Emblematic's Eren Aksu believes that the future of journalism won't just be talking about what happened—but living through it.
At Emblematic, founded by virtual reality pioneer Nonny de la Pena in 2007, filmmakers combine real recorded audio with video captures of locations or subjects of stories to place viewers at the center of a Syrian civil war during a bombing, inside the maddening claustrophobia and isolation of solitary confinement, or at the mercy of Planned Parenthood protesters.
This March, Aksu will appear at TechfestNW at the Portland Art Museum, a gathering of leading thinkers, startups and established companies that has showcased the the Pacific Northwest's talent and innovation for the past five years. Before his appearance, WW talked to Aksu about the possibilities of virtual reality journalism.
Why do virtual reality journalism? Does it add to realism, or seem more constructed?
We think it adds a deeper level, creates more empathy, and raises more awareness than using regular media and social media. We think it can really take an audience to the event, and have the participant be a witness.
What do you point to as your greatest successes in the medium?
Project Syria has been incredible. We've helped people attend Syrian refugee trials, see what it's been like to be in Aleppo during an attack, raised funds for a nonprofit called the Al Imdaad Foundation, building refugee camps on the border of Syria.
Another one is the Across the Line project, where you follow a woman who has to walk into a health care clinic—you listen to real audio we've captured across the U.S.
Another piece is called Out of Exile—that's really powerful—it's the story of how 45 percent of youth homelessness originates from young kids coming out to their parents and the parents kicking them out of their homes. We built one on Trayvon Martin called One Dark Night.
How do you put these pieces together?
One of our main creative processes is we use real audio. We base everything off of the real audio clips, consult real videos and images, and then recreate the environment and put you on the ground. We're find from real videos, and do holographic volumetric capture of real person in the story. We use that as our main script, use journalistic integrity as much as we can to recreate.
You spoke about inducing empathy. People on the video game upload site Steam—not a hotbed for empathy—were really upset about Project Syria.
That has a lot to do with the limitations of tech at its time—that was built for $30,000. Game players are so used to a $75 million budget, the graphical quality of the project upset people—they thought it took away from the realism. But when we brought it from conference to conference, reactions that we got were crazy. People weren't aware this was happening.
We found with the Planned Parenthood piece, they're showing the piece around and it doesn't change people's feelings around abortion—that's not what we were trying to do—but it makes them feel more for the victims of abuse. We've seen an increase in awareness and empathy.
What are the limitations and freedoms working with VR as opposed to traditional journalistic media?
Now we're working with volumetric capture, and photorealistic renderings. Before, we had to work on very small projects, and convince people this will be the future of journalism. Now we have larger budgets to work with, and we've partnered with places like [PBS documentary series] Frontline, and huge nonprofits like Planned Parenthood, we have more freedom to build stories. Previously we were limited by technology and budgets.
Do you find that VR would be a dangerous tool as propaganda?
Like any medium—-internet, TV, film, or print—media will be used for good and bad. No way to stop that. All we can do as storytellers is stay with journalistic integrity, and try to be as transparent as a possible. We're of the opinion that objective journalism doesn't exist. We try to use the medium for what we feel is right, to raise empathy and try to transcend the current worldview.
What's your next piece?
We're launching the Life in Solitary piece—we have three virtual reality pieces collaborating with Frontline. This will be the first of the three. We're hoping to set the standard for joutnalism for VR. It's about a man who spends five years in soliterary in Maine—22 hours a day, what that does to a person., We'll be releasing it at South by Southwest [in Austin]. The other will be a piece about the civil war in the Sudan. We sent a team out into he field and captured this footage in Sudan—you can see what it's like hiding in a cave. .