re:view – Virtual Reality: Time Travels With VR

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Visitor at #rp17 using VR gear.

The gladiator approaches, waving a stick around threateningly. Enrico Röhner has chosen to enter the ring to face a gladiator from ancient Rome. “I was genuinely surprised, I thought Virtual Reality was still in its infancy.” The animation by German TV channel ZDF presented at re:publica was his first virtual experience. Röhner's summary: “I'd do it again”. So what's the state of Virtual Reality at re:publica 2017? The quality of the show is not that convincing yet – the view through the cardboard piece still seems a bit blurry. But re:publica was never just about the technology, it was always about the content too! And VR is slowly but surely turning into a method of historical documentation.

German broadcaster Deutschlandradio Kultur recently collaborated with the Berlin start-up Vragments to reconstruct a virtual Stasi interrogation. The audio track was taken from a real, historical interview. “Currently, there no ethical standards in VR at all. Until we find ourselves in a virtual gas chamber,” says Jana Wuttke of Deutschlandradio Kultur. She is aware of the power that virtual spaces can exert over viewers. If VR is used to document historical events, it should be taken into account that these stories can seem very real to viewers.

In any case, the virtual gas chamber is already a reality: in the 360-degree WDR documentary, “Inside Auschwitz”, in which the viewer takes the position of a drone flying over the concentration camp grounds. Benjamin Kratz watched the documentary. He finds himself in a bleak, dirty room with a long washing trough. While he takes a look around, he can hear Auschwitz survivor Philomena Franz recounting her imprisonment there: “Sometimes I forgot my own mother's name. I forgot my own name. You weren't a human there any more.” Kratz says he visited the concentration camp as a student several years before. “It was a very moving experience. And it was an entirely different experience now, seeing this place all by myself.”

More than 600,000 people have already watched Inside Auschwitz on the Internet – an unusually high rate by WDR standards. The typical VR production, by comparison, rarely tell a story in this way, says Maik Bialk, editorial director of Inside Auschwitz. “We often found ourselves asking: What is there to be gained with this perspective? Why does it not connect to the heart, or the gut? That's why we wanted to make a documentary, something with a real storyline.”

Jana Wuttke also thinks VR could profit from becoming more “emotional”. “Journalists should dare to explore historical topics with VR. They don't always have to look real, but they should certainly feel real.”

And of course, there were many more topics covered in the #rp17 track on VR. You can find an overview of all the panel discussions, talks and meet-ups here. Video clips are available on the individual sessions pages, and on YouTube.

by Ann-Kathrin Jeske (EJS)

Image Credit: re:publica/Jan Michalko(CC BY-SA 2.0)

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