The following storytelling experiences, implemented in 360 video or virtual reality, demonstrate the potential of spatial media storytelling and continue to resonate for me. The affordances of 360 video and virtual reality challenge storytellers to put the participant in the role of the protagonist, challenging the fundamental codes and conventions of narrative in documentary, journalistic, and fictional forms.
Notes on Blindness
I referred to Notes on Blindness (Arnaud Colinart and Amaury LaBurth, 2016) as “the first eloquent use of the medium I’ve experienced first-hand” when I first saw back when it first made the rounds of the festival and conference circuit. It’s based on the audio diaries of John Hull, a writer who gradually lost his sight and documented his experience using an audio cassette recorder. The work was produced for Samsung Gear VR using Unity by creative directors Arnaud Colinart and Amaury LaBurth as a companion to the feature-length documentary film Notes on Blindness (Peter Middleton and James Spinney, 2016). The VR experience uses a different visual language than the film that works well given the resolution limitations of Gear VR manifests as the “screen door” effect. This is one of the better VR works we’ve seen in terms of both storytelling and an experience that is designed to work well given the limitations and affordances of current technology platforms. Available for the Samsung Gear VR and may also be seen with Cardboard with an iOS or Android phone. While it can be experienced with a cardboard viewer, the experience is far more compelling with a hands-free headset (e.g. Gear VR) and good headphones. Remains to this day one of the best examples of working with the limitations of the medium: the graphics meld well with the screen door effect and the story places you in a position that is coherent with the structure and delivery of the story. Excellent writing remains the core element of any storytelling experience, regardless of the technology being used.
Traveling While Black
The Green Book was a critical guide for African-Americans struggling to travel safely in the United States during the Jim Crow era. Traveling While Black (Roger Ross Williams, 2019) is a 360-degree video explores its complicated legacy and makes excellent use of your ability to look around as the story unfolds. In one particularly effective scene, you can change your gaze to look at the past and present, an impactful use of 360 storytelling. The experience works best in a dedicated headset with good headphones.
A Mind at War
A Mind at War (Sutu, 2018) is a room-scale first-person virtual reality documentary that takes you through a series of paintings (beautifully drawn by Sutu using Tiltbrush) that depict the memories of the Iraq War veteran Scott England before, during, and after his experience of war. He was not equipped to deal with the trauma he was exposed to and became a victim of PTSD. Each chapter of the work is narrated by England, encouraging you to step into his darkness and follow along with his memories. The work is effective in raising awareness of the mental health struggles many veterans and active military members go through. Requires an HTC Vive or similar room-scale setup. Excellent sound design and editing
The Day the Earth Changed
The Day the Earth Changed (Gabo Arora, Saschka Unseld, 2018)is a room-scale VR installation that places participants in the midst of history and commemoration of the victims and survivors of atomic bombings and nuclear arms testing through first-hand testimonies. See This New Virtual Reality Experience Drops You In Hiroshima Right After It’s Been Bombed and Interview with Gabo Arora, co-creator of The Day the World Changed for more about this work.
First Impressions (The Guardian, 2017)is based on cutting-edge research in neural development and color vision in infants that places you in the world from an infant’s point of view during the first six months of life, can be seen with Google Cardboard or Daydream, good headphones are recommended. This is one of my favorite 360 documentaries to date as it is a particularly good example of putting the documentary viewer in the role of the protagonist of the story in a journalistic/documentary context.
The Joy of Frogs
The Joy of Frogs (The Guardian, 2018) makes good use of the affordances of the medium while retaining compatibility with the flat presentation version. Every spring, ponds around the UK start stirring and frogs come out of their winter slumber to mate, and this video gives you a unique perspective on this story that’s as old as time itself. A lot of fun to watch, and it puts me in a specific position at a particular time and place that makes a lot of sense, providing a value-added experience that the flat presentation lacks.
Four Feet: Blind Date
Anxious to explore her sexuality, Juana, an 18-year-old woman in a wheelchair, overcomes her fears, doubts, and an inaccessible city to meet ‘Felipe’ for a blind date. Together they discover how their bodies feel. Four Feet: Blind Date (Maria Belen Poncio, 2018, 19 min) stands out because of its excellent writing and storytelling-relevant use of point of view and how your gaze is guided throughout the experience as you are invited into Juana’s world from a perspective closer to her own.
6 x 9
6 x 9 (The Guardian, 2016) was The Guardian’s first 360° documentary (at Sheffield Doc/Fest you were led into a 6 x 9 cell to watch it) that places you inside a cell measuring 6×9 feet and tells the story of the psychological damage that can result from the isolation of solitary confinement. While it can be experienced with a cardboard viewer, the experience is far more compelling with a hands-free headset with good sound.
Pearl(Patrick Osborne, 2017) offers you a very engaging fixed pov animated narrative that unfolds around you, the only agency you have is where you look, but it’s lovely. A well-told story, especially for a “VR short.” Best experienced with an HTC Vive or Oculus Rift.
Clouds over Sidra
Clouds over Sidra (Chris Milk and Gabo Arora, 2015) was the 360 video that fueled much of the hype around “VR as the empathy machine.” Chris Milk’s TEDTalk, How virtual reality can create the ultimate empathy machine, was instrumental in orchestrating the hype, however, a lot of people have suggested the hype is, well, just that, hype. Two particularly good articles among the many that have been written since Milk’s TED Talk offering a sobering rebuttal are Not a Film and Not an Empathy Machine by Janet Murray (Immerse, October 6, 2016) and Oculus Whiffed: Virtual reality was supposed to help us understand each other unlike any other medium. That’s a delusion by Inkoo Kang (Slate, November 2017). It’s important to keep in mind that this work was released during the peak of virtual reality excitement and hype.
Image Credit: Mind At War (Sutu)