Could you survive solitary? Behind the scenes of the Guardian's '6x9' VR experience

In its first experiment with the storytelling power of VR, the Guardian transports the viewer to a windowless solitary confinement prison cell as it generates empathy and conversation around the psychological impact of prolonged isolation.

‘Welcome to your cell. You’re going to be here for 23 hours a day,’ directs a voice as you look around a whitewashed room. On the floor lies a concrete bed and just a few feet away from that, a toilet and washbasin. You’re enclosed by four windowless walls, shuttered in by a metal door complete with a slit through which your food is passed. Could you survive solitary confinement?

That was the question the Guardian wanted to pose when it set out to create its VR experience ‘6x9’. Nine months in the making, the immersive creative experiments with the storytelling power of VR by placing viewers in a virtual cell to give them an insight into the psychological and sensory deprivation associated with long-term solitary confinement.

The short film, designed to be viewed on Google Cardboard or using VR goggles, commands visual and auditory engagement from the user. It mimics several well-documented symptoms of prolonged isolation, including hallucination and out-of-body experiences. Meanwhile, graffiti scrawled across the walls fades in and out to highlight the emotions prisoners kept in segregation may suffer – from anxiety through to loss of identity and paranoia. As the user explores their tiny dwelling, stories of those previously incarcerated play in the background, alongside the cries of other prisoners.

Hundreds of thousands of people around the world have first-hand experience of these conditions – with an estimated 80,000 to 100,000 prisoners kept in such surroundings in the US alone. To tell their story, and build on what is already a “pertinent issue” for the paper, the Guardian approached global content studio The Mill to help simulate life in solitary confinement.

Visceral experience

The Guardian has been pushing discussion around the prevalence of extended solitary confinement through its editorial for some time now. In February of this year, the publisher’s chief US reporter Ed Pilkington covered the story of Albert Woodfox, America’s longest-standing solitary confinement prisoner. Freed after 43 years in a six-by-nine-foot cell, Woodfox told Pilkington that the experience was “punishment without ending” and pressed for an end to the practice in the States.

From this feature emerged an office discussion around pulling together a project on solitary confinement with “many components,” notes Francesca Panetta, the Guardian’s special projects editor who is tasked with leading the publisher’s experimental storytelling initiatives.

“I was interested in VR as a form and had been thinking about what we could do,” she says. “In the end it was ‘6x9’ that materialised.”

Upon inviting The Mill to work with her team on the film, Panetta says the agency ended up investing time and effort in the project too, making it “a real collaboration”.

The Mill’s interactive department was tasked with producing an experience to help viewers get a sense of what isolation feels like. Along with the Guardian, the consultancy’s creative director, Carl Addy, resolved that the “visceral experience” of solitary confinement would help emotionally connect them to the cause.

“The UN states that solitary confinement is a form of torture, yet it is really hard for the general public to rally around an issue like this when criminals are involved,” he says, adding that the use of VR was tactical “so as to generate empathy and conversation around the topic by giving members of the public a way to experience a simulation of solitary”.

“Essentially this was a well-researched piece of journalistic filmmaking – a factual documentary that has been translated and directed in VR as an immersive experience.”

Building empathy

To build empathy around the contentious issue, the makers of ‘6x9’ decided to replicate the experience of isolated incarceration in disturbing detail. The nine-minute long film drew on the stark testimonies of former inmates who had been held in solitary in California and New York, with input from leading psychologists in the field and audio from PBS’ Frontline documentary Solitary Nation, which was filmed in a prison in Maine.

With support from Solitary Watch, an online initiative designed to educate US citizens about the widespread use of solitary confinement, the project was painstakingly researched ahead of development. The Guardian interviewed seven former inmates at length about their time in isolation and worked with leading academic psychologists Terry Kupers and Craig Haney to find out more about the psychological effects of the practice, such as blurred vision, sensations of floating and anxiety.

The final product was designed using gaming engine Unity, by means of a CGI imagery, which while widely used in gaming is still firmly in the test-and-learn arena in terms of news stories. Panetta says The Mill was very considerate of the delicate subject matter when it came to developing the game-like aspect of ‘6x9’.

“They were very understanding of the integrity that needed to be in the piece – this was a piece of journalism, not a game, and throughout we discussed what that meant for the piece.”

Strengthening the story

The process, however, was not without its challenges. “With VR being such a nascent medium, there was a lot of experimentation involved,” says The Mill’s creative technologist Kevin Young.

“While obviously very cutting-edge, there are still a lot of limitations – you can’t move around easily and you need a way of interacting with the world that feels intuitive without breaking the sense of immersion.”

To get around this, the team decided to forgo placing user interface overlays on the film to make users “feel like they are really there”.

Panetta notes that it was also hard to determine how to get people to keep their headsets on until the end and, in turn, how long the film should leave people in a space with nothing to do apart from listen to the sounds of the prison around them.

To get as wide a viewership as possible, The Mill decided to build ‘6x9’ with Google’s $15 Cardboard in mind. It meant designing elements around the limitations of Android and iOS smartphones, but by the end of the project Young notes that the agency had also deployed a version for Samsung Gear VR and a 360 rendered video for YouTube.

In the end, some ideas had to be sacrificed so as not to overwhelm the viewer, says Panetta. Plans to include a ‘kite’ containing a message from another inmate were scrapped because the film was already becoming so “jam-packed with various bits and pieces”.

“What you see on screen only represents a small portion of the total work that was created,” Young says. “So many parts of the experience had alternate versions and were iterated on before being discarded; either to simplify the experience, improve interaction or to strengthen the story.”

With over 1.2m visits to the ‘6x9’ hub on the Guardian and counting, the collaborators’ desire to raise awareness around the psychological and sensory effects of solitary confinement looks to have paid off. The full experience was offered to attendees at the Tribeca film festival – including actor Robert De Niro – to encourage debate, and has even been viewed upon invitation by the White House, according to The Mill.

A whole new medium of ideation

So what role will VR play in the future of journalism? While Panetta for one is “very excited” about the creative opportunities it will open, she is cautious that there is a time and a place for this type of tech.

“For stories where it makes sense for you to be there ‘on location’ it has a huge role,” she muses, “but not for all journalism. We’ll see experimentation over the next few years and I think that will show more clearly what its role will be.”

Addy meanwhile believes VR is a whole new medium of ideation and storytelling. Describing it as an “amalgam of cinema, theatre and gaming,” he is confident that VR will stick around if it can execute something that’s always worked well in the industry; great ideas, well told.

“VR naturally immerses a viewer into the environment due to the viewer being in the scene rather than detached by the presence of a screen. Even the fact that you cannot direct camera framing means that the viewer feels compelled to explore and investigate the scenes more,” he says.

“All of these lead to more powerful, emotive and resonant experiences which make the future of storytelling hugely exciting. The potential to hold the viewer’s attention is immense.”

VR may still be a tricky field for publishers and brands to navigate, but it is clear that when it comes to immersive journalism it can be an effective tool to help bridge the gap between the viewer and the subject matter. Now that VR is breaking out of the gaming space and into the storytelling one, it’s no longer simply a case of getting eyes on screens, but getting people into places.

This article first appeared in The Drum's special VR issue, published on 1 June.

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