Did you get a chance to check out the new VR content from the New York Times that was made available to print subscribers this weekend with its distribution of one million of the very cleverly designed, super low tech, Google Cardboards sporting both the New York Times logo alongside the somewhat ironic placement of the GE logo?
If so, did you get a chance to view the well made documentary short, The Displaced? And if you could get through it without feeling ill, (I could not) what was your reaction? Was it compassion for the subjects? Was it amazement at the novelty of a new media experience? Was it both? Can it be both? Can compassion and the call to action that is the raison d’etre for documentary films be best fulfilled in a medium that is the most immersive experience that technology has yet offered us for widespread use? The Times, to its credit, is aiming to find out. But are we, as cutting edge consumers, willingly experimenting upon ourselves?
The story of 3-D media is a twisted one, with various goes at the technology over the years many of which have not stood up well. Recall the famously documented paper glasses with red and green cellophane lenses of the 1950’s to the recent, and more obscure 3-D glasses with rapidly firing alternating shutters for each eye that is worn in front of your HD television to stimulate stereo perception of two superimposed images.
Among the most successful, and perhaps the oldest, are the stereographs that rose to prominence in the Victorian age with which the lady and gentleman of the age could indeed immersive into the almost tamed west of the Union Pacific Rail Road and the similarly displaced Pawnee. Similarly successful were the ViewMaster toys of the middle twentieth century with their circular paper transparency mounts that specialized in what essentially were 3-D, photographic comic strips featuring kid favorites such as Charlie Brown and Walt Disney characters.
Both the stereographs and the ViewMaster slides are fun and distracting (in the good way) for short periods of time. Among serious minded viewers, stereo image analysis has long been a mainstay among intelligence professionals and researchers for many years. But for average folks like us, 2-D seems to have stood the test of time as a medium of both enjoyment and learning from the prehistory of cave paintings to iMax at the multiplex. And that may be because that’s all many people’s brains can handle comfortably, at least on daily basis when we are intent on consuming a purely visual phenomenon.
As I was looking at The Displaced on my smartphone, my conscious attention was mainly taken up the novelty of the 360 degree experience with secondary attention paid to the content. My subconscious mind, meantime, is trying to knit together the synthetic world on the screen as I twisted and turned left and right, up to down minus the sensing of much of my “real” surroundings. 24 hours later, I’m still mildly vertiginous, this after viewing just a few minutes of the short. Clearly, as promising as this technology is, and as much as I think there will be really good uses for “immersive” media, something important is at play here that needs to looked at with extreme caution. In the meantime, I think I will take a pass on the next installment.
More experimentation will have to be done to reveal the solutions for the dizziness and nausea that afflicts many. The slight angling of the head that occurs that tells your phone accelerometer to tilt both images might also be upsetting. Other image processing factors such as image resolution, screen refresh rate and field of vision coverage will also be looked at. But all this is the easy part.
Cognitive researchers will have to look even deeper, I think. Is more “immersive” truly more positively affective in the sense that the craft of journalistic story telling is moved forward in its ability to inform and touch us? Or is this current iteration of virtual reality an end unto itself that does not connect us to a more authentic understanding? (Here is a potential positive: 360 degree views removes, in part, the context robbing frame around an image an editorializing photographer or videographer imparts though selective framing.)
Did the first listeners to radio and the first viewers of TV suffer from the sort of cognitive dissonance trying to rationalize the medium with the message? Will the 3 year old of today process the new VR content without ill effect as long as we start them young with Google Cardboard strapped on their heads for several hours a day? And if so, how should we use the neuroplasticity of the brain to approach “formatting” it to suit VR comprehension? Should we trust large, publicly traded companies to expand their frontiers into our minds?
Is there a lesson of history here? Think of the effect that the transcontinental railroad had on Native American peoples of the 1860’s as the Central and Union Pacific Railroads opened a new frontier, not only in transportation, but in media as well, accomplished with the direct financial support of the United States. Yes, I stretch, but hints abound, even within something as seemingly innocuous as a randomly found stereograph at the Library of Congress used to illustrate this article.
Will the New York Times’ distribution of one million of these super cheap 3-D viewers become the game changer that will move “virtual reality” and “immersive” imaging into the mainstream? Will we be putting ourselves on a Wonder Bread for the brain diet, pure content without the roughage of reality needed keep us intellectually (and physically) healthy and civilly engaged. The Times and other media companies will have to move carefully into the VR realm. Yes, content distribution must and will change. Yes, humankind always will and should develop new models for story telling which is the essence of learning. And yes, in the same way that the Times is a nominal standard bearer of a disciplined journalism subject to verification and fact checking, I think they and other media companies, along with their staff and contributors, will have to apply a new rigor on behalf of their readership (!) as they move into new cognitive territory.