On November 29th 2019, an interdisciplinary group of over thirty UK researchers, VR documentary producers, immersive media curators and immersive policy leads came together in the Council Chamber at BBC Broadcasting House, London for our final project workshop. Watched over by portraits of the BBC’s Director Generals, we spent the day thinking about the ethics of VR nonfiction.
The day began with a framing presentation by Virtual Realities Co-Investigator Mandy Rose. She discussed how looking at the triad of producer, subject and audience at the heart of social documentary can provide a way to tease open the ethical challenges and tensions that are implicit within those relationships. These include questions about how power is negotiated between producers and subjects – who gets to decide what story is told, for example, and what expectations subjects have in relation to appearing in the media; questions about producers’ responsibilities around content - the veracity of the image, for example; and issues bearing on audience experience regarding point-of-view and persuasion. The Virtual Reality platform then opens up another set of ethical questions relating to the nature (and power) of immersion, to the personal data that can be captured in virtual environments, to biases that might arise in designing VR experiences. Here, Michael Madary & Tomas Metzinger’s First Code of VR Ethics (2016) provides an unmatched resource.
The workshop was designed to inform the research team in devising a set of questions that VR nonfiction producers might look to in the development process, to alert them to ethical concerns at the design stage of VR nonfiction projects. In two workshop sessions, attendees drew on diverse research interests and experiences - from neuroscience, ethics, computer science, experimental psychology, media history, as well as policy and practitioner perspectives – to identify issues and areas of concern, and start to articulate those as questions. From the responsibilities of producers to commissioners, to expectations of VR documentary subjects, to duty of care for participants; the breakout groups mapped the territory that advice to producers in this area would need to cover. Next step – the research team will analyse that data and develop guidelines to share with creative industry. During that process we’ll go back to those who attended in November to sense check our proposals. It was extraordinary having such a range of knowledge and understandings in the room, and those diverse perspectives were crucial to this piece of work. We’re grateful to everyone who attended.