ROBERT HERNANDEZ:Im a captive audience in this immersive world. You got my attention. Dont squander it.
WHAT HAPPENS NEXT: FUTURE OF FACT
TEXT ON SCREEN: A COLLABORATION BY QUARTZ AND RETRO REPORT
ARCHIVAL (CLIP FROM THE JOURNEY, 2016):Welcome. Suit up sequence initiated. Biometric signatures required.
NARRATION: Virtual and augmented reality platforms are sweeping the world of gaming. There are games that go deep and create richly immersive virtual worlds. And there are games that go wide, augmenting the real world and making the game appear anywhere you go.
In 2016 alone, about $2.3 billion in investment poured into companies working on virtual and augmented reality platforms. For some, its a bet that the technology is poised to cross the threshold from toy to tool.
Turning the world into a screen may sound like a dystopia to some.
ARCHIVAL (CLIP FROM READY PLAYER ONE, 2018):They called our generation the missing millions.
NARRATION: But backers of the technology say there could be something irresistible in a device that displays facts you need to know, right when you need to know them, right before your eyes.
KEN PERLIN (FUTURE REALITY LAB DIRECTOR, NEW YORK UNIVERSITY): So many things that we now have anxiety around about our interaction with the physical world, will just stop being an issue. Youre at a water park and you dont know where your child is. With a wearable device you can see them through buildings, through anywhere, theyre over here, theyre over there.
NARRATION: And what about more complex facts? Some journalists say immersive storytelling could be a powerful way to capture attention of news audiences so they dont just think about events, but experience them.
ROBERT HERNANDEZ (DIGITAL JOURNALISM PROFESSOR, UNIVERSITY OF SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA): How am I going to stay relevant and get you to care about stories that are on the other side of the world, that youve started to block out? I look at these immersive storytelling platforms as the next step in the evolution of journalism.
NARRATION: One of the most straightforward methods simply allows viewers to look around.
ARCHIVAL (VIRTUAL REALITY, THE FIGHT FOR FALLUJA, 2016):On a rooftop above Falluja, an Iraqi sniper takes careful aim at an ISIS soldier.
NARRATION: When the New York Times Ben Solomon rode along with Iraqi special forces liberating Falluja in 2016, he took a 360 degree camera. The result was a mix of war reporting that youd see on TV, alongside moments of something unmistakably new.
ARCHIVAL (VIRTUAL REALITY, THE FIGHT FOR FALLUJA, 2016):These are the cells where ISIS would hold their prisoners.
NARRATION: As the door shuts, the freedom to direct your own gaze emphasizes the confinement of the space in way that a fixed perspective just cant. The fact here is something you feel.
NONNY DE LA PEA (FOUNDER & CEO, EMBLEMATIC GROUP): So, as a journalist, youre always trying to give people what Martha Gellhorn called the view from the ground. But, with virtual reality now, Im asking my audience to do something much more intense. Im asking them to be on scene, to take me out of the picture and become the witness themselves.
NARRATION: Nonny de la Pea and her collaborators are going further than 360 video, creating densely-researched projects that let viewers explore a street bombed in Syria, or fly above a melting glacier in Greenland.
NONNY DE LA PEA: We used Google Maps. We used photographs. We used video. Were very thorough and very careful to use the real source material to inform what we build.
NARRATION: All that material helps recreate experiences like this one with Frontline which takes viewers inside a solitary confinement cell, alongside a man who spent years living in one.
ARCHIVAL (VIRTUAL REALITY, AFTER SOLITARY, 2017):So, you know, I would, take blood and I would write messages all over my cell, you know, help me.
NONNY DE LA PEA:The screen disappears. Youre no longer separated from the material that youre looking at. Youre inside the story, and that gives an incredible feeling of presence, a feeling like your whole bodys on scene and youre witnessing an event as it really unfolds around you.
ARCHIVAL (VIRTUAL REALITY, AFTER SOLITARY, 2017):I cut myself thousands of times, just over and over and over and over.
NARRATION: This immersive project created by conflict photographer Karim Ben Kehlifa is even more interactive. It draws on interviews with fighters on opposite sides of conflicts in Israel and Palestine, El Salvador, and the Democratic Republic of Congo.
ARCHIVAL (VIRTUAL REALITY, THE ENEMY, 2017):Those who attacked us killed my mother and my father right before my eyes.
NARRATION: The project called The Enemy transforms the source material into digital avatars of each man. They can appear in an entirely virtual space, or inside your living room with the aid of a phone. It doesnt feel seamlessly real, but its still gripping to share their space, and listen to them as their eyes follow you around the room.
KARIM BEN KHELIFA: When you listen to those fighters, realize what theyve been through, how much hope they still have. How much humanity they still carry. When people go in, they know those fighters exist. They even have a memory of having met those fighters once they come out from there. And I can see that some people are very emotional when they leave this, this experience.
NARRATION: But some critics worry that more emotion may be the last thing we need in news.
Today, faith in the press has eroded at the same time new platforms enable new ways to push our buttons, with fake news stories, videos that can make anyone say anything and outlets that whip up feelings to reinforce particular points of view.
ROBERT HERNANDEZ: If a fake Facebook post, can trick you now, imagine what an immersive storytelling piece could do to you, right?
MARY POOVEY (AUTHOR, A HISTORY OF THE MODERN FACT): The moment at which our bodies and our minds really believe we are someplace else, that is an experience that really threatens deliberation and judgment.
KEN PERLIN: One bad scenario is everything becomes even more about confirmation bias and people will just completely disconnect from anybody who doesnt already agree with them.
MARY POOVEY: If we are using media to create multiple and competing social realities then we are imperiling the future of what counts as a fact.
NARRATION: Whether youre talking about screens that replaces reality entirely, or ones that simply augment what youre seeing everywhere. What feels new here is the degree to which this form of communication could short-circuit judgment by getting right in your face. Yet there are precedents for this.
TIM WU (AUTHOR, THE ATTENTION MERCHANTS): There are certain things that have a particular ability to capture our attention and, you know, today thats the screen, but a first iteration was the poster. The poster when it came out was a sensation, especially in the late 19th century in France where they started using bright colors, moving images, sexy women. People were astonished, they couldnt believe this thing. They said, you know, it controls the mind, its out of control. Theres still pretty strenuous laws, even in New York City, as to where you can have posters. Thats why there arent that many eye level posters in New York. You may not realize that, theyre usually up. Its because they banned posters being right in your face at all times.
NONNY DE LA PEA: People worry that, that if were giving people an embodied experience, that its a subjective experience, and it cant have the transparency and authenticity that journalism has before it. VR will be used for propaganda. It will be used badly for journalism. Itll be used for incredible films. But thats always going to be about whos the maker. And, its not about the medium.
NARRATION: And that could mean that the best defense we have against manipulated facts on immersive platforms may well be the same non-technological defenses weve been using all along.
ROBERT HERNANDEZ: When misinformation comes, journalists need to be there to be like, Okay. You know me. You know me. You can trust me. You know my track record. You know my credibility. You know my history. You know my values and what I stand for. That is fake. That is real.
TIM WU: Every information technology comes with this twin possibility of greater education and information, but greater capacity to manipulate and deceive.
NARRATION: The technology it takes to seize peoples attention and make them pay attention to facts has always been a double-edged sword. And it seems every eras next layer of innovation ends up making that sword a little bit bigger.
TIM WU: So, you know, once upon a time the persuaders were basically out on the street, in posters, maybe the town crier. Then it slowly moved into the house, that was radio and the television. Then it came closer to us with the phone and the computer screen. Now, the future is one where maybe its all over your body, even close to your eyeballs, maybe, plugged into your brain, you know? So its getting closer and closer and closer to us.
NONNY DE LA PEA: So where is the future of fact in this medium? Were just barely getting a glimpse of what its going to look like.