The greatest writing makes you feel like you are there, seeing, hearing, smelling, shivering, sweating, caressing, recoiling – whatever the scene requires. You are immersed.
Virtual reality technology can achieve something similar.
I loved experiencing the Guardian’s virtual reality piece, First Impressions, about the first six months of a child’s life. The utter dependency, the gradual acquisition of focused vision and colour perception – first red, then green, blue, yellow – and the besotted parental gaze.
Besides, it is always good to feel young again.
Limbo, about an asylum seeker awaiting a decision in a strange land, trying to adjust, missing home, navigating bureaucracy, was a very different powerful experience. So too 6×9, about solitary confinement. The Party gives you the perspective of an autistic teenage girl at her mum’s surprise party.
I wanted to understand more about this pioneering form of journalism which the Guardian is increasingly offering its audience. It has implications for editorial standards that are worth considering.
Experiencing a piece of virtual reality journalism requires you to put a viewer over your eyes and to listen through headphones. The more sealed off from other sights and sounds you are, the better the experience.
Eighty-seven thousand Google Cardboard headsets with plastic lenses and a space for your mobile phone were distributed among Saturday’s printed Guardians in the UK. Details are online at theguardian.com/vr
(The headsets arrive flat. In assembling one, be aware that the elastic band, which is unexplained on the instruction sheet, simply functions as a non-slip strip to brace the back of your phone when you seal it into the viewer with the Velcro tab. No need to try to extract the elastic band or wrap it around your phone.)
Cardboard, newspapers, smartphones and a sophisticated app all mixing in this way are themselves markers of our transitional time.
For centuries journalists have adapted new technologies and, together with their audiences, developed vocabulary and conventions to help new forms fulfil an old task: convey as truthfully as possible an account of aspects of life in ways that engage audiences and contribute usefully to their worldview.
Newspaper readers learned that stop-press news was fresh information for which the presses had been delayed or stopped.
On radio, fanfares heralded news bulletins to differentiate them from the other programming. Orson Welles caused controversy when he played with these settled understandings in his War of the Worlds broadcast in New York in 1938.
The capacity for TV journalism to deliver into homes disturbing images of trauma led to understandings about advisory warnings and classifications. Watching TV, we know that a “peeling” of the screen from one comment of an interviewee to the next can signify an edit.
Virtual reality journalism is in the infancy of developing a shared language. It will need to give audiences confidence in what they are offered as journalism. It will need to maintain trust.
Useful touchstones are fidelity to truth, transparency and appropriate signposting.
As with the cropping of photographs and editing of soundbites in older media forms, images and sounds will be augmented in virtual reality pieces. The test will be whether the result, the impression conveyed, is based in verifiable fact and always striving towards truth.
Sources will need to be made apparent sometimes. This is brilliantly achieved in First Impressions when, as a baby on a rug on the floor, your older self gets to listen to the interview with an expert in infant development. It is on the radio or TV that is on in the background as your parents do the housework around you.
Depending on the nature of the content, warnings will be necessary because virtual reality is so powerful. It affects your senses in ways very different from reading, watching television or playing computer games. When 6×9 explained how a prisoner in solitary can begin to deteriorate mentally and start to “float”, then made me “float”, I momentarily lost some balance in my chair. When, as a baby on the floor, I saw the family dog approaching for the first time – in proportion and therefore huge – my immersed self seemed to feel a flicker of some sort of hard-wired “fight or flight” response.
These factors are being considered. The Guardian’s executive editor, virtual reality, Francesca Panetta, outlined to me the range of experts on autism, and people with autism, who were consulted for The Party.
A literature exploring the ethical, technological and commercial issues of virtual reality journalism already includes reports from the Reuters Institute, Tow Center for Digital Journalism and Knight Foundation. The last quotes an editor: “As we experiment with these new forms we must take care that our excitement with what new technology lets us do doesn’t cause us to lose sight of good standards we bring with us from the old forms.”
Something with rich potential for quality journalism is being born.