Virtual Realities - Immersive Documentary Encounters

Lead Research Organisation: University of Bristol
Department Name: Computer Science


This project explores the application of Virtual Reality (VR) technology to documentary content. Thirty years since the term virtual reality was coined, and nearly fifty years since Ivan Sutherland's first experiments with a "head mounted three dimensional display", developments in hardware and software now make VR viable as a mass-market consumer proposition, and 2016 sees a variety of devices coming to market. While cinema offers an optical illusion of movement, 360 experiences offer a new generation of illusion - a powerful sense of "being there" within the scene portrayed known as presence. To date, consumer VR has been associated with gaming. However, the potential audience appeal promised by presence has led to considerable interest in the video market - notably among producers of non-fiction content. 2015 saw VR projects commissioned by the New York Times, Vice News and the UN for example, the latter winning the Innovation Award at the Sheffield DocFest - one of the world's major non-fiction markets.
We hypothesise that Virtual Reality documentary has significant potential to inform public debate - offering new directions and in particular novel forms of witnessing enabled by 360 perspectives, but that the powerful sense of presence offered by immersion also gives rise to ethical challenges; does the feeling of "being there" offer genuine insight or a new form of voyeurism? do unmanned 360 camera rigs feel like surveillance to subjects? a user in an immersive headset experience is likely to be paying attention to the world depicted, but what does that mean for their presence where they are standing?
The project will approach these questions through six case studies created by industry partners - examining production and user experience. Producers will share their approaches to storytelling in this new 360 medium. With an audience group who we will follow from their first exposure to VR, we will investigate engagement, attention, understanding and emotional reaction, as experienced on contrasting VR platforms, and compare these with 2D and 3D experiences delivered without headsets. The first three case studies will address the theme of migration - one of the big global challenges that has been a notable subject of VR non-fiction to date.
The research will explore the implications of exposure to powerful documentary content within immersive experiences, probe issues around isolation and sociality that relate to the use of headsets. The project will also consider the point-of-view of the subjects of media, asking for example whether particular issues around privacy arise in the context of 3D filming and immersive display. Drawing on findings from the case studies, and from workshops with industry and community partners, we will define key themes which will be explored in the production of three path finding prototypes. These will illustrate research findings and suggest future directions for Virtual Reality documentary.
Producers are eager to engage with the potentials of VR documentary, but face challenges around language, technology and audience insight. Through a process of investigation, dialogue, and shared findings, the research will stage a timely engagement with this emerging medium, supporting the development of this new production sector, while keeping the interest of audience and subjects to the fore.

Planned Impact

The work undertaken in this proposal seeks to create both economic and societal impact.

Creative Industries are now worth £84 billion according to the UK's government economic estimates (January 2016), with significant emphasis placed on VR with a current market estimated at $6.7 billion and VR hardware sales expected to reach $70 billion by 2020 (Re/code). VR experiences are moving into the mainstream, with entry points to VR available at every level of consumer interest, from Google Cardboard to high end consumer experience such as Oculus Rift or HTC Vive.

Therefore an investigation into the opportunities and challenges of VR for documentary content creation and user experience is timely and pertinent. The project will support the digital and creative economy by providing much needed evaluation, critical reflection and guidance to this fast-growing new market including VR technology creators and documentary producers, from large corporations through to small independents. This intelligence is critical to understand the affordances of VR for documentary in order for the UK to emerge as leaders in documentary content creation and consumption of this new medium. It also has potential impact for creators of content within the wider field where Virtual Reality technology is being applied to non-fiction - museums, galleries, marketing, music videos and other forms of factual entertainment, as well as those exploring VR for journalism. While the domain of the research is VR, the findings also have relevance and potential impact more widely for creators of virtual experiences such as the emerging Augmented Reality (AR) market.

These impacts will emerge from a number of aspects of the research:
- investigation into and assessment of best creative practice to date.
- investigation into and assessment of audience experience.
- networking during the course of the project and dialogue between major industry players and SMEs at the forefront of creative work in the field.
-the advancement of a common language for this new medium between makers, creators, technologists and audiences.
- the demonstration of future directions for VR non-fiction through co-production of prototypes with SMEs.
- the development of guidelines for ethical practice.

Industry will be reached through panels and workshops at the VR World Congress, Virtual Reality Summit, Sheffield DocFest, the International Journalism Festival, Perugia, IDFA Doc Lab, Tribeca Interactive and Sundance Festival.

Dissemination on social media will be key for reach so the project will develop not only a project website but also a presence on twitter and facebook, as well as targeting and working with groups with established social media followings such as i-Docs and Women in VR.

Documentary, journalism and factual media play a significant role in informing and encouraging public debate. The project therefore also anticipates societal impact in supporting the development of meaningful and ethical forms of VR non-fiction practice which can reflect and critique "our shared world" (Nichols). It will also have potential impact on the video practices of the public as they engage with 360 media, to date as viewers but in the future increasingly also as amateur producers.


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Description Although we are still early on within the analysis that has been done from the creation of the VR mediography we are able to detect that there are popular content themes to the pieces of VR that have been created thus far. We are also able to see how the pieces of VR non-fiction have increased in length as the producers are exploring the new medium and the time people are in the VR experience. Once we have finished populating the VR mediography with a comprehensive list of non-fiction VR pieces till 2017 we will be able to conduct a more thorough analysis looking at different narrative and technological techniques which effect the user's experience.Through the survey we were able to ascertain which are the top three VR non-fiction pieces currently voted for by other VR producers.
Exploitation Route The VR mediography is openly accessible for both academics and VR producers to explore and give us feedback.
Sectors Creative Economy,Digital/Communication/Information Technologies (including Software)

Title Non-Fiction Documentary VR: A Mediography 
Description "Non-Fiction Documentary VR: A Mediography" is a database of non-fiction documentary VR projects, covering the period 2012-current. A web-based frontend has also been developed for the database, providing analytics and an interactive timeline. 
Type Of Material Database/Collection of data 
Year Produced 2018 
Provided To Others? Yes  
Impact Since launching in mid January 2018, the Mediography website has attracted 333 page views from 90 unique visitors. 
Description A preliminary opinion survey about audiences of VR non-fiction 
Form Of Engagement Activity A formal working group, expert panel or dialogue
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact An expert opinion survey of 60+ professional directors, curators and producers of non-fiction VR, asking questions about what we need to know about audiences of non-fiction VR.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2018
Description Art, Research and Creativity Event - Tales from the Field Talk, Danae Stanton Fraser 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact Danae Stanton Fraser gave a talk on her interdisciplinary work, co-designing with the creative industry. Tales from the field - Art, Research and Creativity. Hosted by the Arts Council at The Edge. This galvanized relationships with Bath Spa and others leading to an AHRC Creative Clusters bid submission.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2017
Description Bristol Computer Science lunchtime talk 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Local
Primary Audience Postgraduate students
Results and Impact A seminar, half of which was dedicated to communicating the aims of the Virtual Realities project to an audience of peers in the academic community.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2018
Description Creation of project website and social media channels 
Form Of Engagement Activity Engagement focused website, blog or social media channel
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact A public facing website for the "Virtual Realities" project was developed and launched in Jan 2018. The website provides a portal for project related news and events, details of the team members and our external partners. An associated social media channel for the project has also been created on Twitter. As of 4/3/18, our project website has attracted 238 sessions from 170 unique users. Our Twitter handle @VRDocsProject has attracted 56 followers.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2018
Description The Language of VR - Bristol VR Lab - lunchtime seminar 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Industry/Business
Results and Impact One of three invited 20-minute talks at a 90 minute lunchtime seminar. Attended by a mix of industry, academic and third sector attendees. Included a 30 minute public forum.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2018
Description Workshop 1 - What do we need to know? 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact Our first project workshop What do we need to know? was held on Friday 19th January at the Watershed in Bristol. It was the first of four workshops to be held over the course of the project, providing a framework through which partners and stakeholders can co-design the research.

The workshop introduced the project and staged a dialogue about what immersive non-fiction VR content experiences mean to audiences. We shared our objectives, research questions and initial findings, including an emergent mapping of the field to date, and workshopped areas for investigation. The findings of the workshop will inform the audience study and commissioning of three new pieces of VR work.

Over 60 delegates signed up for the workshop - a mix of creative industry and academics - which ensured we had a balanced discussion from a range of voices, backgrounds and interests. We had four guest speakers throughout the day to help push discussions around the use of VR for non-fiction both the challenges and opportunities.

Dan Archer, Empathetic Media, New York USA
Dan is a thought leader in the VR/AR/interactive storytelling space and founded Empathetic Media in 2015. He is a 2016 fellow at the Tow Center at Columbia University and was a Reynolds Journalism Institute Fellow (University of Missouri, 2014) and a Knight Journalism Fellow at Stanford University (2011).

Jane Gauntlett, Pervasive Media Studio, Bristol UK
Jane is a writer for film and theatre. In 2011, Jane founded the internationally recognised empathy project In My Shoes. In My Shoes is an ever-expanding collection of first-person documentary style interactive performances, which guide participants through the beautiful, the challenging, the mundane and the surreal aspects of being human.

Dr. Kate Nash, University of Leeds
Kate is Associate Professor of Media and Communication in the School of Media and Communication at the University of Leeds. Her research focuses on the intersections between documentary culture and emerging media platforms and practices.

Prof. Chris Anderson University of Leeds
Chris is Professor of Media and Communication at the University of Leeds. Chris studies journalism, politics, and how the production of public knowledge is being transformed in the digital age.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2018