I first tried the Oculus Rift at Tribeca Film Festival’s 2014 Storyscapes exhibit. Prior to that, I was living in Ecuador in pursuit of affordable higher education. I was in the midst of starting my graduate studies in Visual Anthropology but became disenchanted with the prospect once I realized that transmedia storytelling just wasn’t as accessible there. In order to be part of it all, I booked a flight back to NYC. 

I knew I made the right decision in flying back home and that I would not be going back to Quito for quite some time once I put on that virtual reality headset. Through the Oculus Rift I experienced Use Of Force, an immersive journalism piece by Nonny De La Peña. While wearing the headset, headphones, and motion-tracking peripherals, I became immersed.

The groundbreaking immersion is facilitated by the ability to become seamlessly integrated into a “spatial narrative”. By being able to interact, through walking and exploring the scene with my own hesitant steps and nuanced head turns, I put my own Self inside Use of Force. I became a witness of the tragic death of Anastasio Hernandez Rojas at the hands of border patrol police. And just like the real witnesses, who surrounded me in the simulation, I could do nothing to stop it.

Virtual Reality has had a lot of buzz for its potential in entertainment, and it is true that the technology does seems ideal for gaming. However, the use of VR that I’m most excited about is within the realms of documentary filmmaking and journalism. After experiencing Use of Force at Storycapes, I earnestly felt that the medium had to be adapted by more storytellers. For storytellers working with social justice endeavors, generating empathy is vital for impact and change. I thought back to my experience of producing a documentary short titled Dahlia as an undergrad. My objective was to deliver an unbiased visual narrative that reflected the real circumstances of Dahlia’s life. Using the best practices of ethnographic filmmaking, where every production decision must be carefully thought of in terms of positionally and reflexivity, I wanted the audience to imagine having Dahlia in their lives. I wonder just how much more genuine empathy I could have generated from the audience if it had been a VR project instead. 

The success of the 2015 Sundance New Frontiers exhibit, (which housed 11 different virtual reality projects), finally grounded the technology as a legitimate storytelling medium. The downside of virtual reality at this time is that access to these immersive and potentially life-altering experiences is still limited to temporary and somewhat exclusive events. It is also worth noting that producing a VR piece is very expensive in comparison to a traditional multimedia project. Production costs are not likely to fall any time soon, but more grant opportunities are cropping up. Most recently Tribeca Film Institute announced the launch of their All Access Prototype Fund. To mainstream audiences, experiencing Virtual Reality will soon also become very accessible through the commercialization of wearable mobile devices engineered by Oculus, Samsung and Sony.

For me, achieving "immersion" has also meant pursuing an active role in the development of transmedia non-fiction storytelling projects. I recently became an intern at Tribeca Film Institute’s Interactive department and have had the opportunity to work closely with the creators of today’s most compelling transmedia projects. Out of all of the transmedia storytelling mediums, virtual reality is the most powerful as it has the ability to evoke intense emotional responses from people. Although I am particularly interested in the use of virtual reality in the social justice space, I am curious to experience all of the manifestations of VR. I hope to follow an academic and professional career that surveys the future of storytelling through all of its evolutions.

Related Links:
Virtual Reality Takes The Middle Man out of Journalism
How Virtual Reality is Changing Documentary Filmmaking
TFI Sandbox
Sundance New Frontier Story Lab