Imagine being imprisoned in a solitary confinement cell measuring only 1.82 by 2.74 meters.
Nearly 100,000 Americans are currently confined to this type of space, forgoing human contact for days, sometimes decades, on end.
To capture the experience for their readers, editors at The Guardian newspaper collaborated with producers at The Mill, a virtual reality company, to create 6x9, a virtual reality experience that places viewers inside a virtual segregation cell.
The resulting video is unnerving in its authenticity. Incorporating ambient sound and audio excerpts from interviews with former prisoners, viewers experience what is likely to be the closest encounter with solitary confinement that they will ever have, short of visiting prison themselves.
“It was an incredible experience, I was sweating and my heart was beating really fast and it was really upsetting. I found myself tearing up a little bit. ... It was a very emotional, physical and mental experience,” said Emilia Petrarca, who watched 6x9 at the Tribeca Film Festival’s “Storyscapes” event in New York City.
For journalists, virtual reality is quickly emerging as another tool in their storytelling arsenal.
“It’s about access,” said Francesca Panetta, special projects editor at The Guardian. “This is access to a space and to an environment that you wouldn’t normally have,” she added.
Rather than just watching the action, virtual reality places viewers squarely in the middle of it. News organizations such as The New York Times and USA Today are discovering it’s a powerful medium for storytelling.
“It just opens the door to another level of immersion outside of just traditional filmmaking and just creates another level of sympathy as well, and empathy for the viewer,” said Jared Vladich, visual effects producer at The Mill.
For filmmakers, virtual reality also presents a new way to tackle issues such as police brutality.
In "Perspective 2: The Misdemeanor," viewers experience a violent police confrontation from the perspectives of both cop and civilian.
“You see a heated topic happen from one person’s eyes, sort of build empathy for that character, and then you see it from another person’s eyes,” said Morris May, CEO of Specular Theory, the company behind the film. Filming multiple perspectives required a day’s worth of repeated takes, during which the line between reality and fiction began to blur.
“People thought this accident was actually happening, so we have extras in the film that came by with their cellphones and started filming, not even realizing that this was a film shoot because there’s no camera visible and there’s no film crew visible at all,” May said.
In addition to the tricky mechanics of filming, virtual reality productions can be cost-prohibitive.
The Guardian's Panetta said, “For journalism, it’s quite expensive. So for a newspaper, which is an industry that its financial model is still being questioned, it’s a very expensive medium.”
At The New York Times, editors have found that partnering with advertisers is one way to generate income on virtual reality projects.
“We think there’s a good business here. Virtual reality is a powerful way to tell stories for journalists, but it’s also become a powerful way for brands to tell their stories,” said Sam Dolnick, associate editor at the Times.
The company has partnered with clients like Tag Heuer and Mini to create virtual-reality experiences that target Times readers.
“We think there’s a potential around virtual reality becoming some kind of premium offer, and whether that’s for subscribers, a new paywall, we’re experimenting, we’re thinking about it,” Dolnick added.
The New York Times has given away more than 1 million basic Google Cardboard viewers to subscribers. A recent virtual-reality experience transported viewers to the top of One World Trade Center with National Geographic photographer Jimmy Chin, for breathtaking views of New York City.
While the long-term profitability of virtual reality remains to be seen, the new medium has journalists and filmmakers pushing the boundaries of storytelling.