#857 DocLab: Ethical Lessons for VR from Documentary Studies with Mandy Rose

Professor Mandy Rose of the University of the West of England, Bristol is one of the three principle investigators of the Virtual Reality: Immersive Documentary Encounters project that’s funded by the UK’s Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council.

There are six major questions that the VR: Immersive Documentary Encounters project is set out to investigate including:

  • How spatial storytelling can be used to witness the real?
  • How presence impacts subjects in a documentary?
  • How does VR’s affordances with social interaction or social isolation mediate VR documentary experiences?
  • “What are the ethical implications of virtual encounters with images of real people and places?”
  • What are the challenges of cultivating an interdisciplinary grammar for virtual reality that includes documentary across a range of different disciplines and domains?
  • “What business models are emerging to support VR documentary production?”

One of the principle questions that they’re going to be exploring are the ethical implications of VR looked at through a documentary lens. Rose was in the process of putting together a gathering of immersive documentary producers and scholars to meet up at the BBC Broadcasting House in London to discuss some of these ethical issues. She mentioned that there were some insights from my recent XR Ethics Manifesto that she would be passing along.

She also mentioned that she’d primarily be using documentary theorist Michael Renov’s central triad of looking at the relationship between the producer and subject as well as the producer and the audience. In terms of the producer-and-subject relationship some of the big questions that come for her include: How are the terms of the relationship negotiated? Who decides what story is told? Who produces value from the interaction? Who derives reputational value? Who derives economic value? Rose said that usually all of these answers undoubtedly benefit the professional producer and media maker.

In terms of the relationship between the producer and the audience, many of the issues have to do with things like truth, veracity, integrity in representations of the real-world and the historical reality it references, ethical issues around rhetoric and persuasion, and then issues around responsibly handling the emotional and visceral power of immersive. There’s also the whole issue of what data are collected on each person as they watch the experience, and then what happens to that data. She’s also leveraging a lot of the research that was cited in Madary and Matzinger’s paper titled, “Real Virtuality: A Code of Ethical Conduct. Recommendations for Good Scientific Practice and the Consumers of VR Technology.”

Rose also says that the ethical practices of 2D documentary films are far from being settled or having any type of normative standards around. There are a wide variety of philosophies and approaches to ethics in documentary, and we’re starting to see an even wider approach to ethics because as Rose points out, there are many people who are coming from non-documentary, and more technical backgrounds where they don’t have the larger ethical context for how these normative standards may have been developing within the context of the documentary film production community.

Finally, Rose talks a little bit about the challenges of distribution, some of their preliminary research in terms of whether people are willing to put on a VR HMD at home to watch documentary content, and the visceral power of embodied experiences to be able to catalyze behavioral change and cultivate a closer relationship with other people and the world around us.


Here’s the XR Ethics Manisfesto that I presented at the Greenlight Strategy Conference on October 18, 2019 in San Francisco, CA.

This is a listener-supported podcast through the Voices of VR Patreon.

Music: Fatality

Rough Transcript

[00:00:05.452] Kent Bye: The Voices of VR Podcast. Hello, my name is Kent Bye, and welcome to the Voices of VR Podcast. So, continuing on my series of looking at some of the immersive storytelling innovations that were coming out of the IDVA DocLab, today's conversation is with Professor Mandy Rose of the University of the West of England. She's one of the lead investigators of this whole initiative called Virtual Reality Immersive Documentary Encounters. They're looking at a number of different questions around looking at virtual reality and the future of immersive and interactive documentary. What's the future of where this is all going? And so they've received quite a lot of funding to be able to dive into a number of different issues, a lot of which happen to be the same type of issues I happen to be covering here on the Voices of VR podcast. But one of the things in particular that they're also looking at is some of the ethical implications. And so at the ITFA doc lab, I ran into Professor Mady Rose. I think I first met her at Tribeca and then ran into her again in Venice. But just kind of catching up with her, I had heard that she was going to be gathering a number of different academics and media producers at the BBC that following Friday to be able to talk about some of the ethical issues that come up within virtual reality. And so I really wanted to just sit down with her and get some of her initial thoughts on where she's at and what she's thinking about since, you know, I recently put out this whole XR ethics manifesto trying to give an overall landscape of how I see it. And they have a similar type of mission to be able to start to either map that out and flesh out some of the specific issues that come up when it comes to VR documentary. So, that's what we're covering on today's episode of the Voices of VR podcast. So, this interview with Mandy happened on Sunday, November 24th, 2019 at the Itva Doc Lab in Amsterdam, Netherlands. So, with that, let's go ahead and dive right in.

[00:01:51.470] Mandy Rose: Okay, hi. So I am Professor Andy Rose from the University of the West of England, currently with a bit of a cold, so not speaking in my regular voice. And at the moment I'm co-investigator on a substantial research project that is called Virtual Realities, subtitle Immersive Documentary Encounters. That project is funded by the UK's EPSRC Research Council, Engineering Physical Sciences Research Council. It's an interdisciplinary project with myself coming from documentary and studies in digital cultures, Professor Danai Stanton-Fraser who's an experimental psychologist and Kee Kater who's a computer scientist. So it's a two and a half year project. one million plus pounds and we're approaching documentary VR from a number of perspectives. We're undertaking a number of empirical studies, so for example we've just completed a household study in Bristol finding out what people think about VR non-fiction experienced in their home. So that's necessarily mobile VR or 360 VR. We are doing some studies in the lab. So there's been a study looking at, in a way, responding to those kind of empathy machine claims. But that study, in fact, looks at implicit bias because the Our team felt there was a more stable set of data that they could work from in that implicit bias scale. So they're looking at upwards of 100 people's reactions to Clouds over Sidra. Some people seeing it in a headset, some people seeing a version of it on a flat screen. So we're doing some empirical work. We've created an online mediography which tracks Not all, but a considerable percentage of the English-language VR work produced between Narnia de la Peña's Hunger in LA 2012 and the end of 2018. So just kind of mapping it, you can look at it through themes, through directors, you can look at the length of the projects. So it's just giving one a feel for those early years of non-fiction VR. And we've also commissioned three projects. all of which are here at IDFA, I'm happy to say, in different forms. These three projects we saw as kind of path-finding projects, each one engaging with a significant question for VR documentary. So Waiting Room VR, which is here, a 360 video piece made by Victoria Mappelbeck, in a sense asks how her practice, a first-person documentary practice, can translate into a spatialized storytelling environment of VR. There's a project by Lisa Harewood and Ewan Cass Kavanagh called Love and Seawater, which is part of a bigger project that Lisa's been undertaking for some years that looks at the family separations that have been a part of economic migration from the Caribbean to the UK, looks at that issue of family separation and the legacy of that issue in families. So their question was about how you might use VR as a participatory platform involving the community who are interested in that story. And the third project... Oscar Rabie's Transplant, a project which picks up on his preoccupations that we saw in his Ascent piece, which I still consider to be one of the most significant pieces of VR non-fiction. So Ascent 2014, one of the earliest pieces too. It was his first VR piece and he started to think about, he's interested in how action can take the story forward. How a story can be acted by the user rather than told to them. And so he wants to pick up on those themes and Transpond is also a thematically, it's a continuity with Ascent because it's also about Chile in the years of the Pinochet regime. So these are some of the things we're doing. It's a big busy project with these different disciplines involved and it's been super interesting because We were working together for the first time. We came together two years ago, a team of six of us, three professors now, three research fellows, and gradually over time, as we got to know each other better and understand each other's methods better, the kind of work we're each doing, perhaps in separate studies, is kind of beginning to converge more, and it begins to feel like we're actually understanding things from a multiple perspective in quite interesting ways.

[00:06:27.022] Kent Bye: You mentioned there's three other people. Who are the other people?

[00:06:28.903] Mandy Rose: You said that they're... So, I mentioned Key. So there's Key Cater, who's the Principal Investigator. She's in Computer Science and she works with somebody called Chris Bevan, who's the Research Fellow. And they're both at the University of Bristol. There's Danai Stanton-Fraser, who's a Professor of Psychology at the University of Bath. She works with somebody called Harry Farmer. He's the Research Fellow there. And I work with somebody called Dave Green, who's the Research Fellow with me at the University of the West of England.

[00:06:55.925] Kent Bye: Okay, great. Yeah, it's good to know that you've been working on this and looking at it. I've been looking at it experientially and seeing the pieces and talking to creators, but just to kind of map it out and do more formal research, it's great to hear that they got the funding to do that. So, ethics is something that I've been tracking for a number of years, especially pretty intently this year for a good seven months or so. put out an ethics manifesto that was trying to distill down, the best I could, the wide variety of different complex issues that I think that immersive technologies are bringing up. And I heard that you're also going to be holding a gathering about ethics, and so maybe you could talk about how your entry point into this issue of ethics and how you're approaching this problem.

[00:07:37.247] Mandy Rose: Okay, so within our virtual realities project we have an overarching question, very broad. How might VR take forward the project of documentary for reflecting and critiquing our shared world? It's something like that. That's our big question. Then we have a number of, I think, six sub-questions. and some of those we've been pursuing through the studies I've been talking about. But there's a question that's hanging at the bottom, which I wrote sort of three years ago, and it's about time we started kind of looking it in the eye. And the question is, what are the ethical implications of encounters between users and media images of real people and places? So it's asking really what's specific to the intersection between documentary and virtual reality. So yeah, so we're holding a workshop this coming Friday at the BBC Broadcasting House in London and we have about 40 people coming from probably half and half practitioners and academics. Academics from a broad range of fields. So I've really just been thinking about how to set up a productive one day workshop thinking about that intersection. And I guess how I've been thinking that through is by kind of going back to Michael Renoff, he's a documentary theorist, his model of the kind of central triad within documentary, the triad of the producer, subject and audience, you know, and starting to kind of think, well, if those are our kind of axes, where are the ethical issues that are specific to documentary, and where are their ethical issues, which, as I saw in your recent lecture in Los Angeles, wasn't it?

[00:09:18.843] Kent Bye: In San Francisco, yeah.

[00:09:19.843] Mandy Rose: San Francisco, yeah. I mean, the ethical issues in VR are a multitude, given that VR has applications in so many areas of life, but I've just been trying to kind of think of a way of framing the day on Friday. So thinking then first about Let's take first the producer-subject relationship in documentary and think about how that might be different or is it generic? Are the questions there generic or are there some that are relevant to VR? So if you think about the producer-subject relationship, you're thinking about things like how the terms of the relationship are negotiated. You're thinking about who gets to tell what story, who decides what the story is. you're getting to think about things about who derives what value from that encounter between the producer and the subject, who derives economic value, who derives reputational value, you know, and I think, you know, we know that unless some of those issues are brought to the surface and made transparent and clear and put on the table, it tends to be the professional who benefits in most of those ways and the terms tend to favour the professional or the media maker. So these are general issues in relation to documentary and so in a way I was I'm tempted to park the producer subject relationship and yet Thinking about it. Then I started thinking about areas where VR does make a difference. So let's say for example The 360... Let's talk first about 360 video. So if we think about the 360 video camera and the fact that unless you are... Well, most pieces of 360 video that we will have seen, you don't see a director, you don't see an interviewer, the person has disappeared from the picture. Well, actually, that's kind of interesting. In a way, that, in the moment of filming, the terms that we've been used to in documentary have shifted. And actually one of the things I've observed about that, and I just think it's quite cool and interesting, and actually I noticed it in this dinners piece that's on show here at IDFA, is that actually that makes some space for the participants, that they can potentially take control of, take advantage of. You saw that demonstrated very nicely in Lynette Woolworth's collisions piece, where she invited that elder Aboriginal elder to take control of the space and to perform his story in a way he chose. So there's an interesting thing there. So there's something about the power relationship between producer and subject which is open to some kind of negotiation in the 360 space. I think that's something worth us thinking about. And then actually your lecture pointed me to something else that I hadn't really been thinking about which was about volumetric capture. So if, you know, in another kind of VR, a VR that involves volumetric capture in one way or another, there's some questions there about the data involved in volumetric capture and about the transparency of terms again. You know, if I invite somebody into my house to volumetrically capture the space, well, that's not necessarily just my space, it's other people's space too. So how do I think about the ownership in that material? So those are a couple of things I thought I hope that we'll talk about more in the workshop on Friday. I should have said in a way that what we're hoping to do, maybe demanding in only a day, is to just start coming up with some questions which producers might ask themselves as they embark on making a VR non-fiction piece. So we talked a little about the producer and the subject. then I guess the other axis is producer and audience. And in that space, in general, not talking about VR here, but in general, one's thinking about the contract, unwritten contract between the producer and the audience. We're thinking about issues of truth, of veracity, issues about the relationship between the documentary content on screen and the real world it purports to speak about. They're both real worlds but the world it purports, the historical reality it references. So there are those kind of issues and there are issues around rhetoric and persuasion and the strategies a documentary maker employs to make a case. And I think in this kind of space, producer and audience, there's a lot there that I think needs taking account of in VR to do with the power of immersion, to do with the difference that the spatial environment, the immersive environment of VR makes to your emotional response to the material. So what I'm doing in the presentation I'm writing for Friday, to frame the day, is then looking at Madhuri and Metzinger's first code of virtual reality ethics, which you must be familiar with.

[00:14:07.285] Kent Bye: Yeah, Thomas Metzinger's? Yeah, yeah, he went through and... Madhuri, is it Michael? Yeah, there's a couple people that in the frontiers they went through with the ethics, yeah.

[00:14:17.013] Mandy Rose: So at that point then I'm looking to their work in a way because they have already provided a kind of taxonomy of issues to be alert to. They look at first research context and then public, wider audience context. So I'm looking at their work as a way of kind of further identifying issues at that intersection that I've been talking about and their work is, I mean they're both psychologists as well as philosophers and so their work is kind of particularly references the psychological issues in relation to virtual reality and particularly in relation to virtual reality as it is a medium which in a sense puts you into a new environment. So their kind of reference points are, you know, I mean, things like, God, I'm going to forget the name of the really famous study into the Harvard study, which invited people to effectively torture people from the 1950s.

[00:15:17.601] Kent Bye: Oh, yeah, the Milgram experiment?

[00:15:19.882] Mandy Rose: Yeah, Milgram. So they, on the one hand, so they're effectively saying VR is a space. In fact, this is what you say too, isn't it? A space which changes the context, right? And so then you've got to think about how sensitive human beings are to context-specific issues. So they reference all sorts of academic work, but Milgram gives one a reference point, but then equally they reference a very recent or maybe only 15-year-old study that showed that people were more likely to pay for their coffee in a coffee machine if there was a pair of eyes on the wall in front of them. So they're interested in that human tendency to be sensitive to the environment, and they use that as a way of saying one needs to be very cautious about VR environments. And of course, as we know from the many applied uses of VR in therapy or in training, that yeah, indeed, the VR environment is a powerful one for users. So yes, I look at that and then in the end I guess I'm going to then highlight just a couple of things that put some more detail into a couple of areas that I think are worth our attention. One is that issue around persuasion and the other one is the issue around data, which clearly is kind of huge, not just the kind of the data of one's content in terms of if one's talking to a documentary maker or if they're recording your words, but all the potential that VR has for other forms of data capture, whether it's galvanic skin response or whether it's gaze data, that whole space seems to me that that makes a unique shift from historic documentary modes needs to be paid attention to.

[00:16:58.509] Kent Bye: In the process of me diving into ethics, I had actually gone to the American Philosophical Association Eastern meeting and talked to a number of different philosophers. I had one conversation where I was talking about wanting to have a clear line of the ethical boundary. The philosopher that I was talking to is like, you know what, there is no clear line. That's why ethics has been an issue for so long is because it is a normative standard that isn't always clear and that often the issue with design is that there's trade-offs. And within ethics, there's also trade-offs where, you know, just look at the issue of freedom versus security. So having like the freedom of speech versus like being completely safe. Can you optimize and have perfect freedom and perfect security? No, there's like an inverse relationship there where you have to find somewhere on the spectrum you're going to be where if you have complete freedom, you may not have that safety. And if you have complete safety, you may have no freedom because it's sort of totalitarian. So I feel like we're in this. period right now in our culture where we have a lot of these transgressions of what those lines should be and then there has to be some stepping back and trying to come up with these different types of ethical frameworks or manifestos or ways to help assign the landscape so we can at least be aware of what those potential moral dilemmas are so that as we're making these decisions we can be aware of them. I found that having conversations with lots of people helps because it's a lot of cultivating your own sense of moral intuition around what has transgressed a boundary. But from you, your perspective, as you look at what is happening, you have this, I guess in some ways, the empathy machine or going in and extracting a story and then coming out and there's a clear asymmetry of power that happens and then who is the one that's actually telling a story, who has license to tell a story, what kind of collaboration, and having that as a relationship. If there have been transgressions in the past, how do you start to then reel it back and say, OK, these are the best practices, or this is a framework that we should use in order to have good ethical practices? So it feels like the first phase of at least identifying what the landscape is, and then filling out what those transgressions are, and then coming up with a more formalized ethical framework to be able to define what those boundaries should be.

[00:19:12.237] Mandy Rose: Well, I guess these are some of the many reasons why we're starting with coming up with some questions rather than coming up with a set of principles. I mean, yeah, I mean, the ethics of documentary are by no means, you know, the ethical space of documentary is by no means a stable, established, there is no common understanding. If you looked at the documentaries that are here at IDFOR, I'm sure the makers, I know that the makers of different documentaries would take a very different view about what is ethically proper practice, you know? And I guess documentary makers, to some extent, are always balancing between what they feel is their obligation to the audience, to telling a story, to bringing something to light, and their obligation to the participants. And people take very different views of that. It's a hotly contested area. And there's something interesting about that, that in fact, as I say, it's not that there's a... it's open, it's contested, it's very variable within documentary practice. But then in VR you've also got a whole set of new people coming into work in documentary who may not even have done any documentary studies at film school. They may be coming from a computer science background or... So it's a complicated territory and yeah, indeed, and it's a territory that has varied hugely historically, as you can imagine. The attitude to what was proper documentary practice in the 60s and what your obligations might be to your subjects then, there's been a huge shift since then, you know, since, I guess you might be able to characterize that era around notions of patriarchy or notions of class in terms of who the people were who were making documentaries and, you know, notions, a kind of patrician class of people who felt that they had the right to frame the world and the subject within that frame didn't have a right to speak back about that. So ethics in documentary is a huge area and in a sense there's been a kind of ethical turn in documentary studies in the last decade or so of that becoming much more central to discussions among documentary theorists and academics. Yeah, so it's a huge, shifting, complex territory and I think Starting out with trying to bring it into discussion is a good starting point and yeah thinking about some principles but that's a gradual process.

[00:21:32.022] Kent Bye: Yeah, there's one piece here at the doc lab, Vast Body 22, where you go into this room and there's a Kinect motion sensor, and you're moving your body, and as you move your body, you have images of other people projected onto your body. But as you're doing that outside, everything that you're doing inside of this room is being projected onto a screen. And I know I talked to at least one other attendant who had a huge problem with that. And then once I learned about that, I was like, I didn't realize that either. And I didn't know who was watching it and who have may have been recording that. So you have this sense of even within the audience and the producer, you have these different ethical issues of what's happening with my data. Are you collecting this data? What happens to that data? What kind of disclosure process? I'm not signing any sort of privacy policy. There's kind of this implicit. That could be one vector in terms of what happens to the data that you're participating and giving into an experience. And how is that going to be used within the context of that piece or off into the future as well?

[00:22:30.871] Mandy Rose: No, certainly, I did that piece too. And I didn't realize there was a screen outside and somebody I know well and I don't mind about it was recording me in there. Yeah, I had no idea. So, and actually, you know, I'm thinking about the festival in Venice in September or was it late August? You know, the Porton Down project, which I really like and I've sort of written about a little bit, which is a kind of critique of the potential for VR for surveillance and data capture. They also didn't tell us what was happening with our data, you know, and that was part of the project. So these things are easily done, I think. So I think there is, you know, the first step is to start that conversation, to come up with some collective thinking about it, which one can share. And, you know, happily, there are platforms like Immerse, where we've been sharing some of our research recently, where, you know, I would hope we'd put some kind of article fairly soon after the workshop just to begin that process of sharing.

[00:23:26.971] Kent Bye: Well, for you, what are some of the either biggest open questions that you're trying to answer or open problems you're trying to solve?

[00:23:34.055] Mandy Rose: Well, I'm really preoccupied with what it means to have this headset experience. What kind of exhibition models might be there for the headset experience? I'm genuinely perplexed by the kind of landscape of VR non-fiction at the moment. It begins to feel a little bit like the people who are commissioning the work are content for it to sit in the festival circuit. Certainly the research we've done in the households in Bristol suggests that while people are really enthusiastic about VR non-fiction and really see VR as a way that you might make connections, feel a sense of another world to your own, another environment, another experience, they also don't want to wear a headset at home, which is fine by me, yeah? absolutely fine by me. So that's kind of interesting and puzzling, right? So I'm not sure, I feel, you know, we're in a space where I know, I'm very sure that many of the applied uses of VR, they're tried and tested now for, you know, 20 years or more and the uses for some therapy or the uses for, you know, training are tried and tested and I'm sure they are ongoing. But I really don't understand about VR and entertainment at the moment. I don't understand. And when I say entertainment, I include documentary within that. I really don't understand its place in the world. And I find that puzzling. I find it puzzling. We're in this kind of, it seems to me, a period of kind of perpetual innovation now. And things moving so fast with new kind of technologies emerging. Anyway, as I say, I find the exhibition a puzzle.

[00:25:24.545] Kent Bye: Yeah, well, as I look at the landscape, what I see is a number of things. One is that you have like the Oculus Quest that had just come out. So you have new ways of having a good price point and maybe that could potentially be proved to be an inflection point. But also, I like to see what's happening in the mobile market with like Snapchat, Instagram or TikTok, what is happening with the millennial or the Z generation. Also, Minecraft has been out for 10 years and so you have people that have grown up with this game where they're immersed into virtual worlds, they're used to world building and being able to construct their own stories based upon building the equivalent of what would be forts from me, the X generation, building like couches and actually building stuff. Well, we have a whole generation of people that have grown up with Minecraft and be able to be immersed into these virtual worlds. So I feel, I get the sense that, given another five or six years, 2025 is like a mile marker that I say, like, okay, we'll probably be at this saturation point where it'll be this mass ubiquity of virtual and augmented reality, and who knows what Apple's gonna come out with, and what other headsets are gonna come out, and Unreal and other devices, and so there's like the technological platforms are gonna provide the distribution, but it kind of has to hit a saturation point. In the meantime, there's a bit of bootstrapping the entire immersive industry with the enterprise training and applications, which is certainly a lot of compelling things that are there, but I see that there's going to be people that maybe have their first VR experience getting training within their job, and then see the entertainment possibilities. There's been a strong focus on the distribution of gaming, and with the under-presents from Oculus, I feel like that starts to be this crossover that starts to blend in immersive theater and the stories that we see at this festival circuit. kind of breaking out and getting into the spirit of that indie weird art projects into mass distribution. And if that is successful, then maybe we'll see more and more stories like that. So for me, I think it's just a matter of time for the technology platforms to get out there, the use cases in the enterprise market to then get the prices down for more and more people to have access to it, and then not worrying about the existing people as much as to see what's happening with the youth, to see like, okay, where is this gonna go in the future if it's gonna be people that are using TikTok or Snapchat or these type of apps that I don't have a lot of my peer group in, but there seems to be this whole level of immersion of people that are just kind of swimming in these augmented realities already, is that they're gonna be ready to kind of go into the next level of immersion with VR. That's at least my hot take on that.

[00:27:51.760] Mandy Rose: Yeah, well I should have differentiated between gaming and other forms of entertainment. I guess I just take seriously what we've been hearing from these households about the mismatch or their discomfort, their lack of desire to disappear into a headset at home, which I take great heart from. And I think in a way that's also, you know, there's a really widespread concern now about the surveillance society, surveillance capitalism. It's, you know, it's not only a few of us who are concerned about such matters. And I think in a way that also fuels a resistance. So I guess I find it interesting. I think about media historian Brian Winston, who talks about the early years of cinema and kind of reminds one that cinema when cinema was in arrived in the you know 1890s people were already used to going into dark halls in the cities where they were all flooding to at that time they were used to going into a dark room, sitting next to a stranger, which might seem like a curious thing if you've never done that before, and watching a light show, some kind of lantern show, some kind of lecture. There was already the social context for cinema to kind of map onto. And I think that there isn't a social context for that headset experience in the home. Yeah, I agree with you. I do think people may well have a VR headset and check if they were going to buy a house, go and look at a few houses in VR rather than necessarily travel to all of them. I can imagine a headset knocking you about the home, but I'm kind of happy that Gaming, intensive gaming certainly is still considered a little bit socially kind of like unacceptable. Considered like it's, not unacceptable exactly, but it's considered a problem if you spend too much time immersed at home in a headset. And actually, that's fine by me.

[00:29:52.199] Kent Bye: And finally, what do you think the ultimate potential of immersive technologies and immersive storytelling might be and what they might be able to enable?

[00:30:05.105] Mandy Rose: I guess I'm really interested in VR, and I'm talking now about six degrees of freedom in VR. I'm really interested in VR as a space where we move beyond storytelling that is about a flat rectangular image into something that's much more embodied. I think that's super interesting. I think it's super interesting, the idea that I can feel the world, not just look at it. Some of the VR experiences, and I'm thinking about the non-fiction ones, that's my preoccupation, that stay with me. One, for example, is Marshmallow Laser Feast Tree Hugger. I reckon that project changed my relationship to trees. Yeah, there I was embracing a papier-mâché tree and, you know, having some very kind of simple experience of what seemed to be the life force or the water or something rushing up through that tree. And that's just stayed with me. It was really simple. But I, you know, I find that exciting, the idea that having an embodied experience might be able to shift your relationship to aspects of the world around you. And I kind of, you know, I'm interested in that. Yeah.

[00:31:18.720] Kent Bye: Awesome. Great. Well, thank you so much for joining me today on the podcast. So thank you.

[00:31:21.881] Mandy Rose: Thank you.

[00:31:23.162] Kent Bye: So that was professor Mandy Rose. She is at the university of the West of England in Bristol, and she's one of the principal investigators on the virtual reality, the immersive documentary encounters. So I have a number of different takeaways about this interview is that first of all, well, I'm glad that there's funding that's out there to be able to look at the future of what's going to happen with documentary, because you see a lot of different experiences at these film festivals, and it's kind of like more of the nonfiction realm of doing more of a creative depiction of what's happening in reality. They're just trying to figure out what is this whole medium? What does it mean to add agency? What's the future distribution and the funding? And the ethics is one of the big issues as well. And for me, it was fascinating to talk to Mandy just because there's lots of different things that have been happening within the evolution of documentary as a medium. and she makes a great point which is that a lot of people are coming in into virtual reality and they may be coming from a whole variety of different backgrounds and they may not be aware of documentary studies and the whole lineage of the ethical relationships between the producer and the subject and then the producer and the audience and so she's citing Michael Arinov's theory that is this triad of looking at those relationships between the producer and the subject, and then the producer and the audience. And so, you know, just to kind of flesh that out, like, what are the terms of the relationship whenever there's a documentary that's being done? Who decides what kind of stories are being told? Who produces the value of those interactions? Who derives the reputational value and the economic value out of that? And there's a number of different ethical questions that are coming up there, so that you don't feel like you're going into these communities and extracting a story and then coming out and generating all sorts of value out of that. It's kind of like that settler colonial mindset to be able to kind of seize information to extract it and then to take it off without having any sort of feedback loop cycles and to see how this is a relationship between, you know, how do you negotiate these different terms about if there's editorial control, if there's, you know, it's just making sure that you're not going in and telling the story that you want to tell versus letting the people tell their own story. So this is certainly something that comes up quite a bit with a number of different experiences that are out there. And then there's a whole other angle which is like what is the relationship between the producer and the audience not only between like the moral responsibility between you're going to be immersed into this world and so how do you start to navigate those new ethical issues of the responsibility to take care of the audience member and to be aware of things like trauma triggers or You know, what happens with the data that's being collected? There's a number of different experiences. Like we were talking about fast body 22, where things are being broadcast out and that may not be immediately obvious or clear. And it's pretty innocuous in the sense of just, you know, there's people that are passing by and I could see that there's definitely a viral nature to that, of you being able to see what this experience is about before you actually go into it. But there's a larger question of like what type of data might be collected, what happens to that data. And as we move forward, when you start to collect things like eye tracking data and, you know, having things that could be personally identifiable, you know, there's going to be more of a concern as you move forward as to, you know, having a good explicit relationship between the data that are collected and what happens to that data and that relationship between the producer and the audience members. And, you know, there's all sorts of aspects around persuasion and truth and veracity and, you know, the ethics around how you're representing different aspects, the emotional response to the material. And she was citing a lot of the work that was done by Madri and Matsinger and this whole piece that they put together. real virtual reality, a code of ethical conduct, some recommendations for good scientific practice and the consumers of virtual reality technology. So there's a lot of research in there that's looking at, you know, more of the psychological aspects and embodiment and the implications of social pressure, the impact of context issues around different personality disorders. And so there's just a whole range of different research that's out there that they cover within that document. And I think in the XR ethics manifesto that I did, I tried to broaden it out even wider into other contexts that go beyond just embodiment and the individual, just to look at different relationships that are out there, other ethical issues, bringing up things like what happens to the data of different environments and who has license to be able to share it and what kind of information may be inadvertently be broadcast out when you're doing these types of biometric capture. And just making sure that there's asymmetries of power and how to negotiate all that. And then just the final point is that, you know, they've been doing some of the research, trying to see where people are interested in. At this point, I feel like it's really early to be able to see what's going to happen with the different types of content. There's been a lot of content that's produced, but one of the things that the BBC just did was to do a whole pilot study at 160 different libraries all across the United Kingdom. and showing content that was put onto these headsets that were produced by the BBC, very high quality content. And so going into and doing virtuality viewing at home, it might be something that, you know, there may be resistance to people who are maybe typically watching a lot more of that documentary content. And I think that over time, maybe it will start with gaming, and the gaming will be a catalyst to be able to get the penetration of these technology headsets into the homes. So I guess I'm just a little bit more optimistic to where things are going to go, but there's some empirical reality where they're actually doing the studies, they're actually doing surveys, and they're getting information that's getting this feedback that people are a little bit more hesitant to be able to be put on headsets. But at the same time, I think, you know, there's other indications to look at in terms of drivers of where the technology diffusion is going to go. I think certainly the production of quality content and content that may be already of interest of them. And it's hard for me to know what the big catalysts are going to be, but there does seem to be this huge disconnect between the level of the documentary work that's being produced for the festival circuit. And it seems to pretty much die in the vine after that. It doesn't have a way to actually get out into the audience and There's not a whole level of filtering or recommendations or distribution platforms or economic sustainability to be able to really do all that. It's pretty much up to like YouTube. You slap it up to YouTube and it's in the context of thousands of other different pieces of content. That's a variety of different quality. I know that within has been doing quite a number of different distribution options of trying to, you know, filter out and get stuff out there. I've 360 video is not a great option for stuff on Steam But you know if it is a volumetric there are other options there to kind of distribute content out there as well so there isn't really a great way to Distribute stuff that it's like you go to the website and you just know that it's gonna be great content Amazon is actually starting to show some 360 video content on their app, but the curation there is, you know, it's not at the same level of some of the best of the best that I've seen around the festival circuit. So to me, it's a bit of a shame because you see great stuff like the waiting room VR or things like the Daughters of Chibok, which actually won at Venice and some of these, you know, really high quality pieces of content, you know, a lot of content that's being produced by Oculus with the VR for good, you know, it kind of gets lost as well. They don't necessarily put a lot of, promotion behind it. So, you know, the larger message is that the distribution of this content is still a huge open question. And, you know, I'd like to see more of becoming aware of discussion and coverage. Part of the challenge for me of going to these different festivals is that, you know, oftentimes it is very difficult to be able to see this content, but at least if there's a part of a discussion of people who are talking about it, then you might be able to get some word of mouth, different types of recommendations. And hopefully, you know, one of the things that's going to be starting is WebVR is going to be able to be coming out And so people are gonna be able to perhaps create their own memory palaces or worlds that allow you to be introduced to different pieces of content. One of the very innovative ways that I saw, which was actually from AARP, they had a whole piece where it was designed for people who were retired and they wanted to kind of curate the content to be able to guide them to different guided tours and whatnot. and actually created a whole self-contained app that was on Oculus Home that was connected off into this whole spatial environment. And it was basically like a website that was with links, but instead of a website, it's a house that you're navigating around. And within the house, there's different things that are reflective of travel. So like in the room with all these maps and everything, there's links off to Places to go around the world to do these different guided tours So I think stuff like that People creating these playlists and filters of being able to create entire environments that are then linking off into these other worlds I think that's actually going to be a huge part of catalyzing the ability of creating these recommendation systems you can think about Google is the thing that spiders the web and tries to you know you have you go to Google and your search things with the keywords and I think the more decentralized and more decolonized way of the future of discovery is going to be through individuals creating recommendations based upon curating content on the character and the context and to put it into their own immersive world. And so you have WebVR worlds that you go into and it's linking off to content that's going to be a representation of a whole experience that you're trying to do. So I imagine that once WebVR gets launched and people start to create their own worlds to be able to do that, then you're going to be able to, you know, create the early foundations of this metaverse type of way that is more of a bottom-up recommendation coming from people that you trust and finding these worlds that are going to be opening up new worlds to you. So that's what I see kind of the future of distribution as being more this decentralized architecture that is more around these worlds that have been created to be able to link you off into these immersive experiences. So that's all I have for today and I just wanted to thank you for joining me here on the Voices of the Art podcast. And if you enjoy the podcast then please do spread the word, tell your friends, leave a review on iTunes, just send it to somebody that you think might be interested in this content. There's lots of different topics that I'm covering here. And so just pass it along to someone that you may think would enjoy it and just start a conversation. I think that's a lot of what the Voices of VR podcast is about, is to start conversations. And so reach out to Mandy and get involved with what's happening with iDocs. There's a whole symposium that's coming up here in March that I hope to be able to make it out to. But they're gonna be doing all sorts of different academic discussions about the future of immersive documentary. Also, just please do support the work that I'm doing here. I rely upon donations from listeners in order to continue to bring you this coverage. So just $5 or $10 a month is a great amount to give that just allows me to continue to do this type of coverage. So you can become a member and donate today at patreon.com slash Voices of VR. Thanks for listening.

More from this show