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April 28, 2016, 10:36 a.m.
Reporting & Production

The Guardian’s first VR project makes viewers experience the horrors of solitary confinement

“It’s a story which is all about space and the environment you’re in. Even though this is a small space, the story is all about that space.”

The first thing you notice while watching “6×9,” The Guardian’s first VR project, is how spooky solitary confinement is. The virtual segregation cell The Guardian created isn’t a photorealistic depiction of a real space, but it does convey a real sense of the dread, fear, and isolation felt by the 80,000 people subjected to solitary confinement in the United States alone.

Such is the promise of virtual reality, which journalists are quickly adopting as a way to not only help people understand topics, but also experience them. While solitary confinement is familiar territory for The Guardian, virtual reality is helping to tell the story in ways that no article could, said Francesca Panetta, special projects editor at The Guardian.

“This is something where you’re in someone’s shoes,” she said. “In a lot of VR pieces, you’re watching some kind of scene or action, but this is putting you in the position of someone else. That’s a little bit different.”

The Guardian created two versions of the project: the true VR version available through its new Guardian VR app, and a 360-degree video for people who don’t have VR headsets. (The latter is below.)

While “6×9” is a very visual experience, audio’s an important component as well. To tell the story, Pancetta and coproducer Lindsay Poulton asked six men and one woman, all former inmates, to share their experiences with solitary confinement. Their voices walk viewers through the experience. To help make the experience even more visceral, the project also features background sounds recorded at actual U.S. prisons. Those came via Frontline, which provided The Guardian with 25 hours of material it collected as a part of its own documentary about solitary confinement, Solitary Nation.

Beyond helping viewers understand what it’s like to undergo solitary confinement, The Guardian also wanted “6×9” to show its psychological effects. People in solitary confinement often experience anxiety, panic attacks, blurred vision, and hallucinations, which The Guardian attempted to convey via a variety of on-screen effects in the video.

“In the end we wanted them to know all the facts about solitary confinement, but we also wanted them to feel what it’s like in there,” Panetta said. “These are people who are often losing their grips on their sanity.”

The Guardian isn’t the first publisher to use VR and 360-degree video to offer viewers a look inside prisons. In September, Fusion used the tech to take viewers inside a Louisiana juvenile detention facility. RYOT, which was acquired by AOL this month, also used 360-degree video to help viewers experience solitary confinement.

“It’s a story which is all about space and the environment you’re in,” Panetta said, explaining why journalists have gravitated towards prisons with their early VR projects. “The location and landscape plays a big role. Even though this is a small space, the story is all about that space.”

POSTED     April 28, 2016, 10:36 a.m.
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