This past Sunday, home delivery subscribers to the New York Times received a Virtual Reality (VR) viewer along with their newspaper. Meant to accompany the NYT Magazine's cover story, "The Displaced," the VR viewer gives the audience the opportunity to fully immerse themselves in the narratives they have just read. In the 360-degree interactive video, you follow the three refugee children featured in the print articles. To say you "follow" them does not do justice to the experience--your gaze does not follow their gaze. You are afforded the opportunity to take in the entire world as they see it, to look left when they look right. You see the children sitting on the truck bench behind them, the presence or absence of adults around them, the aid packages parachuting down from the sky above them, and the river beneath their boat. Of the decision to marry this subject with this medium, NYT Magazine Editor in Chief Jake Silverstein wrote:
Uncanny is an appropriate word. When I finished watching the video, I burst into tears. It is a very different experience to see a life so different than your own than to read about it--you are able to visualize the extent and the scale of the crisis much more vividly. This pairs three intimate, emblematic portraits together with the mind-boggling vastness of the situation. You hear one voice describing the experience at the same time that you see the many, many others surrounding them who are (silently) enduring the same conditions. As a piece of journalism, it's incredibly effective.
As soon as I finished watching the video, my first thought was, "Could historians make use of VR storytelling?" I believe the answer is yes, VR presents a really valuable medium for conveying past lived realities. Writing history is already an exercise in VR. As historians, we transport the reader to a past reality and help them connect with that lived experience. Narrative history already does what Silverstein identifies as the central benefit of this new medium: it "speak[s] to our senses of empathy and community." If VR can make journalism more vivid, immersive, and relatable, I believe it can also animate historical narratives. But so can standard documentaries. What does VR add? Or, perhaps more accurately, what would make historical VR worth the work?
As I currently understand it, VR can best be used to demonstrate spatiality. I can imagine it being a powerful medium to convey what it would have been like to be a soldier standing on a battlefield, or to be living with ten other family members in a small tenement apartment. We can describe loneliness or claustrophobia, but wouldn't it be powerful for students to see a short VR video of just how close their bedmate would be if they lived in an 8' x 8' bedroom with their entire family? Or how densely packed (or scattered) soldiers were during a major battle?
These are just some ideas I've been tossing around since Sunday. I recognize that bringing them to fruition would require immense production budgets that are probably beyond the current capacity of most scholars and institutions. Nonetheless, I think it's a medium that humanists should begin to consider! I live by this great quote in The Historian's Craft that Marc Bloch attributes to his good friend and colleague Henri Pirenne: "If I were an antiquarian, I would have eyes only for old stuff, but I am a historian. Therefore, I love life." We should embrace these new methods for storytelling and expand our potential as historians.
Tell me: Do you agree that VR is a useful medium, or do you think it's passing fad? Or do you have other great ideas for how VR could be married to traditional written histories?