The situation for journalism in Syria is grim, and getting worse. With Bashar al-Assad on one side, and a handful of extremist rebel groups like the Islamic State on the other, journalist abductions and intimidation are common, with sometimes sickening results.
For a few years now, Syria has been categorized by the Committee to Protect Journalists as the most dangerous country in the world to be a reporter. Media coverage since the 2013 chemical attack a year ago has trailed off precipitously.
As the humanitarian crisis continues, it's becoming more difficult to tell the story to people outside Syria. But thanks to the rapidly growing world of virtual reality technology, there is now a way to put people outside Syria on the ground in the middle of the war without risking their safety.
Project Syria, a recent project from the University of Southern California’s Interactive Media Lab, uses VR goggles to place virtual visitors inside the meticulously researched world of a Syrian citizen caught in the conflict. It's being billed as "immersive journalism" for its capacity to put people inside the story.
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For the first-time VR user, the experience can be incredibly intense; once the goggles are on, they’re suddenly caught in the middle of a brutal civil war that has so far killed 170,000 and made refugees out of 9 million people.
As the video shows, the project gives the VR user two scenarios. The first is a bomb explosion on a busy street in Aleppo, and the second is a refugee camp. In each case, the team behind Project Syria conducted extensive research to make the situations as accurate as possible. For the bomb scenario, the team analysed diverse video footage from the aftermath of the explosion to come as close as possible to duplicating the actual event.
"Searching with Google Translate in Arabic, we managed to find two handicam videos of the explosion and traced the location to find out exactly where and when it happened," Vangelis Lympouridis, co-producer of the experience, told me. "We pulled still frames from the videos, created panoramic shots, and used those to build the Aleppo neighborhood hit by the blast. For the refugee camp, we sent a team to the camp to record the situation. The audio is all real, which really creates a sense of presence."
Project Syria is a perfect example of what's possible when new technologies are applied to reporting. Using VR renders the project immersive, going beyond two-dimensional print or video coverage to physically place the viewer into the story. In doing so, they stop being a mere viewer, and much more of a witness.
The audio is all real, which really creates a sense of presence
There's indeed something different about how people feel after virtually being part of a news story. Because they live the events in such a (relatively) personal experience, their empathetic response to what takes place is much stronger.
In the case of Project Syria, people’s reactions may be especially intense. One minute they’re walking around in a pleasant London museum or Davos convention, and the next they’re feeling the visceral shock of a bomb blast.
What makes the project so special is that you don't just strap on the goggles and sit down to watch the show. The exhibition space itself is rigged with motion sensing cameras that track your movement around the staging area, translating that real movement into the virtual environment.
"We design and engineer our own VR goggles in order to benefit from our high definition wide-view lenses that have superior performance than any other consumer VR device, and the wireless capabilities of the top-tier Phasespace motion tracking system deliver an immersive walk in virtual reconstructions of actual events," Lympouridis explained.
"Most people don’t have a lot of VR experience," said Paisley Smith, an assistant to Project Syria director Nonny de la Pena. "It's a disconnect from the world you know, and you're immersed somewhere else. In this way you can be more invested in the experience. It’s a very powerful, distraction-free storytelling technique."
Originally commissioned for the 2014 World Economic Forum in Davos, one of the aims of creating Project Syria was to emphasize discussion of the humanitarian crisis among the world’s most powerful people.
"Because of the way we promoted the issue, Davos attendees were very keen to discuss it thanks to the VR innovations. It was very interesting to observe reactions," Lympouridis said. "A number of people got very emotional and cried, and we had Syrians who were even more affected by the experience because of its familiarity—everything is in Arabic."
Project Syria has since been taken to the Victoria & Albert Museum in London, where it likewise elicited powerful emotional responses from guests:
Powerful concept...effectively breaks down the barrier of distance. Thank you. --Tom
Short span of time--lots of food for thought. Let us use this media to create better understanding and empathy for global citizens. --Dimesh
Wow - that was a really intense experience! It should possibly come with a warning?! I’m a bit shaken right now but look forward to dissecting the experience as time goes on...you’ve certainly affected me. Thank you. --Anonymous
At first I wanted to move around and explore. I watched the interactions of the characters. As the vehicles went by, I felt a sense of fear and dread. When the explosion went off, I physically reacted. Then I found myself looking around for victims. --Mark and Leeann, USA
Loud + real. Made me feel uncomfortable. Reminded me that 'the West has gone soft' --US Veteran
V and A Museum director Martin Roth had a similarly strong reaction to the experience at Davos. Having visited refugee camps in the past, he thought Project Syria was the most accurate depiction of life as a displaced person, and arranged for the installation to be brought to London, where it fit in well with the museum's effort to preserve Syrian art threatened by the war.
The power of the experience is a testament to the utility of VR technology. Motherboard has previously reported on the US Military's use of VR to treat post-traumatic stress disorder in soldiers returning home from the battlefield, as well as using virtual reality as a training ground for service members. On a different note, a Canadian project is using the Oculus Rift headset to teach journalists basic first aid before they go to conflict zones, and another team is using VR to help diagnose dementia.
In the case of Project Syria, the effect of the experience is almost the reverse of treating PTSD: people take the goggles off, having (relatively) felt a part of the trauma that Syrians are living each day.
Smith explained the difference between a VR experience and your everyday news broadcast:
"In Project Syria, the user is much more of an active participant in the story as opposed to a passive consumer of it," she said. "You can choose where to walk, where to look, and this agency gives you a sense of purpose."
“At the same time, there is some removal of reality because the virtual world is digitally animated," Smith continued. "It changes your sense of self and your sense of space, but you still retain your sense of physical reality outside of the simulation—you have a strange sort of dual consciousness."
I asked Smith about the implications of a generation of young people raised on video games experiencing immersive journalism for the first time, and whether they would approach it differently than their parents, for example.
"Thanks to video games, young people are more open to VR and digitally-generated images as storytelling," she replied, "so they’re very receptive to the project. But they do have to grasp the difference between the game worlds they’re used to versus the reality-based world of the project. And because the experience can be scary, we ask parents of young children to run through it first before they allow their child to do the same."
With immersive VR videogaming just now beginning to seriously take off, thanks to devices like the Oculus Rift, Project Syria represents a welcome contrast to the cartoonish, sanitized, depthless, and jingoistic (also: very entertaining) virtual presentation of war in titles like Call of Duty and Battlefield. For those interested in taking it in, Project Syria leader Nonny de la Pena has said that there are plans to release an Oculus version of the experience soon.
Putting people into Project Syria obviously won't end the civil war that's currently tearing the country apart. But the act of bearing witness is still vital, and the empathetic experience offered by virtual reality offers us the chance to bear witness like never before, and, in the process, better understand the plight of civilians caught in war. Immersive journalism may then be a valuable tool for preventing violent conflict in the future. And as war becomes ever more abstract for those living in the West, anything helps.