This project explores the application of Virtual Reality (VR) technology to documentary content. Thirty years since the term virtual reality was coined, and nearly fifty years since Ivan Sutherland's first experiments with a "head mounted three dimensional display", developments in hardware and software now make VR viable as a mass-market consumer proposition, and 2016 sees a variety of devices coming to market. While cinema offers an optical illusion of movement, 360 experiences offer a new generation of illusion - a powerful sense of "being there" within the scene portrayed known as presence. To date, consumer VR has been associated with gaming. However, the potential audience appeal promised by presence has led to considerable interest in the video market - notably among producers of non-fiction content. 2015 saw VR projects commissioned by the New York Times, Vice News and the UN for example, the latter winning the Innovation Award at the Sheffield DocFest - one of the world's major non-fiction markets.
We hypothesise that Virtual Reality documentary has significant potential to inform public debate - offering new directions and in particular novel forms of witnessing enabled by 360 perspectives, but that the powerful sense of presence offered by immersion also gives rise to ethical challenges; does the feeling of "being there" offer genuine insight or a new form of voyeurism? do unmanned 360 camera rigs feel like surveillance to subjects? a user in an immersive headset experience is likely to be paying attention to the world depicted, but what does that mean for their presence where they are standing?
The project will approach these questions through six case studies created by industry partners - examining production and user experience. Producers will share their approaches to storytelling in this new 360 medium. With an audience group who we will follow from their first exposure to VR, we will investigate engagement, attention, understanding and emotional reaction, as experienced on contrasting VR platforms, and compare these with 2D and 3D experiences delivered without headsets. The first three case studies will address the theme of migration - one of the big global challenges that has been a notable subject of VR non-fiction to date.
The research will explore the implications of exposure to powerful documentary content within immersive experiences, probe issues around isolation and sociality that relate to the use of headsets. The project will also consider the point-of-view of the subjects of media, asking for example whether particular issues around privacy arise in the context of 3D filming and immersive display. Drawing on findings from the case studies, and from workshops with industry and community partners, we will define key themes which will be explored in the production of three path finding prototypes. These will illustrate research findings and suggest future directions for Virtual Reality documentary.
Producers are eager to engage with the potentials of VR documentary, but face challenges around language, technology and audience insight. Through a process of investigation, dialogue, and shared findings, the research will stage a timely engagement with this emerging medium, supporting the development of this new production sector, while keeping the interest of audience and subjects to the fore.