Soon after Dolores Canales was sent to solitary confinement at the California Institute for Women, a state prison located in Chino, CA, she started to feel disoriented. “It’s like you’ve been put into another country where you don’t know the language or the area or anything,” says the ex-prisoner, who spent nine months in solitary after landing in jail for drug-related crimes at the age of 18. “You have to reestablish yourself in this new world.”
Canales did her best to cope with the deprivations of her tiny, airless cell by galvanizing her fellow prisoners in neighboring pens to adorn themselves with their bedsheets to “dress for dinner” and sing songs together. Aretha Franklin’s “Respect” was a favorite; Canales would belt out the Queen of Soul’s melody and the other prisoners would chime in with the “sock it to me, sock it to me” refrain.
A Virtual Reality Experience of Solitary Confinement
Canales’ impressions of life in solitary are part of 6x9: A Virtual Reality Experience of Solitary Confinement, an immersive, audiovisual storytelling experience from the U.K.’s Guardian Media Group. The virtual reality (VR) project had its official launch this week following previews at the Sundance and Tribeca film festivals. The project aims to increase public awareness about the destructive impact of isolation on the thousands of men and women currently in solitary confinement.
“You can be mentally damaged by being placed in isolation,” says 6x9’s executive producer Francesca Panetta. “But by using this technology, I hope that you will get a more visceral feeling of what it is like to be locked in a 6-by-9 cell for 23 hours a day, of the boredom, of the fear, of the confusion.”
Don’t believe the hype about VR?
Ever since The New York Times went live with its first experiments in VR storytelling last year -- The Times wasn't the first mainstream journalism entity in the space, but the most prominent at that point -- media companies have stampeded towards the format. They've have glommed onto the tactile possibilities of VR as a way to capture the public’s faulty-circuit attention span in a media landscape driven by social media’s interactive itch.
According to a Knight Foundation report on VR journalism published in March 2016, the number of new investors in VR technology, content creation and distribution increased 27 percent in 2015 over 2014 and is projected to continue to increase in 2016. And The Times is betting large on this trend. The company announced this week a plan to distribute 300,000 of Google's cheap, basic VR viewer, Google Cardboard, in conjunction with the upcoming release of a new VR project that gives people the chance to explore Pluto.
There’s certainly an unbridled amount of hype around how journalism might exploit the new technology and attached storytelling potential. But the Knight report asks, right upfront, what we all want to know: “Perhaps the biggest question facing the nascent industry is what will happen when the novelty of VR wears off, and whether the quality of the storytelling and the VR experience will bring people back to look at the content on a regular basis.”
I'm betting the answer lies in the space where journalism meets art. And if it succeeds, 6x9 might be a case in point.
Where news meets art
The project is firmly rooted in traditional news reporting: It takes its inspiration from stories about the psychological damage caused by solitary confinement and Barack Obama’s proposed reforms to the system for juveniles and people with severe mental problems; the Guardian team conducted in-depth interviews with seven people who’ve experienced solitary in California and New York for the project; and it weaves in sound from the PBS Frontline documentary Solitary Nation. Panetta says the PBS producers made 25 hours of video footage available to The Guardian for 6x9.
But experiencing 6x9 feels slightly different from most efforts in VR journalism I’ve tested out so far. It’s more akin to Bay Area theater artist Chris Hardman’s longstanding yet still gripping audio tour of Alcatraz than it is to, say, The Los Angeles Times’ attempt to capture what it’s like to explore Mars, the Inside North Korea story from ABC News or USA Today’s jaunt through Old Havana in a vintage bubblegum pink Ford.
And that’s not just because the Alcatraz audio tour and 6x9 are both about incarceration. From the very opening lines of the voice over in 6x9, which flatly announces, “Welcome to your cell. You’re going to be here for 23 hours a day,” to the way in which ghostly snippets of prisoners’ stories seep in and out of your ears depending on where you move your head, 6x9 announces itself above all as an audio forward experience -- and one that's meaningfully triggered by the visual environment. You sit in that tiny space and your pores open up wide to every tiny sound, whether that’s a voice echoing in the distance, or the squeak of the mattress. The visuals actually play second fiddle to the soundscape, and that’s overwhelmingly what transports you in the physical space.
Interestingly, 6x9 isn't the only immersive journalism project about solitary confinement out there right now. The Huffington Post's RYOT team created Confinement, a 360-degree video story which also uses prison sounds and narration to tell of the horrors of life in a cramped, concrete box. But this piece, though it incorporates the voices of prisoners talking about their experiences, doesn't combine the audio and visual components in as sophisticated a fashion as The Guardian's effort. Looking around the cell in Confinement doesn't initiate a new piece of audio. It's a traditional narrative that unfolds in one direction over time.
How to experience 6x9
You can experience 6x9 in a variety of ways. The optimal one is to strap on a Samsung Gear VR headset with the 6x9 app downloaded onto a Google Android phone. Or you can don a Google Cardboard viewer for a similar experience (albeit one with less fancy optics). These methods are the most compelling; moving your head around initiates different parts of the story.
You don’t actually have to have a viewer at all, though, as there are two alternative ways to get inside the piece: watch it on a smartphone, which allows you to shuffle around the prison cell by toggling around your smartphone’s screen with a finger; or if you don’t have a smartphone, The Guardian has released a 360-degree video version of the piece on the project’s webpage. These two methods won’t necessarily make you feel like you’re locked behind bars, but they do communicate the essence of the story.
VR in the Bay Area
In addition to the above, 6x9 also exists as a physical installation. People who interacted with the project at the Tribeca Film Festival could explore the story while physically moving about in a model of a prison cell. Solitary confinement survivors present at the festival to share their experiences. The installation is touring, though sadly it won’t come to California anytime soon.
But if you’d like to get more of a handle on the burgeoning world of VR storytelling -- albeit from a fiction-based rather than journalistic angle -- the San Francisco International Film Festival presents a "VR Day" on Saturday, April 30 at Gray Area. The event provides an opportunity for festival goers to steep themselves in VR filmmaking and meet some of the key players in the field. For more information visit sffs.org.