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A New Type of Virtual Reality: History Documentaries

A New Type of Virtual Reality: History Documentaries

VR has the potential to be a poignant social and historical tool by giving viewers lifelike interactions with those who lived thorough historical moments.

Virtual reality has already proven itself to be a viable form of entertainment as a means of watching breath-taking panoramic videos of events and fully immersing yourself in your favorite online video games. Yet there are other, more educational applications that VR technology can be leveraged for, such as giving viewers a first-person experience engaging not just in historical events, but with those who witnessed and experienced them first-hand.

At the United Kingdom’s Sheffield Doc/Fest, this is exactly what some producers were aiming to create. Using a combination of documentary footage, smart artificial intelligence, and virtual reality technology, the Doc/Fest curators showcased 12 filmmakers who devised interactive projects that placed festival goers in far off destinations in space and time. These ranged from an incredibly life-like spacewalk simulation to exhibits showing the life of a Syrian refugee amid the ongoing refugee crisis.

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While traditional documentaries have typically been filmed without virtual reality considerations in mind, what makes the demonstrations at Doc/Fest so different from the standard nature or historical program is their interactivity. In one particular exhibit, entitled New Dimensions in Testimony, festival-goers were brought into a dark room with an oblong screen, where they could interact with a Holocaust survivor. The survivor, Pinchas Gutter, was brought to life using natural language technology and a life-like rendering of his body taken from hours of interview footage with the USC Shoah Foundation. The result is an experience that nearly feels like speaking to the real Pinchas Gutter. The simulated Gutter can offer musings from the factual to the philosophical, and can answer questions spontaneously. Though Gutter is still alive today, his contribution to the project will allow future generations to have personal chats with the man, preserving the first-hand experience digitally.

While they are fascinating and full of potential, it isn’t outlandish that some would find these kinds of interactive historical documentaries morally wrong, especially when the events depicted are ongoing in the real world. Two Billion Miles and We Wait are two such projects that put the viewer in the shoes of a Syrian refugee. In the former, you must make decisions to escape the violence in Syria, the outcomes of which are reflected in simulated news coverage segments. The latter, meanwhile, casts spectators as migrants trying to escape Turkey by sea into Greece — every attempt, though, ends with the viewer being detained and returned to Turkey by authorities. Despite the realistic, sometimes disturbing depictions of this humanitarian crisis, a viewer can detach from that reality anytime he or she likes by removing the headset.

Despite the moral ambiguity of some subjects shown in VR documentaries, there is no question that giving viewers a first-person look into history is a poignant and enthralling experience. By educating the viewer and immersing them into these realities, virtual reality is proving that it can be more than just an electronic toy for escapism and whimsical entertainment, but also a tool for enlightening the world, eliciting empathy from audiences, and, as the Doc/Fest filmmakers hope, a call to action for social change and human justice.