on a much deeper level. They aren’t just watching a reporter on a screen anymore, they’re actually there. They can see the uniforms around and behind them, they can watch the air-struck city smoking beyond the barricades. And all of this, at the same time as being quite frankly nerve-wracking, is without the risk of actually being shot, and that’s somewhat reassuring.
VR’s power to deliver eyewitness testimony is second to none except first hand experience, leading to Silverstein’s excitement surrounding unique empathic connections. But what about the people who switch off the television when the news reader warns that the next story contains distressing images? They would avoid exposure to films like ‘The Displaced’ and similar VR coverage at all costs. Picking up a newspaper is still massively cheaper and often much easier, too. You can’t exactly immerse yourself in the goings on of an Ebola treatment facility on the tube to work, and in many cases nor would you particularly want to. Experiencing humanitarian crises in such an intense way could cause serious reactions in some viewers. Could you experience something similar to PTSD after watching a VR film about the military on operation, for instance? The reconstructed Ground Zero memorial in Thomas Cook’s New York experience was shaking enough – I can’t imagine what it would be like to see a terrorist attack in the virtual flesh. This raises further questions about exactly who will be able to access these films. Even if you aren’t a subscriber of the NYT, it’s not difficult to get hold of a smartphone and a cardboard headset. Most parents probably won’t want their child experiencing the results of open warfare. Tied with this this is our universal tendency to believe what we see – VR is offering more than just a run of events to be watched, it’s offering the experience itself. This makes the entire thing far more convincing, regardless of how old you are. It could be considered almost dangerous to apply this power to world events – what if a film is tampered with? There are also ethical considerations to think about. The timeless saying ‘no news is good news’ makes you wonder if it’s moral to capitalise on the negative experiences of others. VR was born in an entertainment industry and that is by definition what it does – it entertains. Should somebody else’s pain and loss really be turned into a ‘film’?
As well as all of this, there are always going to be much simpler logistic issues with the cardboard set-ups. Yes, they’re cheap and easy to use, but it’s hard to find that comfortable spot where the screen really correlates with your eye movements. Cardboard will always come second-best to the more expensive headsets in that regard. Bearing all of these pitfalls in mind, VR journalism is not going to kill traditional print and report journalism. However, it does have the capacity and informative strength to stand alone as a story-telling medium in the future. This narrative ability has already been realised by marketers, so why not journalists, who deal solely with collecting and imparting information?
So, is VR journalism really going to take off? A level of scepticism is understandable at the moment, as ‘The Displaced’ has only been offered as part of a wider report, rather than a stand-alone medium. But what VR does offer is a new way for journalists to tell stories which really has the power to grip their viewers and put them inside current affairs. Who will be next to offer a VR experience like The Displaced? Nonny de la Peña, co-founder of Emblematic Group, is the author of two immersive journalism pieces which were both released earlier this year. The first of these was the Syria Project, which included a scene which put the wearer inside a children’s refugee camp. The second project reconstructed the shooting of Trayvon Martin, the unarmed 17-year old African boy who was shot by a neighbourhood watch volunteer in 2012. De la Peña is positive about the potential of VR reporting, and thinks that VR journalism will become the norm. But so far the experiences have all been traumas including young people. It’s clear why – they’re emotive and effective. But the scope for VR as a general news-reader seems limited. The technology might work for sports news, but it’s hardly going to be particularly gripping floating around in a flooded village in the Midlands. In any case, VR can’t be used for breaking news, as it takes extensive programming and positioning to create an experience. Even if the event can be reconstructed, the accuracy of what happened would be compromised. In the same way, it’s not going to work for flash news, which is all about delivering snippets of info as soon as possible.
If virtual reality takes off in the world of journalism, it will change the way that reporting works. First of all, cameras will have to capture all angles of a scene to make the experience believable. Any attempts to put a spin on events by excluding or alternatively choosing to focus on certain parts of a story would be combatted by the viewer’s ability to see all parts of a certain setting. For instance, a crowd of refugees receiving humanitarian aid from the back of a truck is clearly a positive image, but when the viewer turns their head to see the vast camp in the background, it becomes quite obvious that the single truck cannot feed the thousands of people who need help. This isn’t going to eradicate journalist soon, but it can only be a positive in changing the media by weakening the methods that can be used to manipulate it. The emotive ability of VR is also certain to attract the attention of charitable organisations, who will want to use reactions to VR for the benefit of their causes. UNICEF was featured heavily in ‘The Displaced’, for example, credited in Chuol’s story with building a ‘child-friendly space’ for school and play. How long before charities aren’t just featured in these productions, but are actually making them?
Not only this, but VR journalism could remove the need for an actual reporter. Why does a viewer need somebody narrating a scene that they can see for themselves in its entirety? Of course, reporters are trained to explore and relay information, and this is crucial to a fully informative experience… But it might leave some journalists wondering why they are putting their lives at risk and actually visiting conflicted countries when they don’t necessarily have to. Most reporters aren’t aiming to become the David Attenborough of current affairs, but for many it’s not exactly a difficult choice between visiting a war zone and staying at home with a cup of tea.
Clearly VR holds great promise for journalism, but will fundamentally change the way that reporting works. It may even remove the need for a physical reporter. The NYT and Emblematic Group have taken pioneering steps towards a new way of making people, especially in the western world, understand the effects of the conflicts that are happening in their back garden and also further afield. Silverstein and de la Peña were right to be positive about the story-telling capabilities of VR, especially when applied to an industry which is fuelled by information. Maybe VR was never intended to function as a multi-news presenter, and only really has the capacity to deliver in depth, long standing stories like those of Chuol, Hana and Oleg. One thing is certain – it’s caused quite a stir, and my guess is that in light of recent events on the continent, it won’t be long before other news giants create their own VR experiences.