You are standing in a metallic gray prison cell. Turn your head around and you will hear the echoing sound of a dripping toilet. A crack appears in the wall above it and the shadows of words start decorating the wall – phrases like "too many pencils", "yelling too loud" and "looking the wrong way at a corrections officer", while the voiceover in the background speaks of the struggle of being imprisoned in a cell for hours and hours at a time.
The Guardian today launched 6x9, its first virtual reality experience looking at life in isolated prison cells, available through the Guardian VR app and as a 360-degree video on YouTube.
It aims to raise awareness of the practice of solitary confinement in the US and its repercussions.
The immersive VR experience is nine minutes long and acts as the stepping stone in a more complex reporting project on this issue, which also features text-based stories, a series of podcasts, and photo galleries that will be published on the Guardian website throughout the course of this week.
"Some of the pieces I've seen that suit virtual reality best are where the environment, the location is really important," Francesca Panetta, multimedia special projects editor at the Guardian who spearheaded the project, told Journalism.co.uk.
"This isn't a very exotic location, but it is all about space and place and your position within that place. It's also an environment that not very many people have had access to and that's another thing I think virtual reality is very good at – giving people access to places they don't normally go to."
6x9 features interviews with seven people – six men and one woman – about their experiences of being held in solitary confinement in the US, for lengths of time ranging from one to eight years.
It also includes discussions with two academic psychologists who have studied the physiological effects of this type of imprisonment.
Panetta said the virtual reality aspect of 6x9 has user interactivity at its core, something that was possible thanks to the technology used to create it, Unity, and the fact that the replica prison cell in which the interaction takes place is built in a computer-generated imagery environment (CGI) rather than using video footage.
One section of 6x9 lets the viewers choose which story in particular they want to look at it, after they have already had an introduction to the space and the issue at hand. The VR experience also features different and more in-depth content than the 360-degree video does, which lasts for just under three minutes.
"You are sort of left alone in that space and you explore by looking and hearing stories. You begin to learn what is allowed in that environment.
"For example, you look at the books in the cell and that way you learn that inmates are only allowed to have five books at a time.
"Most of the journalistic, non-fiction virtual reality pieces I've seen have mainly been 360-degree video, so this is a way that gives you control of that space, gives you, as a viewer, agency."
Panetta worked with two other members of the Guardian's visuals team, Lindsay Poulton and Andrew Mason, on the editorial side of the project that started in August last year.
The post-production and technology side of it has been created in partnership with The Mill.
The interviews featured were all conducted in person by Panetta, who decided not to focus on a single person's story, but rather chose the interviewees based on their stories, the range of experiences, age and gender.
The conversations with the two psychologists were "the angle for the piece," framing all her other interviews.
The virtual reality experience was actually the catalyst of the larger editorial project, something Panetta said goes against the common newspaper approach of leading a multimedia project with the written stories.
"The virtual reality piece gives you some information – we've included statistics and quotes on the walls and you do learn some facts and figures, but it's really experiential.
"Its purpose is to put you as much as possible in the shoes of someone who experiences solitary confinement, through this technology. But the individual stories of the people I've interviewed just weren't appropriate for use in this format.
"So we built the other editorial around [the virtual reality piece] to complement it and fill in parts of the story that aren't there just by watching the VR piece.
"I feel like we've used the right media to tell different parts of the story and create a package that works really well for this subject matter," Panetta said.
Update 27/04: An earlier version of this article said the VR piece was two and a half minutes long – it is actually nine minutes long.
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