While cinema offers an optical illusion of movement, Virtual Reality offers a new generation of illusion - a powerful sense of being there within a scene. By offering novel forms of witnessing enabled by 360 degree perspectives, and new interactions of sensory engagement with media which reflects our shared world, virtual reality may have significant potential to inform public debate.
Funded by the UK EPSRC, Virtual Realities - Immersive Documentary Encounters is a collaborative research project that seeks to examine the production and user experience of non-fiction virtual reality content. Through a process of investigation, dialogue, and shared findings, researchers from human-computer interaction, psychology and documentary studies will work alongside internationally recognised creative industry collaborators to support the development of this new production sector, keeping the interests of audience and subjects to the fore.
Leading international content producers will share their approaches to storytelling in this new 360 medium. The project will document where non-fiction VR production has come from, where the current state of the art lies and how technology and creative form are developing. It will evaluate how non-fiction VR content is experienced across multiple platforms, comparing these with 2D and 3D experiences delivered without headsets.
The project will investigate engagement, attention, understanding and emotional reaction to immersive non-fiction media content with carefully selected audience groups - who we will follow from their first encounter with VR.
Dr Kirsten Cater is a Reader in Computer Science at the University of Bristol, specialising in Human Computer Interaction and Tangible User Interfaces.Homepage
Danaë is a Professor in Psychology at the University of Bath and Director of the CREATE Lab.Homepage
Dr Chris Bevan is a Research Associate in Computer Science at the University of Bristol, specialising in Human Computer Interaction and human-centred design.Homepage
Dr. Harry Farmer is a Research Associate at the University of Bath CREATE lab.
Helen Brown is a psychology PhD student at the University of Bath. Her research is exploring emotional and physiological responses to virtual reality encounters.
In an article in the first edition of the online journal, World Records, edited by Jason Fox, Mandy Rose surveys the contemporary nonfiction work being developed within the framework of VR, and explores the opposition between the promise of VR as escape from materiality and a promise of corporeal engagement. She makes the case that VR nonfiction reflects divergent currents, engaging “technologies of seeing” with a lineage going back to the Renaissance while introducing novel “technologies of corporeality”, and asks what is at stake for documentary epistemology in these developments.
In Jan/Feb 2018 we conducted an opinion survey with 30 leading producers, curators and directors of VR non-fiction (VRNF) to identify key priorities for our audience studies (planned for Spring/Summer 2018). We asked eight open-ended questions about aspects of past, present and future audiences for VRNF.
The survey findings suggest a shared aim to connect VRNF with audiences beyond the ‘tech curious’ and the ‘educated minority’. Respondents identified inhibiting factors like affordability (of hardware) and accessibility (of content), as well as cultural factors relating to perceptions of who VR is ‘for’.
We asked respondents how we should refer to audiences of VRNF. This divided opinions. Terms such as ‘user’, ‘participant’, viewer’, and ‘visitor’ were suggested alongside newer terms such as ‘immersant’, ‘experiencer’ and ‘interactor’; some rejected the idea that a single term is desirable or necessary.
We asked participants to name three works that had made a specific contribution to the field. Notes on Blindness: Into Darkness was (by far) the most frequently acknowledged, followed by Clouds of Sidra and Assent in second and third place respectively.
We received various interpretations of the future potential for VRNF, from “the magic wearing off” to “everyone filming 360”. Some anticipate VR/AR/MR/XR convergence and others more “embodied”, “multisensory” experiences. Ideas for future research included: business models; information recall; persuasiveness; facilitating “human connections”; integration with other sensory stimuli; reaching audiences in other parts of the world, and creating social impact.
Our analysis of the survey findings suggests four areas of potential focus for our audience research:
The current evolution of the Mediography provides analytics for 120+ non-fiction documentary VR pieces, including their source, duration, production, direction and theme.
Through an interactive timeline, the Mediography shows how non-fiction documentary VR is developing as a medium, identifying who the leading directors of this new content form are, who they work with, and where they are presenting their work.
The Mediography is currently under active development, and will continue to grow in scope and functionality as the project progresses. Please do send drop us a line at firstname.lastname@example.org with any comments or feedback.
Our first project workshop What do we need to know? will be held on Friday 19th January at the Watershed Cinema, Bristol.
What do we need to know? is the first of four workshops to be held over the course of the project, providing a framework through which partners and stakeholders can co-design the research.
The workshop will introduce the project and stage a dialogue about what immersive non-fiction VR content experiences mean to audiences. We will be sharing our objectives, research questions and initial findings, including an emergent mapping of the field to date, and workshopping areas for investigation. The findings of the workshop will inform the audience study and commissioning of three new pieces of VR work.
Over 50 delegates have signed up for the workshop - a mix of creative industry and academics - ensuring we have a balanced discussion from a range of voices, backgrounds and interests.
We are delighted to announce four guest speakers for the workshop:
Dan Archer is a thought leader in the VR/AR/interactive storytelling space and founded Empathetic Media in 2015. He is a 2016 fellow at the Tow Center at Columbia University and was a Reynolds Journalism Institute Fellow (University of Missouri, 2014) and a Knight Journalism Fellow at Stanford University (2011).
Jane Gauntlett is a writer for film and theatre. In 2011, Jane founded the internationally recognised empathy project In My Shoes. In My Shoes is an ever-expanding collection of first-person documentary style interactive performances, which guide participants through the beautiful, the challenging, the mundane and the surreal aspects of being human.
Dr Kate Nash is Associate Professor of Media and Communication in the School of Media and Communication at the University of Leeds. Her research focuses on the intersections between documentary culture and emerging media platforms and practices.
Chris Anderson is Professor of Media and Communication at the University of Leeds. Chris studies journalism, politics, and how the production of public knowledge is being transformed in the digital age.