I look down from the clear blue sky and gently swaying pines and am suddenly privy to the domestic turmoil unfolding within a tidy white trailer in a grassy South Carolina suburb. Earlier this morning, Kiya Lawson arrived home from work to find Peter Centil Williams, the father of her youngest son, waiting for her. Kiya broke up with Centil months before, and he was not welcome.
Unable to get him to leave, Kiya calls her sisters, Toni and Niki. Standing outside Kiya’s trailer, I watch them pull up, and follow them inside. Toni already has the police on the phone, who listen as Kiya heatedly reiterates to Centil—standing uncomfortably close to her—that she wants nothing to do with him.
“He’s mad because I don’t want to be with him!” she yells. “He don’t treat me right!”
Centil, however, does not budge.
That’s when we spot the gun.
Centil has a revolver. I get goosebumps on my arms as Kiya’s sisters implore Centil to think about what he is doing—to remember that he has a son.
Just then, Centil, who has been quiet until now, looks out of the window and spots a police car. “Get out of the house now!” he bellows at the sisters and me, grabbing Kiya and pushing the gun against her body. “Get off of me!” we hear her yell as Toni, Niki, and I run outside, leaving Kiya in the trailer with Centil.
Moments later, a gunshot rings out, and then another. Screaming, Toni and Niki collapse in despair: “He shot my sister! My sister!”
I reach up and shakily remove the Samsung Gear VR headset. As though emerging from a vivid nightmare, I am abruptly back in Manhattan, blinking against the bright summer light streaming into an airy third-floor apartment, where I’m seated on the edge of a chaise lounge. Yet I cannot escape the feeling that, seconds earlier, I was in South Carolina, witnessing the moment of Kiya Lawson’s death, and sharing the grief of her sisters as if it were my own. I swallow, trying to resist an urge to cry.
This was my first experience with immersive journalism, a new form of storytelling that uses virtual reality to insert viewers directly into the scene. Examples include a bombing in Syria, a man collapsing from hunger on the streets of Los Angeles, and the shooting of Trayvon Martin. They use intimate, true-life reporting to illustrate big-picture problems such as police brutality, overstrained food banks, refugee crises, and—in Kiya’s case—the fact that every day in this country three women are killed by their boyfriends or husbands.
“Immersive journalism allows you to put an audience on scene as an event unfolds,” says Nonny de la Peña, CEO of the Emblematic Group, a virtual-reality company that engineered the Kiya Lawson story. “It creates an incredible sense of presence that allows people to connect to stories in a way that makes them feel that they are actually there.”
Indeed, I am hardly alone in my strong reaction to this new method of presenting the news. Many participants emerge from the VR world deeply shaken. “I felt I was stifling a scream,” one participant wrote in a comment book at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, where de la Peña recently demoed “Project Syria.” Another visitor to the exhibit said the piece had made her consider the reality of life in Syria and other war-torn countries much more deeply, and that it was “definitely a more thoughtful experience than watching the news.” One 60-year-old woman, unable to catch her breath during the Syria broadcast, asked for the headset to be removed midway through.
Immersive journalism’s effectiveness results from the way it hijacks our sensory systems, blocking out all other input and tricking our minds into processing what we are seeing and hearing as though it were actually happening. “VR gives you what I like to call ‘experience on demand,’” says Jeremy Bailenson, founding director of Stanford University’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab. “Think of the most transformational, important moments that have made you who you are. In VR that happens with a touch of a button.”
Virtual storytelling’s greatest asset is likely its ability to create a shortcut to empathy due to the way it fools our brain into believing we are actually witnessing an event. When done well, Bailenson says, it can provide a transformative and potentially mind-changing experience, from observing the effects of ocean acidification first-hand to standing on a rooftop as Hurricane Katrina’s floodwaters rise.
“The Katrina video was not about getting facts across,” Bailenson says. “It was about putting someone in that situation and allowing them to get an experience that causes empathy.”
In experiments, Bailenson and his colleagues have found that virtual reality’s effects on empathy last longer than those produced by watching a standard video.
As de la Peña says: “I want to tell stories that get people to care. I want to make the invisible visible.” In 2012, she exhibited her first immersive journalism project, “Hunger in Los Angeles,” at the Sundance Film Festival. Her work has since been featured in the Tribeca Film Festival and at conferences and museums from Colombia to Russia. More significantly, the projects have inspired real social outcomes. Her film about Syrian refugee camps raised over $20,000 in donations, while “Use of Force,” a film about an undocumented immigrant who was beaten to death by United States Border Patrol officers, put that largely ignored story on the public radar.
The pieces take as little as three weeks or as long as five months to make. Once the Emblematic Group settles on an idea, they either source content directly from the field or adapt what is already available. “Kiya,” for example, contains real audio from her sisters’ calls to the police, and the visuals are based on crime scene photos and interviews.
This new form of storytelling could provide the ultimate form of narrative transportation—the sense, which all good storytellers strive to achieve, of entering and getting lost in a different world—says Jonathan Gottschall, a distinguished fellow in the English department at Washington & Jefferson College.
“Good storytelling makes you feel as though you have been transported into an alternative world, into a convincing virtual reality that the storyteller has constructed within your mind using great craft,” he says. “But now we have an actual VR world that people can enter into to experience stories.”
Immersive journalism opens a portal to a more compelling storyland than any other medium can offer; call it a potential empathy bridge. As Gottschall explains, the bridge works because research confirms what most of us know from experience: Stories are remarkably effective at changing people’s behavior and leaving a lasting moral impression. Indeed, had I merely read about Kiya’s death, I might have been saddened or outraged. But I would not look back on her story as though it were my own, nor recall what felt like a direct personal experience each time I see a new headline about gun violence in the U.S. In that sense, immersive journalism has already proven a deeply unsettling success.
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