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Since Ivan Sutherland proposed a "3D, head mounted display" nearly forty years ago, research on virtual reality has taken huge leaps in medical, military and educational settings, as well as within the field of journalism.

In fact, a report released on Sunday from the Knight Foundation and the USA Today Network predicts that 2016 will be a significant year for the development of virtual reality as more and more newsrooms begin to recognise its potential.

Immersive storyteller Chris Milk described virtual reality as "the ultimate empathy machine", and his VR films such as Clouds Over Sidra and Millions March NYC aim to encourage a human connection and understanding between those wearing a headset and the characters in the story.

But if the documentary is to be reinvented for VR and 360-degree video, what challenges and responsibilities does this pose to content creators, and what are the implications of stirring up feelings of empathy within the audience?

Mandy Rose, director of the University of the West of England's Digital Cultures Research Centre, discussed the challenges of introducing 'presence' into storytelling at this year's i-docs conference in Bristol.

"I'm ambivalent about the emergence of a cutting edge documentary form which requires the viewer to be strapped in to a screen with, in this first generation of work at least, their agency often limited to the ability to turn their head and look around," said Rose.

Indeed, immersive journalist Nonny de la Peña witnessed this limitation whilst experimenting in VR non-fiction storytelling herself.

Reaction to one of her films, Hunger in LA, which displays a man going into a diabetic seizure, showed the concept to be problematic.

"[The review] said, 'I knew the set up of the story going in and I knew the diabetic man was suffering his attack. I turned, and despite the animation, the illusion held – my heart rate picked up and I impulsively wanted to do something.

"My first inclination was to kneel down and hold him steady if I could, but at the same time I knew how ridiculous that would look to the cable wrangler that was standing behind me in the real world,'" said Rose.

"The quote is suggestive of the effective power of this virtual experience, and of the tension behind the immersion and the spectator user position – that feeling of presence and dislocation."

If viewers are left feeling helpless, filmmakers must take into account whether this medium may ultimately detach them from what they are seeing, even though they have a greater sense of empathy for the characters and situation.

Rose noted that when she watches VR documentaries, she wonders what she is doing in the situation, almost feeling ghost-like, an entity that cannot be seen nor heard.

"Perhaps it is like a dream," said Rose.

"You have no bodily presence – people have noted that you never see people's arms and legs in a dream."

The empathy elements of VR, which have been discussed by Ainsley Sutherland in an MIT Open Documentary Lab case study, are challenged by the fact that while VR might offer viewers the chance to stand in a position occupied by another, it can't offer the possibility of understanding their internal state – only the physical conditions that might influence them.

"But the empathy idea presents another problem for me – the notion that the world's problems arise from a scarcity of feeling rather than from issues of power, inequality and exploitation of people and planetary resources," said Rose.

"Milk standing in front of the TED audience represents to me a perfect storm of hype where a documentary fantasy of saving the world meets Silicone Valley's fantasy of the techno-fix."

Find out more from Rose's talk in our recent podcast.

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