Immersive Journalism

A very prominent application of virtual reality has been immersive journalism the use of VR technologies to represent and communicate the news. I think this is a very interesting application and it is a really good use of VR. So for this post I want to go back to the origins and talk about a paper written in 2010 by Nonny de la Peña who is seen by many as the originator of immersive journalism and has been doing it for several years before the launch of the Oculus Rift in what is thought to be the new current prominence of virtual reality.

The paper presents work that de la Peña did with Mel Slater who if you followed our MOOC you will know that he introduced Sylvia and I to Virtual Reality. It was also in collaboraton with Mel’s wife Mavi Sanchez-Vives and several old friends and collaborators of mine like Doron Friedmann, Bernhard Spanlang and Joan Llobera.

History of Immersion

The paper starts with an overview of previous attempts to make journalism immersive and de la Peña argues that from the beginnings of the 20th century there has been a desire to immerse people in news events potentially going on halfway across the world, beginning with newspaper reporters who are reporting directly from the ground, particularly in wars and conflicts, through to real time television and more recently news games where people can experience events and situations that are happening interactively in a game-like environment. Peña sees all of these as precursors to what she calls immersive journalism the use of virtual reality to allow people to directly experience what it’s like in a situation that is currently in the news.

Virtual Guantánamo Bay

Importantly, this wasn’t simply an environment where participants could see and look on to what what was happening but did they directly experienced it as one of the prisoners in Guantánamo Bay. On initially entering the environment they looked on and saw a prisoner sitting in what was called a stress position, an uncomfortable position that prisoners were forced to adopt for long periods of time. Shortly after the start of the experience their perspective changed and they inhabited the body of a prisoner experiencing the rest of the situation from that perspective. As well as being in the small cell in a stress position participants, could hear sounds and voices of what appeared to be a harsh interrogation happening in the next room.

So this scenario really holds a lot of what we think of as immersive journalism. Rather than being an onlooker or somebody secretly reading the news it allows the audience to experience from a firsthand perspective what it would be like to be in that situation. And this is an important part of the power of this scenario.

First person embodiment

Two important themes are highlighted in the paper. One is this first person perspective. The participants were experiencing things from the first point of view of a prisoner and they they were embodied in that prison. If you followed our MOOC or are familiar with VR you’ll know about the embodiment illusion, the feeling of being in another body while in VR and de la Peña’s scenario made good use of this to make participants really feel that they were they were that prisoner. And in fact many of those participants reported that they felt uncomfortable being in that stress position despite the fact that they were sitting in a perfectly normal, comfortable, upright position They had sufficient sense of embodiment in that person to feel that the stress, or at least some of the stress, of that situation.

This embodiment in first person perspective is often lacking in immersive journalism. What is now considered the classic, Clouds Over Sidra by Gabo Arora and Chris Milk, though a fantastic 360 video experience and rightly praised takes quite a disembodied perspective. You are not a participant in the events being shown. You’re simply a watcher. You may be a watcher that has a position in those environments, and one of the most interesting parts of Clouds Over Sidra is one of when one of the children makes eye contact with you. But you’re nonetheless, simply yourself not somebody who is directly part of the refugee camp being portrayed.

So I think that de la Peña’s work shows the importance and the power of embodiment illusion as well as other facets of VR to really to really bring home the power of immersion in journalism. (To be fair new generations of 3D graphics based immersive journalism like 6x9 by the Guardian, do have the potential more embodiment).

Real, Virtual and Fake

Near the end of the paper de la Peña discusses the question of whether immersive journalism is real or faithful and whether it can be used to fool or fake people into believing things things that are untrue.

De la Peña’s VR experience was closely based on eyewitness reports and transcripts of the happenings in Guantánamo Bay. And as a journalist de la Peña aimed at utmost accuracy in its reporting.

However, the scenario used 3D graphics rather than real imagery, and that means that, in a certain sense, it was entirely fictional. It was created by the team doing the work and not a direct representation of what was happening.

While I firmly believe that de la Peña and team were being utterly scrupulous and accurate. That doesn’t mean they would not be possible to create fake immersive scenarios that misrepresent perhaps in a deliberate attempt to mislead people or for propaganda purposes.

And this is an important worry. Anything that uses 3D graphics may seem less real than something using video ,which is one of the advantages of using 360 video for journalism, even though it may be less immersive and not truly capture the first person embodyment experience that I talked about above.

However, de la Peña points out that videos and photographs themselves are increasingly unreliable sources. From the very beginning of photography and films it has been possible to take images out of context, to pose images so that they appear to be real life situations, and in other ways use images that are that appear real but are misleading. With the advent of Photoshop the ability to doctor and alter images is has become increasingly easy and therefore images themselves are less reliable as sources of truth in journalism.

This is only been accelerated since the time the paper was written because of such things as fake news and perhaps more worryingly the deep fakes phenomenon, where powerful new networks are able to change the appearance of somebody in a video in a way that’s unnoticeable. For example, a famous personality or politician can be shown in video saying or doing things that they never did.

So with all these phenomena is unwise to think of video as a source of reliable truth anymore. And one of the biggest worries is that it will take a long people time for the general public to realise this. So in this new world of journalism the fact that 3D graphics VR experiences are not direct representations of reality does not make it much worse than video or photographs.

Summing up

So these are a couple of the issues that I picked out of Nonny del la Peña’s paper: the importance or at least power of embodiment in the first person perspective, that’s often a little lacking in contemporary immersive journalism, and the worries about whether the use of 3D graphics in journalism is a way of creating fake experiences, which is undoubtedly true though perhaps no less true than contemporary video.

I think this is a really important paper and a fascinating for anyone who’s interested in immersive journalism. It’s impressive that eight years since this work was produced, and apart from the journalistic setting of the work, it seems utterly contemporary and up to date. All the issues that she’s talking about are really only starting to be explored now in the mainstream. So I’m deeply impressed by de la Peña’s work. She is a very important person in the field and someone that you should definitely follow if you’re interested in immersive journalism.

The paper is available here, if you have access to MIT journals.

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