Immersive Memory Spaces

By Laura Calçada i Barres and Carlos Serrano

A scene of The Room of Never Again/Photo: Dan Archer

Dan Archer is British journalist based in New York City, he is the founder Empathetic Media, a production studio specialized in developing immersive experience using virtual reality, augmented reality, 360º video and graphic journalism.

His work has been featured in several media outlets, including BBC, The Washington Post and Wired.

During the last two years he as been working on stories about the Colombian armed conflict, a 50 year confrontation between guerrilla, paramilitar and army that has left more than eight million victims victims.

Last year, Colombian government and FARC, the biggest guerrilla in the country, made a peace agreement, an historical event in the country. Archer has been closely following this process, with a particular focus on the victims: how are they recovering, how they deal with painful memories, how they try to reconcile with their victimizer.

This is a very complex reality and Archer took it as an opportunity to tell stories in a way that they create a closer relationship with the user. His purpose was to “show an intimate perspective on what is like and the different aspects the conflict has taken place”, as he explains.

That’s why during the last 6 months he has been showing the project The Room of Never Again, a series of immersive experiences that has been exhibit in several museums and “memory houses” in Colombia.

The project has two main components. The first is a series of virtual reality experiences recreating “memory houses”, which are community spaces where victimis gathers to mourn those who died during the conflict. The user can see and listen to real people and avatars who tell their personal stories. The viewer can also interact with virtual personal objects, photos and souvenirs of the characters of the story. The second element of the exhibition was a set of virtual videos featuring survivor testimonies from different regions of Colombia.

“The story of Gerardo”, onf of the 360º videos included on The Room of Never Again.

Archer was a pioneer using immersive storytelling to talk about Colombian conflict. “ It reframes the way you understand and experience the conflict,” said Archer. “When you are telling these stories through a new medium it can be hard to people to distance themselves from the technology and focus purely on the narrative.”

The Room of Never Again has three target audiences. The first is people that does not have access to memory houses; the second is for people that want to understand the conflict but need an entry point; and the third is for this younger people who are not necessarily engaged with the topic because they don’t find it relevant.

A Colombian girl living The Room of Never Again experience/Photo: Dan Archer

Archer also partnered with El Tiempo, the most important newspaper in Colombia, to publish the videos. This partnership gave the project a great spotlight in the mainstream media. The project had also good reviews in other national media outlets like El Espectador, that described it as an “almost a synesthetic experience”.

On a more grassroots level, Archer partnered with local NGO to organize socialization workshops when they he teached comics and 360º storytelling to encourage participants to continue sharing their stories. As part of this workshops they created La Paz en 360º, a Facebook page where they have been sharing some of their work.

Ethical Issues

Dan told us that there was a woman in Cocorná who was describing how she worked at a school and the paramilitaries left a number of bodies at the school gates to intimidate the children. The last thing that Dan and his team wanted was to retraumatized or put people in a sort of an uncomfortable position. For them it was paramount to represent the stories in a way that the survivors felt was suitable and does the story justice.

In general, the ethical precautions were related to avoid “revictimization” and exposing people to scenes that could cause them more pain just fo the sake of being realistic.

This project is pioneer using immersive storytelling to cover the Colombian conflict. The conflict and the peace agreement is arguably the most important event in Colombia’s recent history and none of the local and national media outlets were exploring these technologies and narratives to tell and explains these events.

This new kind of coverage aims more to create a committed conversation rather than just tell a story. As Archer explains: “The whole idea around the project was that it had a more restorative focus that is wasn’t just a traditional unidirectional lets just report, take the stories away and disappear kind of project. I think the only way the project can truly advance is by establishing more conversation and dialogue and by encouraging reconciliation between the different parties involved.”

People scanning drawings by Dan Archer in order to watch the 360º videos/Photo: Dan Archer

The Room of Never Again is a good example of how immersive storytelling can go beyond a traditional one way coverage and start thinking in new avenues to engage the audience. It also show that being realistic does not necessarily means to be explicit but to recreate scenes and situations that could rise awareness and foster dialogue to heal wounds.

Virtual Reality is becoming better everyday, so in the future these kind of projects would offer more compelling experiences. On the developer side the production, distribution and installation would be easier, faster and cheaper. Archer showed his exhibition in some remote places in Colombia, where Internet connection is very limited, so he had to deal with several technical issues in order to offer a good experience.

“I wanted to use this technologies in the field. I wanted to make sure that they were not just limited to what I call the white western elites that have first access to new tech, so that’s why I really wanted to put an emphasis on using this in the field, but of course that came with its own challenges,” said Archer.

Archer used immersive technologies to foster diaologue and reconciliation within parties involved in a 50 year conflict/Photo: Dan Archer

Archer thinks that the workflow will get significantly easier when this productions won’t be subject only to installation basis. Also the capture element will be easier, right now there is a huge amount of set-up and preparation (he had to connect 2 scanners with a DSLR and a room scanner and a regular camera). According to Dan, as smartphones become increasingly advanced, it will be easier for that process to be put into practice as well as to share the stories.

As we can see, virtual reality offers endless opportunities for journalism storytelling, despite the technical issues that sooner than later will be solved, they main challenge is to find relevant stories that involve the audience from the early stages of the process and keep them engaged even after the experience.

Keeping strong ethical values and a sense of public service is the key to avoid the technology and fancy visuals catch the attention that should be focused in offering a compelling an useful experience for people who wants new opportunities in life.