Tech, Now + Beyond

Virtual reality is going to change everything from domestic violence to prison

As virtual reality technology becomes more available, here are some documentaries to keep in mind.

This past month I had the chance to attend the Online News Association’s 2016 conference in Denver, Colorado to learn a bit more about being a journalist (and check out the coolest new technology trends in journalism). The mile-long line out the exhibit hall confused me on the first day and I had to investigate why. It turned out that The Guardian was exhibiting its virtual reality documentary “6×9: An Immersive Experience of Solitary Confinement” and people were hooked.

The goal of VR technology has been to give viewers the chance to experience another person’s reality for themselves and (hopefully) grow more empathetic to their struggles. In exhibiting “6×9,” The Guardian hoped to raise awareness about the realities of living in solitary confinement. But The Guardian is far from the only news organization taking advantage of this new technology: journalists and artists worldwide have started using virtual reality to tell difficult but meaningful stories in a very personal way.

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1. 6×9: An Immersive Experience of Solitary Confinement

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Let’s start with the VR documentary that started it all (for me at least).

“6×9: An Immersive Experience of Solitary Confinement” is a 7-minute long VR created by Francesca Panetta and Lindsay Poulton of The Guardian. “6×9” takes descriptions from people who have experienced solitary confinement and fuses them together into an immersive taste of the modern prison system. Think Orange is the New Black on steroids.

The goal of “6×9” is to raise awareness of the 80,000 people currently incarcerated in 6 foot by 9 foot concrete rooms, deprived of human contact or sensory input, and question whether that treatment is humane, rehabilitative, or damaging.

2. Cardboard Crash

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Ever played that “game” in school where a teacher asks you this philosophical question: Imagine you’re on a run-away train headed straight towards a crowd of people. You can’t stop the train, but you can change directions onto a different track. The only catch is that there is one person on that track. What do you choose: Stand passively by as your train kills a group of innocent people or actively choose to kill one person?

No fun, right? Whatever your answer, this is an awful lot like the experience of “Cardboard Crash.”

In the National Film Board of Canada’s VR, designed by Loc Dao and Vincent McCurley, you play the passenger in a self-driving car. The car faces an unavoidable and fatal crash, but you get to participate as the car’s computer algorithm tries to decide how to minimize the damage (will you kill the group of people by accident or the one person on purpose?). “Cardboard Crash” asks you to work through these tricky ethical dilemmas and determine what outcome is the most just.

3. Kiya

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“Kiya” is the intensely dramatic, 5-minute, real-life story of two sisters who desperately try (but fail) to save their third sister from her ex-boyfriend during a domestic violence dispute. Created by Nonny de la Peña, the “godmother of virtual reality,” “Kiya” engages viewers in this true story by transforming them from audience-members to active witnesses.

“Kiya” not only includes well-designed virtual figures and scenarios, but actual camera footage from the murder and recordings from the sisters’ 911 calls. This VR puts the technology of virtual reality to use by quite literally transporting viewers to the scene of the crime.

4. The Displaced

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The New York Times‘ award-winning photography, text, and virtual reality experience, “The Displaced,” tells the story of the world’s 60 million currently displaced people (half of which are children) through the lives of three kids.

Through the stories of 11-year-old Ukranian Oleg, 9-year-old South Sudanese Chuol, and 12-year-old Syrian Hana, The New York Times sheds light on the uncomfortable realities 30 million of the world’s children live through. “The Displaced” is The New York Times‘ first virtual reality film (emphasizing the growing importance of VR to the news industry and the devastating conditions faced by the world’s refugees).

5. Waves of Grace

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Following the world’s largest Ebola outbreak, Liberia worked to rebuild with the aid of humanitarian and medical groups.’s 10-minute virtual reality film, “Waves of Grace” reflects on the outbreak through the touching story of one woman: Decontee Davis. Davis, an Ebola survivor, used her immunity to care for others suffering from the virus, especially orphaned children. In “Waves of Grace,” tells Davis’s story as a launching-pad for talking about diverse experiences of the Ebola outbreak.

Virtual reality offers an incredible opportunity for news organizations to report on real-world experiences through technology that immerses viewers in true events. As our world continues to change, it can be easy to feel isolated from others and their experiences. Virtual reality ensures that won’t be the case: with technology we’ll be able to see others and their realities, and hopefully grow more understanding along the way.

  • Cecilia Nowell

    Cecilia Nowell is a freelance journalist and recent graduate of Wellesley College. She writes about politics and art, and gets excited about graphic novels, mythology, and art therapy. In her free time, she runs a cat blog, drinks too much tea, and enjoys hiking.