In last weekend’s Sunday edition of theNew York Times, subscribers received a gift with their insert-filled newspaper – Google’s origami-like, smartphone compatible, Google Cardboard virtual reality headset. Inside the paper, readers were asked to download the Times’ new NYTVR app, through which they could then download The Displaced, a 11-or-so minute virtual reality video.
The Displacedtells the story of three children who have been displaced by war: Oleg, an 11 year old boy from eastern Ukraine, Chuol; a nine year old from South Sudan; and Hana, a 12 year-old from Syria whose family have fled to Lebanon, where they struggle to find temporary work to get by.
The Times uses virtual reality to put you in the middle of a foreign environment – the roof of a bombed-out building, a field with food parcels being dropped by passing planes, the back of a flatbed truck driving through rural Lebanon – and gives you the opportunity to look and to listen.
It’s a compelling experience. Although the viewpoint is fixed, the direction of your gaze is not. Obviously directorial decisions are still framing the experience, but you have more autonomy as a viewer than you’re accustomed to. You’re stuck in a place, but what you focus on is up to you. If you’re more interested in the people who don't run for the food parcels, you can stay on them rather than following the action. If you’d rather look at the scenery than the people on the truck, there’s no one forcing you to turn away.
Where The Displaced can get a little frustrating is when non-visual information is presented in text, which is firmly routed to a particular spot, so you have to go looking around for it, missing relevant details if you don’t see it in time. (It helps to sit on a swivel chair with a safe distance from any desks and/or family/friends/colleagues.)
If you don’t have a Google Cardboard set (or the similar devices that came in Nutri-Grain boxes a couple of months ago), you can get a hint at the experience below, dragging the viewpoint around with your mouse. It’s not the same but you get the point.
A month before The Displaced, US current affairs show Frontline released Outbreak, a virtual reality history of the 2014 Ebola outbreak. Outbreak guides you from a dead tree in the forests of Meliandou, Guinea, where it is thought a two year-old boy first contracted the disease by eating a bat, to the camps, where canvas tents were turned into quarantines and treatment centres.
Much like the Times relies on text to relay crucial information, Frontline uses its traditional talking heads approach, as if the commentators are faces in clouds. It’s quite odd, but at least keeps crucial information within eyesight.
CNN also employed virtual reality technology to present the Democrat’s second debate in the US primary elections. I haven’t watched it, but (like Stephen Colbert above) I can’t imagine a virtual reality experience of a group of politicians standing behind lecterns added any value to for voters wondering who to vote for.
And it’s not just Colbert who’s a little unimpressed with the entry of virtual reality into the media landscape. Last month, the New Yorker posted a light-hearted but sharp take on the trend. “Why read a magazine with your hands,” a fictional developer asks, “when you could read a magazine with your whole head?”
It’s a little harsh, but the New Yorker has a point. The problem with The Displaced, and other attempts at virtual reality journalism, is that the ‘Wow, look at this’ may actually detract from the stories being told. Maybe we need someone to tell us where to look, to tell us what’s important. Or maybe it’s just that, as a new technology, we’re distracted easily by its novelty and as we get used to it, we’ll become better at consuming it as the news outlets get better at making it.
Stanford University's Virtual Human Interaction Labs is conducting studies that show that fully-immersive virtual reality may be able to help people gain empathy when it comes to race, disabilities, and age. And this is obviously what the Times, and Frontline, and whoever else wants their stories to do too. But can non-immersive virtual reality elicit empathy when the only control the viewer has is where to look, not where to go and how to interact with the narrative?
If virtual reality is the future (and it probably is at least part of the future), it's safe to say it won’t be anything like its current form. Just like it took years to teach people how to watch films without people running out of the cinema, it's going to take some time to learn how to view and process virtual reality. And as we get better at viewing it, we'll also get better at making it. The Displaced will quickly look antiquated. Soon we won't be being told stories, we'll be in them. Virtual reality will be how we learn about other people and other places. We’ll wonder how we ever did without it.