Visitors try out Sony's PlayStation VR headgear devices at the Tokyo Game Show

Visitors try out Sony's PlayStation VR headgear devices at the Tokyo Game Show

There has been an ongoing discussion about whether a documentary is journalism. A journalist is expected to be objective; a documentary filmmaker not so much. His or her perspective might be more subjective. This tension between journalism and documentary filmmaking has always been inspiring to me, although I have always considered myself more a journalist than a filmmaker.

Similarly, in VR the line between what is real and what is virtual is—and will become—less and less visible. Will it be journalism, documentary, or maybe something new? Those areas are waiting to be explored—or hacked.

As a 2017 Nieman Fellow, I had the privilege to audit a VR class at MIT Media Lab (“Hacking VR: Exploring Oculus and Immersive Media Production”) taught by professors William Uricchio and Sandra Rodriguez. I learned a lot, but first I had to fight my TV bias.

In VR, there is no frame! How do you storyboard? How do you tell a story without a frame? How do you drive users’ attention in the right direction? Maybe there’s no need? If a user can look wherever she wants, maybe it’s easier to let her explore her own story inside a VR piece? But what about when we want to tell a linear story in VR? Then, we have to use different tools to lead the viewer—light, movement, and, first and foremost, spatial sound, which accounts for a large part of an immersive VR experience.

One of the first things I learned was that when designing in full VR (computer-generated imagery, rather than 360 video) do not try to make things reflect reality as much as possible. Leave some space for users’ creativity; let them fill in the voids. Because the more you try to make this computer-generated world “real,” the more “unreal” things become.

But this approach makes you more of an artist or filmmaker than a journalist. How does this apply to journalism, which we expect to tell real, not staged, stories?

I tried VR for the first time two years ago when I attended the Global Editors Network Summit in Barcelona. I was struck by Nonny de la Peña’s presentation on VR and the opportunities it creates for storytellers. I watched some of her VR projects, like “One Dark Night,” “Project Syria,” and “Hunger in Los Angeles”. All three projects take advantage of actual audio, relating to actual traumatic events, immersing the user in a virtual environment. I liked the idea, but was it still journalism?

“One Dark Night” tells the story of black teenager Trayvon Martin, who was shot to death in 2012 by a neighborhood watch volunteer in a gated community in Florida. The producers obtained recordings of the 911 phone calls. The viewer watches the story as it unfolds, hearing the actual audio.

With a powerful medium like VR, which gives the feeling of “being there,” there is the danger of creating a new story rather than reconstructing an old one. The key question is: Do I want to reconstruct what happened, as truthfully as possible, or do I want to create a new experience?

Although I admire de la Peña’s method, I am also skeptical. Creating a virtual world to reconstruct a real event is highly risky for a journalist. We may show or unintentionally suggest things that didn’t actually happen. How do you know what the actual behavior of Trayvon Martin or the police were?

VR forces us to define new boundaries. How far can we go to recreate reality and still call it journalism?

One of The Guardian’s VR projects is called “First Impressions,” and it enables viewers to explore how a baby sees the world during the first six months of life. The viewer sees the world from the perspective of a toddler interacting with a mother, played by an actress. Is it journalism? A movie? Those are challenges of the visual age we have entered.

The producers defend the project by saying that they conducted many interviews with scientists and made sure that their depictions were scientifically accurate. VR viewers get this information in an immersive visual nutshell instead of reading a long article quoting experts.

We have to be highly skeptical of these methods. It is attractive and inspiring, both to viewers and creators, but it has more to do with movies or the theater than with journalism. It still might be beneficial, especially in attracting younger audiences with material that’s more powerful than traditional news content. The Guardian’s project “Limbo: a virtual experience of waiting for asylum” is a case in point.

Working with a 360-video camera demands a different approach, too. You have to think about rather long and static shots. Because the camera records everything around it, the crew must not be visible. What about the camera rig? Should that be edited it out? How as journalists do we use the camera for the benefit of storytelling, not just to fetishize the tool itself?

I did a quick experiment with my 4-year-old daughter. I put a VR headset on her for a few minutes and let her watch a cartoon. She was fully immersed from the beginning, trying to reach out to the virtual objects in front of her. She looked like a VR native. This experience was so natural to her. She didn’t ask questions. I took the headset off after a short time, because exposing young brains to screens can adversely affect their later development.

But our culture is heading more and more towards visual, and the technology will physically change our brains. Many believe it’s inevitable that in the future headsets will become “socially invisible,” looking like ordinary glasses or even being embedded in a contact lens.

Some say that VR is the “ultimate empathy machine,” while other suggest just the opposite. This issue emerged a year ago at a VR conference “Virtually There” co-organized by the MIT Open Documentary Lab. It seems that VR technology does not inherently create empathy, as many VR creators and journalists have suggested, but its vivid and evocative power may work as a call to action. A U.N. VR documentary, “Clouds Over Sidra,” on the Syrian refugee crisis, premiered at the 2015 World Economic Forum to advance U.N. advocacy for Syrian refugees. Users visited a refugee camp in Jordan and listened to moving story of a Syrian girl named Sidra. The piece was screened at a high-level donor meeting prior to the Third International Humanitarian Appeal for Syria in Kuwait in March of 2015; some $3.8 billion was raised.

In my opinion, from a journalistic point of view the embodiment potential of VR is much more important than empathy. Using VR we can much better depict someone’s perspective or point of view to better understand a problem. As a documentary producer I would reflect much more on this issue. “Who am I? What is the user’s perspective?” should be key questions when designing a VR or 360 video experience.

The Guardian’s “6×9” immerses the user in solitary confinement. The experience starts with the user sitting on a prison bed in a cell. “Welcome to your cell,” the voice-over intones. “You are going to be here for 23 hours a day.” There are guards shouting somewhere in the corridor behind the doors. Looking at a piece of paper and a pencil next to the bed, you can hear a man writing a letter to his family. Looking at a sports magazine, you can hear another prisoner saying that exercise is one way to kill time. The prison cell is empty. There is nobody inside except you. The story is told by voices, light, movement.

This project recalls advice I heard in the VR class at MIT: in VR, it is good to find your box. Whether it’s a prison cell, an apartment, or the interior of a car, a “box” or otherwise defined space limits the environment, which benefits the storytelling.

There are many VR enthusiasts, VR start-ups, and VR conferences, but few earn money, especially in the media industry. We are still far away from mass market adoption of VR headsets. That does not encourage content creators to create more content, which doesn’t encourage headset sales, and so on.

My experience has been that most people in VR at the moment are computer geeks coming quite often from the gaming industry, which has a different way of storytelling from journalism. The challenge is to build bridges between coders and journalists for the benefit of compelling VR journalistic storytelling. Some media outlets do it through partnerships (Frontline and The Guardian, for example) with outside technology companies.

VR allows us to tell compelling stories that are shorter but more intense. The technology itself is still in its infancy, causing many technical problems for viewers and for content creators. For journalists, the biggest challenge is to learn the new language of immersion and define boundaries.

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