When Should You Take the Red Pill?
One afternoon one of my brightest students walked into my office hours with a big smile on his face. “Good morning, Professor Pacheco,” he said with glee. “Have you heard about the 9/11 virtual reality game? I was wondering if we could install it in the innovation lab. It sounds really cool. I want to try it!”
I can’t even fully describe my initial gut reaction, but if what the student saw on my face could be translated into sounds it would probably be of a old fashioned record player being stopped midstream with a jarring scratch. And I’m sure I looked conflicted and even a little distraught.
This was one of the stranger moments in my job as the Newhouse school's Horvitz Chair of Journalism Innovation, where I’ve been experimenting with virtual reality for the past three years. In that position I look ahead at technologies that could become part of the fabric of digital journalism on the 5-10 year horizon. My job is to help journalism students do what Steve Jobs and Wayne Gretzky used to refer to as “skating to where the puck is going to be, not where it is.”
But back to that student. After several awkward moments I was finally able to muster a response.
“Why would anyone want to experience that in VR? What could it possibly add to that story?” I said. Then upon seeing his deflated posture, I added, "No. I mean ... maybe. But I need to know more about it. And just so you know, I’m not going into it myself because I’m concerned about what it will do to me and my memory of an event that I really would rather forget.”
While saying this, I immediately saw images in my head of everything that I experienced that day working in the Washington, D.C. area which was also attacked, and what it was like to live there over the next 6 months. The trauma was still real and raw.
He pointed me to 8:46, a project in the Oculus Share portal that was created by a group of French college students based on what they claim was painstaking research. It’s described as “a narrative driven experience which makes you embody an office worker in the North Tower of the World Trade Center during the 9/11 events, emphasizing the victims’ point of view.”
As I was to find out, it does exactly that. You experience what it was like to be working in one of the Twin Towers right as it was hit by a plane, what it may have been like to stumble through the dark building looking for an exit, and (spoiler alert) ending back in your office with only two choices: to sit in place and asphyxiate, or break the window by throwing a large monitor at it and jumping out. You can see a screencast of what it's like in this YouTube video:
The student went ahead and tried it and reported what it was like, and I felt like it was my responsibility as his teacher to do the same. So I entered the experience. I can tell you that six months later, I now have a spatial memory of every last image I saw, the failed paths that I attempted, and even some of what people said. As with the Oliver Stone JFK film, this historic event is now augmented in my memory with a well-researched but still fabricated version of events that thousands of people who died in those buildings witnessed before their untimely deaths.
Should I have taken the red pill?
In the movie The Matrix, the character Morpheus offers protagonist Neo two pills, red and blue. Take the blue pill and you will wake up as if nothing happened and continue through your life as normal. Take the red pill, and you will see how far the rabbit hole goes. Ironically in The Matrix, the red pill is what takes you out of a collective VR experience, not into it. But in this case I feel like I took the equivalent of the red pill by choosing to go into the 9/11 recreation and I’m still conflicted over whether I should have done it because of the possible long-term effects on my memory of 9/11. First, these are not memories I want to return to. And more importantly, they aren't even my own memories or even memories of a real event. They’re a fictionalized guess at what it may have been like to be in those buildings before they collapsed.
But what’s interesting is how completely different the student's experience was, as well as his motivation. As he explained, he was only five years old when the events of 9/11 unfolded. He has memories of the adults around him being upset and knowing that something very bad had happened. He even remembers seeing the footage of smoke coming out of the buildings on TV news. The events of 9/11 profoundly affected his world, but because he wasn’t old enough to process it when it happened he saw this as a unique opportunity to connect with that part of history.
In other words, he wanted to experience it. I wonder if the college students in another country felt the same way.
Is this like the new Saving Private Ryan?
While discussing this with him, I started to realize that his interest in experiencing a fictionalized 9/11 was no different from my interest in watching the movie Saving Private Ryan that depicts a realistic view of war, or the TV show Band of Brothers, or the video game Call of Duty. We’ve all heard about World War II since birth, but very few of us understand what it was like to be a solider on the ground. The same is true for millennials and 9/11. But at the same time many people who lived through WWII still haven’t watched any of those WWII recreations, just as my gut reaction was not to transport myself into the virtual World Trade Centers.
What I think this points to is that people don’t just want to know things about historic events. They also want to feel them. And now with VR, they can fulfill that wish in a way that reaches deeper into the brain and our sense of presence than any two-dimensional movie can. But we also all have a choice over whether to receive such experiences.
I’ve now gone through at least a hundred different VR simulations of varying quality, including many from the students in my VR Storytelling class. I suspect this desire to experience something and feel physically present explains so much about the types of stories that are resonating in VR. This is why when people try to explain what VR does, they use terms like “empathy" and "being there.” People don’t want to just watch or consume media anymore. They want to be consumed by it, pulled inside the experience, and that’s why many are willing to shell $800 to $2,000 for an Oculus Rift or HTC Vive.
Questions to ask before you enter The Matrix
But before we all run out and start capturing, recreating and experiencing the most horrific events in history, I think we need to pause and ask ourselves a few questions. As with the decision of whether or not to watch a violent movie or play a violent video game, this decision is solely in our own hands. Start thinking about it now because over the next decade you won’t be able to choose whether or not you enter virtual content. It’s already on the way to becoming ubiquitous through trends like 360 videos appearing in Facebook and YouTube. The most you can do is decide what you’re willing to enter.
The questions I now ask myself are:
1. Do you want to take this particular red pill?
Is this an experience you would want to have in “real reality?” And if so, what might the longterm effects be on you? We’re only just starting to understand how far VR reaches into deepest parts of our brains. You don’t just watch VR, you experience it. Your brain is tricked into thinking the body is there. This means that i’s entirely possible that you could have physical symptoms of shock or worse when experiencing particularly traumatic or emotionally engaging content in VR.
2. Would you allow a doctor to implant this memory into your head?
Is this really something you want to remember as if you personally experienced it? Before you decide to jump inside a recreation of a car bombing, the Ebola crisis, what it’s like to be a date-rape victim, and certainly what is sure to be a flood of zombie apocalypse spatial narratives in VR, put yourself in the headspace of not being able to sleep at 3 a.m. when all kinds of memories are flooding into your consciousness. Do you really want to have memories of such recreated or unreal events then? Because trust me, you will have them, and I sometimes wonder if over time we will be able to distinguish between what we experienced in virtual reality, and in “real reality."
3. Are you prepared for what you’re about to experience?
As I explain further down, it’s my opinion that there should be no gotchas in VR, especially for stuff that could be shocking. I want to know what I’m getting into because of how immersive it’s going to feel. And I don’t want to have any regrets later about where I just “went."
Of course, I say this not just as a teacher or consumer of VR Journalism, but also as a producer. (I was a producer on The Des Moines Register’s Harvest of Change in 2014). So I have a separate set of questions for myself and other VR producers.
4. Would I want my mom to have this experience?
And would she still want to be my mom after I take her there? I’m not saying VR content should be dumbed down to the lowest common denominator at all, but for most national and local news publishers you have to think about the general audience first, then drill down from there.
5. What kind of tour guide will I be?
As VR producers, I think that we need to take responsibility for preparing people for what they’re about to experience — even if it’s not traumatic at all. Whether through frank descriptions, trailers or outright warnings, we need to be clear. Think of your role as similar to that as a tour guide in the Star Trek universe who’s about to transport a group of tourists to another planet. What do they need to know to prepare themselves before they go there? What should they expect to happen? What might they feel? Be frank.
6. How do I add value to peoples’ understanding of something in VR?
Virtual reality is not just an add-on to existing media forms. It’s an entirely new media form, and as I often say in my presentations (http://bit.ly/1SeIlNx) it’s part of an entirely new chapter of media. Beyond feeling physically present, you can allow people to interact with parts of the scene, choose what they want to ignore, and even make choices that influence the outcome. These are powerful new tools for aiding understanding of complicated concepts — for example, climate change or other scientific concepts. If you can’t do more in your 360 video or CGI recreations than you can in a standard 2D video, don’t. Stick with other media forms. But if VR can aid understanding in a way that's not possible in other types of media, you have yourself a winner.
7. What do I need to do to avoid trivializing or exploiting someone else’s real traumatic experience?
This is a difficult one, as it’s often open to the interpretation of the experiencer. In these early days of VR Journalism experimentation there are lots of hard-hitting stories that are being recreated virtually. A few examples are Emblematic Group’s recreation of the Trayvon Martin shooting and Empathetic Media’s recreation of the scene in Ferguson. I personally think the producers of those projects avoided even the appearance of exploitation through the seriousness with which they treat the subject matter and also how they promote it. But it’s not hard to imagine future VR storytellers hopping on sensationalism. It’s also important to remember that at least for the next few years, most people will associate VR as a new form of gaming. Even if you don’t present a VR story as a game, people may put you in that genre. For that reason alone, it’s more important than ever right now to be factual, serious and unsensational.
8. What are the effects on our brains, and long-term memory?
This is one I worry about the most because, to be frank, there hasn’t been much research into this, and we probably won’t know the answer for some time. There have been many studies into the effect of light on our eyes and sleeping patterns, simulation sickness and other things about the physical effects.
I’m not worried at all about VR headsets causing brain cancer or anything of that nature. It’s more about what it will do to our gray matter. And with the example above, I do wonder how it will affect the way we relate to history 10, 30 and 50 years down the line. This becomes even more important when you understand how far companies like Oculus plan to go with virtual recreation. The technology currently taps into our eyes, ears and sense of motion, but Oculus’ chief scientist has mapped out a research strategy to tap into not just all five senses, but other senses that most people aren’t even aware of.
Given how much money is going into making VR feel even more real, I think it rests on people like journalists to push for studies into how different VR experiences affect how deeply our brains are being tricked. Because today’s trick will be tomorrow’s flashback. You know how people who did acid sometimes have regressions and think a gas pump is an anaconda waiting to pounce? What kind of trip do you want to have?
Dan Pacheco is the Chair of Journalism Innovation at the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications. He’s in his fourth semester of teaching Virtual Reality Storytelling to students in journalism, film and advertising programs. He was a producer for the Edward R. Murrow award-winning Harvest of Change, the first large-scale piece of commercial journalism that utilized virtual reality.