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Immersed in a '6x9' experience

Speed read
  • Obama administration has been a friend to science.
  • South by South Lawn festival challenges visionaries to solve our toughest challenges.
  • The Guardian's immersive experience of solitary confinement one of the SXSL highlights.

Say what you will about the Obama administration, it has been a friend to science and technology.

<strong>Kids on the lawn.</strong> South by South Lawn (SXSL) brought together leading thinkers to project their visions for how to use technology to help address some of society's toughest challenges. Courtesy Laurla Urland <a href= 'https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/2.0/legalcode'> (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)</a>.

President Obama has recently edited an issue of Wired, and has led a record-setting climate accord.  

He also hosted the first (and last?) South by South Lawn festival (SXSL), a spinoff of the tech showcase South by Southwest (SXSW).

At this festival, creative thinkers and entrepreneurs responded to President Obama’s call to use their talents to meet the challenges facing society.

(See our article about the Food Computer, created by the director of the Open Ag Institute, Caleb Harper, co-presenter at SXSL panel on ‘Feeding the Future’).

Interacting with the future

The interactive features were among the most popular highlights of SXSL. A particularly powerful presentation was the virtual reality (VR) demonstration of life inside solitary confinement, created by a team at the Guardian.

Dubbed “6x9,” the immersive experience places viewers inside a prison cell, segregated from all society. “6x9” highlights the psychological deterioration and sensory deprivation that can result from long term solitary confinement.

Inside-the-box thinking. The immersive virtual reality experience "6x9" was featured at the recent SXSL. It was chosen by the Obama administration because of its ability to motivate an audience toward positive social change. (Best viewed through a VR browser.) Courtesy the Guardian.

“The Guardian deeply cares for the issues and policies around solitary confinement and '6x9' gives people a sense of being in the cell from a first person perspective,” says Francesca Panetta, executive editor, virtual reality, Guardian News & Media.

“We hope that the experience of “6x9” will help bring to the fore one of the most important issues facing the US criminal justice system today.” 

(See our feature about VR in the new age of storytelling.)

The crew at the Guardian had considered VR as a new way to present stories, and when their chief US reporter Ed Pilkington wrote about the experience of Albert Woodfox – recently out of solitary confinement after 43 years – the team knew their moment had arrived.

"We are seeking to encourage technology that leads to informed change, because technology is a powerful tool that can be used as a force for good." ~ Valerie Jarrett

“VR is a medium which is all about space and solitary confinement, too,” says Panetta. “Consequently, it felt obvious that this would be a good story for the form and in the end it was '6x9' that materialized.”

“6x9” was created in partnership with The Mill, a production house working at the forefront of visual narrative. To ensure authenticity, Panetta’s group sent two dimensional pictures of the cell to people they had interviewed who had been in solitary confinement to ensure it looked similar to their cells. They consulted with a psychologist to check if the symptoms represent in the piece were accurately portrayed. 

Somewhere in the middle between documentary, journalism, and immersive video game experience, “6x9” handles a serious subject. Podcasts, editorials, and traditional news stories accompanied the immersive experience to round out the Guardian’s “6x9” presentation. It has now appeared at over 70 festivals, including Sundance and Tribeca.

Changing technology

The reactions to “6x9” at SXSL were strong and visceral. Many participants had no idea the cell would be so small or feel so bad, Panetta says. Viewers were also surprised to learn humans could be placed in solitary confinement for non-violent offenses. Speaking with reporters at the Guardian, senior Obama advisor Valerie Jarrett called the piece “profoundly disturbing.”

<strong>Telling the story.</strong> An immersive virtual reality experience demonstrating what it's like to be in solitary confinement was one of the highlights of the recent South by South Lawn festival. '6x9' is an example of how journalism is employing digital methods to craft effective stories. Courtesy the Guardian.

The Obama administration selected "6x9" to appear at SXSL since it conveys the ability of VR to educate and move people toward positive social change, one of the objectives Obama had been hoping to achieve with SXSL installations.

“We are seeking to encourage technology that leads to informed change, because technology is a powerful tool that can be used as a force for good,” Jarrett says.

Panetta’s group recently launched their in-house virtual reality team, and is working on a VR collaboration with Google’s Daydream. “The Guardian remains committed to digital innovation in journalism and working with emerging technologies to create immersive and impactful storytelling,” says Panetta. 

It remains to be seen what significance science and technology will hold for the next administration. We hope it will remain a driver of policy as it has with the Obama administration.

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