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