Last week I attended a QnA with BBC broadcaster Nick Garnett, who discussed his recent experiments in mobile journalism. Over the past 12 months Nick has reported from every major news scene – Tunisia, Paris, Calais, Nepal – often using nothing more than his smartphone, a few apps and accessories. When asked to speculate on the future he was very enthusiastic about virtual reality. Imagine a world of more immersive storytelling, he said, where broadcasters could mic up different people and collect several points of view on location.
To illustrate his point Garnett mentioned Vrse, a platform and app co-founded by director Chris Milk and former Google Data Arts lead Aaron Koblin. Vrse has been a pioneer in this field tackling big news stories such as immigration, ebola and the conflict in Syria, as well as producing arts feature collaborations with the New York Times.
War has driven 30 million children from their homes. These are the stories of three of them
In Gaza, foundations are built, destroyed, and built again. This virtual reality experience follows the struggle and strength of a mother coping with the death of her two children
Milk famously coined the phrase “The Empathy Machine” to describe the key benefit of this 360-degree technology. He is so convinced by the power of the medium that he envisages a day where the user becomes a character in their own story, effectively cutting out the middle man in journalism. Critics question how connected spectators can really be, equating the experience to a dream or “a feeling of dislocation”.
Nevertheless excitement is spreading within several sectors, from gaming, education, tourism and charity to mobile technology and even healthcare. That’s right, there are also altruistic benefits to virtual reality, not least making the existing world more accessible to the elderly according to the Wall Street Journal. A basic practical benefit of this technology, says Ben Kuchera at Polygon, is that virtual reality destroys the idea of an arbitrary screen.” He explains: “It's that ability to display whatever I want, in whatever size, shape and placement I prefer, that has me the most excited about virtual reality.”
But let’s focus on journalism for a moment. I’m not convinced. Yet. Having walked through a few Vrse films I find the interface to be a barrier, or burden, rather than a portal to a story. A great reporter, with the aid of a good production team, can transport us to the scene of the crime or incident and give invaluable context. They make meaning, not us. As a viewer I feel more receptive when I surrender control. Brian Eno has spoken quite eloquently about this phenomenon in the context of music. Digital artist Jonathan Harris, whose work I have covered before, tweeted recently:
The human body is the ultimate virtual reality machine. Why bother with anything else?— Jonathan Harris (@jjhnumber27) March 18, 2016
And that’s the point, isn’t it? Empathy ultimately comes from within and a 360-degree view of a war zone isn’t likely to change that. A bigger picture doesn’t equal the full picture. Besides, as one person commenting on this TED talk remarked: “Is the generation of empathy the purpose of news?”
The cynic in me feels this is a ploy to generate buzz around a new technology – see 3D. The promise of deeper engagement obviously has brands and marketers salivating. Make up your own mind, though. We are well past the one-size-fits-all news distribution model so if virtual reality brings you closer to the truth then best find a headset that's comfortable. You may be wearing it for a while.