You’re walking down the stairs with a group emptying the room behind you. You bump into a woman. You acknowledge and attempt to pass by her left. She moves with you. You bump into her again. You move right — another little jiggle, then you’re on your way, except the woman calls you out: “Can I help you?,” she intones. I’m off to the bathroom you say. CAN I HELP YOU? she reiterates looking at you in an accusatory way… What’s your next move in this unvirtual reality film?

By the time one of Britain’s most formidable editors, Geoffrey Cox, stepped down from his position pioneering News at Ten — the commercial competitor to the BBC — there’s not a lot he hadn’t achieved.

This was the swinging sixties, the era of The Beatles, the space race, and satellite TV. Those mini-stories you see today in the UK with the reporter signing off — that was Cox’s idea having sent two producers to the US to observe and then rework the idea. Those larger than life presenters and reporters bringing stories from afar e.g. the Biafra war, or reporting from UK elections, that was Cox again. That news programmes worth 15-minutes air time that expanded to 30 minutes — a feature that persists today — is down to Cox.

In his memoirs, See it Happen, there’s barely anything he didn’t do, but for this thing he admits, he’d wished he’d covered more social issues — housing, poverty, the influx of Commonwealth citizens making Britain their home.

Television’s innovation, its newness in the 60s parallels the new new thing — VR, and even though VR is barely a toddler, you get the sense Cox’s resounding words lurk in plain site of 360's panorama.

That’s not to say all VR should be doing all social. This last week’s festival offerings at Raindance’s Virtual show have proved a spectrum of genres that have been tantalising, jaw dropping, and of course immersive.

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Dear Angelica — a 3d in vitro comic strip was a visual kaledeiscopic feast of acid trippin, whilst Munduruku: The Fight to Defend the Heart of the Amazon, brought the plight of an indigenous tribe’s existential plight home. A simple idea required the consent of people distrusting of humans and their wanton commercial needs, and a production team working in unfamiliar conditions. And for those that have experienced the excoriating affects of the Guardian’s 6x6 virtual confinement video, who can deny that imagining the real thing must be intolerable. Then there’s Space Walk — a BBC-Rewind venture which is literally out of this world.

Writing in When Old Technologies were New author Carolyn Marvin urges the reader not to lose sight of new technologies’ offerings — its social imprint. When communities transitioned from Whale blubber in making candles to electricity, eating habits were transformed. Citizens would normally have woken up at around 2 O’clock in the morning to eat a meal. Then whole communities’ slum living conditions were transformed when the truth about working class’ squalor was made public through the availability of flash lights.

VRs time and 360 appear to have arrived, throwing jibes at 2D films as flaties — relics of a bygone period — and its bravado is in no small measure attributable to Social Media outfits, such as Facebook’s quest to become defacto the Internet. Facebook’s involvement in 360 shifts from bespoke practitioners to mass VRing. Elsewhere, and mirroring the birth of cinema, this new technology comes at a premium. A veritable Lumière train is leaving and those on board stand to gain in its riches.

Experiential aesthetics appears to be at the heart of several VR movies — the idea that you can be a disembodied presence in a scene, (the camera), as people address you. If cinema’s exquisite value was about empathy and caring, VR pitches itself as a logarithmic function of meta — beyond merely immersive — something akin to quiddity or haecceity. The thisness of a thing, moments that transcend beyond the five senses rendering the viewer in awe of something never ever encountered.

To that end, whilst as agents we’re busily attempting to render those excursion moments, could we be missing a trick? Cox’s achilles — more social issues.

If news is known for shinning a limited and ‘expressionless’ light on a story, before it rushes to its next encounter, what could an alternative newer medium do, to either:

  • make people feel more deeply the emotions cinema is capable of generating.
  • create deeper lasting memories.

For instance, what must it be like to experience continued ongoing devastation caused by Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico? Additional biometric and haptic feedback, perhaps? Or how about living through the appalling conditions in the dead of night as a Rohingyan with the eeriness of despair and spatial sound? And, say closer to home, and relatively far less treacherous, but a mind f*** nonetheless, what is it like to be picked out of a group and be profiled, based on ones culture, race, or sex?

Back to that stairway again. What did you do?

There is an uncomfortable feeling when you become a story. There were a slew of people coming out of the room and she picked me. ‘Why’, I asked when I caught up with her in the foyer and learnt she was a manager.

Her response was to deny she’d profiled me (I mean would she say yes!), but apologise if her actions had cause offence. She added the hotel needed to be vigilant about the ‘sort of people’ that could walk off the street into their foyer.

If virtual reality is looking to build on agency, then there are enough social issues that could be atomised and explored — and many of those, as Cox would reflect upon are closer to home.

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Speaking at Apple

David Dunkley Gyimah, PhD, is course leader of the disLAB — a multi-disciplinary experimental LAB exploring digital story and interactivity.

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