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Virtual Reality Journalism Puts You Inside the Refugee Crisis

The first story from the New York Times's VR app shares the lives of three child refugees.

The New York Times' new VR app launched yesterday, and with it a new documentary from Chris Milk and Vrse.works called The Displaced. It's 11 minutes long, delivers feels, and is definitely worth pausing your day to watch. Produced by New York Times Magazine, the immersive film follows in the footsteps of Vrse.works' Clouds Over Sidra, capturing the plight of refugee children from their own perspective.

We don't just see the children, we see the tragedy of the world they live in. On Sunday November 8, the paper will mail 1.1 million Google Cardboard headsets to its print subscribers for best viewing, but the experience is still very moving viewed from your smartphone.

The Displaced follows three refugee children from the most war-ravaged corners of the planet. Oleg Teryokhin, 11, is a refugee from Ukraine. We explore the shattered ruins of his town with a group of his friends and discuss the death of his grandfather and his committment to never leave home again, no matter how bad the fighting gets. Syrian refugee Hana Abdullah,12, has spent a quarter of her life away from her parent's homeland, which is a distant memory for her. She is crowded with memories like when she had to hide in a concrete cylinder because gunfighting broke out near her school bus. Chuol, 9, lives with his grandmother in the swamps of South Sudan because his father and grandfather were burned alive by soldiers, and his mother was lost in the confusion of a battle. These are just three of the 30 million refugee children the UN reported earlier this year.

"It's something that you don't want to see," co-director Imraan Ismail explains to The Creators Project. Working with The New York Times journalist Ben Solomon, he drew upon his experience brand managing Saatchi Gallery and doing VFX for The Hunger Games and Dawn of the Planet of the Apes to push the boundaries of virtual reality filmmaking. "For whatever reason our brain just can't handle the size and scope of this problem, as well as the helplessness associated with it... It's like Beasts of the Southern Wild, but real."

That's why The New York Times partnered with Vrse.works: to marry their established international network and journalism expertise with the passion and talent the VR company has for immersive storytelling. "[Editor-in-Chief of NYT Magazine] Jake Silverstein had seen Chris' talk on VR as an empathy machine, and then they moved very quickly," says Patrick Milling-Smith, who co-founded Vrse.works with Milk.

Earlier this year, their first collaboration followed street artist JR as he orchestrated a massive mural on Times Square's pavement to make the NYT Magazine cover Walking New York. "That was a tremendous success, and now they've pushed forward with being new media."

With Silicon Valley giants like Facebook and Google tackling the tech aspect of virtual reality, there's about to be a huge thirst for worthwhile 360 degree video, and The New York Times wants a big slice of that pie. "It's been a great partnership. I hope it's the beginning of many," Smith continues. Other media giants, VICE included, have turned to Vrse.works to produce their VR content, taking advantage of the strong visual language they're developing.

For example, one scene in The Displaced documents a supply drop in South Sudan. Jet engine noise overhead draws your gaze from the refugees to the sky, where you see a plane. A quick cut shifts the plane from approaching you to flying away, and you look down to find yourself among bags of food and other necessities, with the crowd you were just in rapidly snappin up the supples they could.

Another scene adds immersive movement to the VR filmmaker's tool kit with a solution straight from the selfie generation: give the kids the camera. "It's just so natural," says executive producer Samantha Storr. All of Clouds Over Sidra and most shots in The Displaced are completely static, since the crew didn't have a dolly. When the children are the vehicle, Storr continues, "You're present in the environment, so you become even more present when you're in the child's hands...If you're on the dolly, you see the dolly, so this was way more organic."

And that's the point of a virtual reality film, according to Ismail. "I want to make it feel very personal with these kids," he says. "We get into these kids' emotional states as opposed to just the facts. So you really get their view." VR filmmaking enters the subject's personal space, and it's hard to leave without making a connection. He adds, "When you're there, you're in it. But when you go home and take it all in, the weight of it just destroys you. I still feel helpless, especially after having been there myself. I don't know what to do." 

In Milk's TED Talk about VR as an empathy machine, he argues that "It connects humans to other humans in a profound way that I’ve never seen before in any other form of media." Ismail, Smith, and Storr agree that films like The Displaced and Clouds Over Sidra—emotionally impactful as they may be—are just the beginning.

"It's an awful question to ask, 'What's the future of VR?'" Milling-Smith quips, and he's right. The medium is still in such infancy Smith's guess is as good as anyone's. "Gaming is going to be enormous, and live events are going to be great...The adoption is happening fast. There's a lot of memory being spent on hardware, whether it's HoloLens or Google, or Oculus and Samsung. But as long as people concentrate on it as a powerful means to tell stories, and not just the technology, then the adoption will be huge."

Case and point, The New York Times' Google Cardboard diaspora. "I think that's a watershed moment, when you're giving out over a million pieces of hardware for people to connect with your story and your media in a different way. One hundred percent, I think a lot of people will be following suit."

"I feel like VR's going to be very pervasive in a very short time. I don't know whether it will be good or bad. There are a lot of very important people behind it," says Storr. "This is really just the beginning, and I don't think we can know what it will look like in 10 years, it just has so far to go. But at some point, I think it will look just like reality."

To watch The Displaced, download the NYT VR app on the App Store and Google Play, or find it on the VRSE app. Learn more about Vrse.works on their website.

Related:

Is Virtual Reality The Future Of Journalism?

The UN's First Virtual Reality Documentary Puts You Inside a Syrian Refugee Camp

Can Virtual Reality Make Us More Human?

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