Does Future of Journalism Lie in Immersive Virtual Reality Experiences? A Close Look at “Project Syria”

“Project Syria” by Nonny de la Peña showcased at Victoria and Albert Museum

Living conditions in a refugee camp or in a street devastated by a bomb sound abstract to the majority of us. What if technology allowed people to experience these scenarios in an immersive environment, reproducing real events through actual audio, video and photographs taken at the scene?

Nonny de la Peña calls this technology-driven opportunity “immersive journalism.” As clearly stated in the presentation of her latest work, through real time graphics from a game engine and the sense of presence evoked through high-resolution virtual reality goggles and compelling audio, Project Syria “takes the audience to the real events as they transpire on the streets of Aleppo and at a refugee camp.”

Sounds ambitious? Yes. Does it work? Yes. How do I know it? Because I’ve tried it out.

Originally commissioned by the World Economic Forum and created at the University of Southern California School of Cinematic Arts, Project Syria was showcased at the last edition of Sheffield Doc Fest a few days before I got my first ride on this new piece of high-tech storytelling.

I first met Nonny de la Peña on 17 June at London’s Interactive Factual Narrative meetup, where she presented an overview of an upcoming exhibition she was setting up that same day. Three days later I had the chance to experience some sequences of Project Syria at the Victoria and Albert Museum, where it was hosted as a special event from 18 to 22 June, during Refugee Week.

“Project Syria” by Nonny de la Peña showcased at Victoria and Albert Museum

At the V&A Project Syria was on display in the Tapestries Room. Surely a striking contrast compared to the technology involved, but a perfectly reasonable venue: after all, isn’t tapestry an ancient visual form of telling stories?

Given my background in journalism, I was genuinely intrigued by what I read in the presentation of the event: “Project Syria is part of a new avenue of journalism which explores the sense of presence that new virtual technologies allow. Utilizing eyewitness video, audio, and photographs to carefully reconstruct what happened, immersive journalism stories are portrayed in life-size detail. These new technologies give audience the chance to fully engage, with unprecedented access to the sights, sounds, feelings and emotions of the story.”

As you can see in the video below, the demonstration took place in a fenced off area controlled by several cameras. In that space V&A visitors could safely try the wearable device and experience three immersive scenarios: the loud and peaceful streets of Aleppo; that same setting devastated by a bomb, with injured pedestrians and screaming casualties; and a grim refugee camp, crowded with tents and refugees standing silently around the viewer.

I must admit that I am not a gamer and I have never experienced a game play involving oculus rift. So for me the closest immersive environment I could think of while wearing the goggles was immersive filmmaking within a movie theatre – a sort of small scale IMAX experience. Yet, given that the technology is quite new and that this was my first try, I think I lack the proper vocabulary to describe it.

The sense of displacement was immediately tangible and from beginning to end I felt the impulse to physically interact with what I was seeing around me. More than once I also felt the need to cast a sidelong glance under the goggles, just to make sure of where my body was while I was walking. But what really hit me the most was the sense of time slowing down: I wore the goggles for no more than 4 minutes and I had the feeling of spending at least 10 immersed in Project Syria.

Applications of this technology to storytelling are endless and experiencing a wearable device re-designed for humanitarian purposes is very intense. Maybe increasing the intensity will help us all to feel better.

For details and updates check Immersive Journalism’s official website.

 

Credits: Photos and video taken by Nicolò Gallio at V&A on 20 June 2014. Clip Project Syria: An Immersive Journalism Experience © 2014 Immersive Journalism and USC School of Cinematic Arts.

“X-Men: Days of Future Past”’s Marketing Campaign Rewrites History One Photo at a Time

As X-Men fans know well, the movies of this franchise can be either really good or quite horrific. I think that Days of Future Past is among the former. Despite the abundance of special effects, it is a film driven by its characters, which manages to balance furious rhythm with moral dilemmas, and action-packed sequences with introspective moments.

Yet I am not going to talk about the film here. I’d like to say a few words about its marketing campaign instead.

SPOILERS AHEAD

If you have already seen the last instalment of the X-Men saga, you know that Erik Lehnsherr, a.k.a. the mutant Magneto, was involved in the assassination of U.S. President John F. Kennedy. Sound absurd? Well, we probably have all heard of conspiracy theories at least as creative as this regarding what really happened at Dealey Plaza on that 22 November 1963. Anyway, the storyline was promoted through The Bent Bullet website.

Labelled as “a fictional experience from the world of X-Men: Days of Future Past”, the website is not only a tool in service of the film’s viral marketing campaign, but a teasing platform that develops the film’s storytelling by providing some “evidence” of the idea of a mutant having been involved in key historical events. In this case everything relies on grainy pictures and “physical signs of unnatural manipulation” displayed on the bullet that struck JFK and Governor Connelly.

As I said in my post about the marketing campaign for Godzilla, re-writing recent history by providing manipulated visual proof is an old idea (remember those defining moments in Forrest Gump when he met JFK and John Lennon?). Days of Future Past’s promotional platforms explore this concept further via the 25 Moments website, which looks back at a number of pivotal incidents, shedding light on the key role mutants have had in 25 crucial moments of recent human history by showcasing manipulated photos.

In this striking picture, for example, you can see Magneto giving his personal “touch” to the Cuban missile crisis:

Magneto gives his personal “touch” to the Cuban missile crisis in “X-Men: Days of Future Past”

While here Bolivar Trask, founder of Trask Industries and creator of the Sentinels in the film, is meeting with U.S. President Nixon (a secret encounter between the two will later result in a 20- minute conversation erased from the White House tapes):

Bolivar Trask meets with U.S. President Nixon in "X-Men: Days of Future Past"

Not tired yet? Then you can explore “the world’s leading full-spectrum genetic security and containment company”, obtaining more information on the genesis of The Sentinel Program by browsing Trask Industries’ corporate website here. The following is a video that celebrates 50 years of the Program and “looks forward to an even brighter future.”

In other words: from eugenics to peace through superior firepower.

Beyond Banksy: A Taste of Street Art in London

Street art by El Mac, Shoreditch, East London

I have always thought that part of the success of street art lies in the fact that these artists manage to integrate their oeuvres within urban spaces in the most unexpected ways. Their provoking works interact with what’s around them and force us to view walls, bridges, doors and windows through different eyes.

Frankenstein-like mural in Shoreditch, East London

Outside of their context, ordinary objects and themes from pop culture gain totally new meanings. Take mushrooms, for example. When you see them on your plate they look delicious, and not at all surprising. But what if you are walking in the street and spot Christiaan Nagel’s signature polyurethane mushrooms? Or what about Vhils’ portraits, which stare at you from the wall next to the front door of anonymous buildings, right under CCTV cameras?

Piece by Vhils in Hewett Street, London

People say that few cities in the world are as rich in street art as London. I gained a better perception of the dynamism of the graffiti art scene in the East End thanks to Love Art London’s Beyond Banksy tour. On a damp British evening, off we went to a graffiti walk in the area on the footsteps of Noir, El Mac, Ben Eine, Stik, Roa, Invader and Jimmy C, just to mention a few.

Illegally painted or commissioned, on view for free or sold by art galleries: each of these artworks has a story to tell. The trailer for Shafiur Rahman’s documentary Brick Lane in Art will give you an idea of the variety of styles and intents of street art.

So what about the legendary Banksy? You can still spot some of his works in the area, but they have either been “seized” by pubs and restaurants (see the picture below), or it’s difficult to say with absolute certainty whether they can be attributed to the elusive artist, to the point that his online statements are the only way to determine what is Banksy’s and what is not. And when new works appear on walls or doors, they vanish in the blink of an eye as soon as someone realises that it is easy to make a lot of money out of them, whether it is for a good cause or for personal profit.

"Caged" Banksy in Shoreditch, East London

Why do we need to go beyond Banksy then? First of all, because the London scene has much to offer and Banksy’s presence (even when the artist is absent) casts a shadow on the talented underworld that lights up the city.

Moreover, Banksy has already gone beyond himself. Although the artist is still in control of happenings and performances such as the recent New York residency Better Out Than In (for which he received a Webby Award as Person of the Year), in some ways he has lost control over relevant aspects of the business related to his art.

With the echo of the controversies over the unauthorised Stealing Banksy exhibition still clearly audible, Banksy: the Unauthorised Retrospective at Sotheby’s is now making the headlines. Curated by Steve Lazarides, the artist’s former agent, the exhibition is currently on view at the S|2 gallery in London until 25 July.

Some say that Banksy is no longer the sensational guerrilla graffiti artist captured in the documentary Exit Through the Gift Shop and that his innocence has gone forever. I’m sure that Banksy got over it, and he might even visit the show sniggering with satisfaction about this whole story.

(Photos taken during Love Art London’s Beyond Banksy walk, 28 May 2014. More pictures from the event are available on my Instagram profile).