Immersion in (virtual) reality

“How can reality be known? Through the drug-hazed account of Dr. Gonzo, or with a good old factual, inverted-pyramid report?”

As someone who puts “dissecting future-of-news discourses” high in her research interests, coming up with my own prediction for 2015 is an awkward exercise. I leave the real attempt at futurology to the crew of talented media gurus that write in these columns, but there’s still something that I would like to see more in 2015: immersive journalism that builds on the possibilities of virtual reality.

juliette-de-maeyerVirtual reality journalism — is that even a thing? Well, there’s a Tow Center research project aimed at prototyping “live motion virtual reality journalism.” Journalist Nonny de la Peña has produced several immersive reportages. And the topic gained some attention here and there.

Not that it would save journalism (even if you’ll always find people ready to make that kind of argument). But it would be plain fun. Having seen how people (myself included) react around an Oculus Rift, there’s definitely a sense of enchantment and playfulness that goes with a maturing technology previously confined to ugly, unconvincing depictions of badly animated reality.

The interesting questions don’t solely reside in the wonderment of geekery, of course. They’re also in a peculiar conceptual connection. Who else used to invoke the phrase “immersion journalism”? The tenets of literary journalism, new journalism, creative nonfiction — whatever you want to call it — were built on a long tradition that brought together George Orwell and gonzo frenzy. To them, the concept refers to the need for journalists to immerse themselves in a first-person experience in order to be able to account for the world. The fact that there is a conceptual connection between Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and geeks with VR headsets — between, on one hand, extreme forms of subjectivity conveyed in literary storytelling and, on the other, attempts to represent the world as realistically as possible with the help of the latest technologies — is exactly the kind of strange parallel I find intellectually exciting.

Because ultimately, these ways of doing journalism question our relation to reality — how journalism is about the world and how different ways of accounting for/mediating/constructing (choose one according to your own level of constructivism) the world constitute the diversity of journalism. The question is an old one, the epistemology of journalism: How can reality be known? Through the drug-hazed account of Dr. Gonzo, or with a good old factual, inverted-pyramid report? So far, virtual reality focuses on the eye-witnessing role of journalists and attempts to replicate it faithfully in the experience of the user — with a realist epistemology that seem to imply that seeing with our own eyes (and maybe interacting?) is what matters most. I’m really curious to see what you’ll make of that, 2015.

Juliette De Maeyer is an assistant professor at the Université de Montréal.