A little side bar on image, perspective and emotion in this week’s news about the arrest of IMF boss Daniel Strauss Kahn for alleged rape of a 32-year old hotel worker from Guinee (in his 3000$ a night hotel suite in New York). I am surprised by my own gut feelings about the case and try to understand the role of image and immersion in constituting my reaction.
Although I would generally tend to support a woman’s point of view in most alleged rape cases, my heart breaks when I see the video images of this distinguished French man, who has undoubtedly shown dedication, persuasion and professionalism in reinventing the IMF in the past three years (even if you do not agree with the IMF’s policies - I don’t) All this doesn’t matter, I suppose, if he really did rape her, which is a criminal act deserving punishment. No exceptions should be made for white men in powerful positions.
On the other hand, I feel surprisingly little sympathy for the hotel worker and I do intuitively mistrust her story. I even wonder if she has been paid to set him up. The accounts of her being ‘very confused and upset’, ‘not knowing who he is’ and ‘not being able to express herself clearly’ are not eliciting my support and understanding for her, but making things worse. By not showing herself and by not talking, she’s looking even more suspicious in my eyes.
Why is that? Why do I not sympathize with an alleged victim, who is a poor, powerless person and a woman like me? At least one of the reasons is that I have not seen her, but I have seen him. Even though he is a man of a kind that I generally mistrust and dislike, seeing him in this humiliating and possibly unjust position is really painful for me. It makes me wish strongly that I had the means to end his suffering. On the other hand, the woman is unknown to me. I have not seen her at all, because she has been shielded from the media as an alleged rape victim. This missing image of the hotel worker is undeniably influencing my opinion and emotional judgement here, in favor of the alleged rapist.
Secondly, I do not know what went on in that hotel room. Of course, I have not been there myself, there is not even an amateur video available and I have not seen or heard an independent and trustworthy eyewitness account of the alleged rape. This is another crucial missing image, for which my brain fills in creatively, thereby favoring the defendant, whom I have seen on TV. It is certainly easier to sympathize with an alleged rapist if you have not witnessed the rape and only seem him as a ‘victim’ rather than an attacker himself.
In Taiwan, they found a simple solution to this problem. TV news needs images to tell stories. And since there was not even a mobile phone account of the events in the hotel room, the special effects department of the TV station just made an animated version of what they think has happened in the room. The professional animation immerses the viewer in the actual moment of the alleged rape, by providing a virtual room and a scenario with two avatars, with whom viewers can identify. Just look at it and judge for yourself what happens to your sympathy and how the images are influencing your opinion.
I think this kind of ‘immersive journalism’ is potentially very influential and also dangerous, especially when dealing with cases still on trial. Of course, the problem is that spatial information and a scenario are provided as ‘facts’ in a newscast, although the story inside the hotel room has been invented based on partial information. As Computer Generated Imaging (CGI) software improves and becomes more widely and cheaply available, we will surely see more ‘immersive reconstructions’ of news stories as they are unfolding. They will also be increasingly life-like and soon include real life photography and video images, rather than animations. We can only start to imagine what this means for our relation to reality.
Finally, I got around to trying the Muvi camera. For unknown reasons, it took over two months to arrive from Amsterdam by mail. Too late for my students, unfortunately, who wanted to use it for a ‘bikers diary’ documentary. After the test with the video sunglasses, I was planning to do exactly the same football game - same time, same place - with the Muvi, for easy comparison, but there was just no way I could motivate my son to leave the house today, so we did a game of indoor golf instead.
In the trial, the Muvi camera is attached to my forehead with a strap that comes in the ‘extreme sports set’ that I ordered with it. I don’t know if ‘indoor golf’ qualifies as ‘extreme sport’, but when I opened the box, I got very excited about the possibilities. It’s a very cool little kit with all kinds of straps and bolts, mainly meant to attach the camera to the handle bar of a (motor)bike. The head strap is supposed to go on your ski helmet - or wherever you like it to go, of course.
The results of this test are pretty depressing. The microphone is truly horrible and I can only bear to watch the video if I turn off the audio completely (and I recommend you to do the same). Also, this camera is even worse than the video sunglasses when it comes to movement. It only works well if you keep your head still and look straight ahead of you all the time, which happens to be the case when you’re skiing or biking. I had no idea I was moving my head so much! It’s really scary to see and it makes me feel I should consider yoga or meditation.
The resolution of the Muvi is also less than the video sunglasses (Muvi = 640×480 @ up to 30 fps, using motion JPEG recording to AVI format on a micro SD card of max 8GB) and the camera angle is only 72 degrees, which is not much when you have no viewfinder and cannot see what you’re filming at all. I also did some tests with the camera strapped to my arm. It generated less shaky video, but is totally uninteresting as a viewing angle. Really, the only reason I see to use this camera is to record a very specific point of view from a moving object that is going in one direction. And I would never use he sound.
The bright side is that it measures only one inch, it costs only 100 Euro (1,000 HK$), and the design is nice. It’s 50 grams of polished black metal, rather than a piece of plastic. The controls are also more user friendly than those of the video sunglasses because, luckily, there’s no MP3 player or photo option. It still takes learning some morse code to understand the language of the lights flashing in different speeds and colors.
In summary, the video sunglasses are a much more interesting addition to the toolkit of a documentary maker than the Muvi. Recording what you see with your own eyes, when you see it, is conceptually very different from a small camera attached to your bike or your forehead. So I only recommend this camera if you like showing off your biking or skiing skills (but only downhill, not slalom).
In a design store, I saw a very small HD video camera with a built in viewfinder, about three times the size of the Muvi. That would mean an enormous improvement of the image, I suppose, but it’s much closer in size to a ‘real’ camera like the FlipHD camera (starting at 200 US$), which has a viewfinder, an optional built in image stabilizer and instant video playback.
And this week, AP Photonics and the Hong Kong Applied Science and Technology Lab (Astri) presented an extremely small optical photo camera (one centimeter), which has a built in image stabilizer and allows you to take sharp photos while riding a horse. Sony, Apple and Ericsson are interested and will start using the new camera in their smart phones this spring. The Hong Kong government invested US$1.6 million into the project and the price of the camera will be: US$1.50 each!
Please note the comment by Jonathan Marks below, who recommends Kodak Zi8, which seems to have it all, including an external microphone.
My first trial with the video sunglasses involved just leaving the apartment with my son to go play in the park across the street. The second trial is wearing the video sunglasses during our game of football.
There are some positives and many negatives to report.
Negative - Some of the problems I encountered:
- The video sunglasses record sound and image, but the sound runs out of sync with the video image. So if you want to use both, you have to sync it manually. That’s a lot of work.
- There is no way to know exactly what I’m filming, because there is no viewfinder. I can only roughly guess the angle.
- The controls for starting and stopping video recording don’t work very well and, as a result, I had no clear idea of when I was filming. Also, there is no visible indicator that shows you’re recording when youre wearing the glasses. Sometimes, when I start recording, a woman’s voice will say:’You are recording now’, through the ear phones, but it’s not consistent.
- The camera comes with a remote control, which is convenient, but not very reliable.
- My hair blows in front of the lens, so it needs to be tied back.
- Any movement of the head is not well taken by the camera and produces a shaky, interrupted image. I had no idea my head was moving so much, until I saw these images.
- The video sunglasses also include an mp3-player and a photo camera, but this only confuses the issue and diminishes user-friendliness. I would have preferred just one option: VIDEO, but better.
- short shots (2 minutes) work technically better than long takes. After a few minutes, the camera starts to behave strangely, although it supposedly supports 2 hours of continuous recording, stored on 8GB built-in memory.
Positive - On the bright side:
- No one notices the glasses when you walk into a shop or a restaurant. I could really blend in without anyone asking any questions. This is appealing for spies, I guess.
- It is possible to record reasonable video in very small and badly lit places, for example in a dressing room.
- Both audio and video are pretty good quality: video resolution is 736×576@30fps, AVI format and fine for posting on websites.
- In low light, at the end of the day, the image obtains a wonderful, grainy, cinematic quality, which reminds me of 16mm. I shot a Nan Lian Garden and although my movements are crap, the image is mysteriously beautiful. I love the colors.
- Especially without sound, the point-of-view (POV) shooting can obtain a poetic quality. I imagine it could work wonderfully well as short segments in a larger HD documentary, representing a particular - subjective, poetic - POV of one of the characters, with music.
Conclusion - Summarizing my first experiences with the video sunglasses, I am disappointed by the lack of control I have over the recorded image. The a-sync sound is also a major problem, because it means editing is required for sharing a simple video, including blog posts and web video galleries. I will continue to experiment with the glasses though, because I love the POV capacity and I am pretty sure the user-friendliness and resolution of video glasses will be improved very soon.
As it is now, I would never rely on this camera for crucial scenes in a documentary. I would only use it for filming in highly secretive and otherwise inaccessible places, which brings along all kinds of ethical questions, which I will not go into right now. Filming secretively is not really my thing anyway. I would like to use video glasses to record a particular point-of-view or to avoid interrupting reality with heavy equipment and a camera crew, but not to hide the fact that I am filming.
Soon, I will do a try-out with the MUVI camera attached to my forehead, and play football again, for comparison.
On my way back from a recent tourist outing with friends to ‘The Peak’ in Hong Kong, I stumbled upon a talented salesman of ‘Exclusive’ video sunglasses. The sunglasses looked liked regular sunglasses to me, but concealed an invisible video camera inside the frame. Of course, this cool gadget opened the door to my wildest fantasies about ‘point of view’ filmmaking, and in true Hong Kong style, I had to buy it right away (for about 200 Euro).
May I record your point of view, please?
Think about it! How many times in the past didn’t I wish that I could have filmed with my own eyes? The thought of having a hard disk inside my brain, a camera built into my forehead, and a USB stick protruding from one of my fingers has always been very appealing to me. Something that would come to the world inevitably, but maybe not in time for me to make good use of it.
Just imagine, if only we could record what we see when we see it, and then edit… Life would be so much easier and documentary films would be so much more interesting. In our films, we would be able to engage with life as it is happening in front of our very eyes, rather than with staged and uncomfortable reenactments of it.
Incredibly small cameras like MUVI (discussed earlier on this blog) already offer something quite close to the direct cinema ideal of the camera as a ‘fly-on-the-wall’, but a camera that is visibly attached to your forehead - no matter how small - still takes away some of the natural interaction. And mounting it on someone else’s forehead feels close to a medical procedure.
Video sunglasses promise that all this will be over and I can now just walk up to my subject and kindly ask: ‘Would you mind wearing these sunglasses today? I would like to get your point of view on this matter’. And a few hours later, I would be able to see the events of that day from my subject’s perspective on my screen. If that’s what technology can do for documentary film, it seems a very valuable contribution to me. After all, many problems in the world arise from the fact that we are not capable of see matters from ‘the other’ person’s perspective.
Well, so much for the potential, now the harsh reality. My first trial with the video sunglasses involved simply leaving my apartment, walking to the park across the street and playing soccer with my son. I will show and discuss the results tomorrow.
One of the underlying assumptions of this research blog is that media exposure can produce identification and empathy in viewers. But is that true? What is the psychological effect of immersion in mediated stories? For example, do media images of suffering in far-away places really produce identification and empathy in viewers? And when will they resort to action? These are relevant questions for storytellers who are interested in using new technologies to connect viewers to the social issues and political struggles of our time.
In a recent talk at City University, the eminent sociologist and scholar of media effects Elihu Katz surveyed his his own 60-year career and recalled being struck intellectually by the introduction of the concept of “empathy” by Daniel Lerner in the 1950s. Lerner proposed that media affect modernization by expanding individual horizons, inviting identification with remote others and the trying on of new identities. Katz says:”Lerner attributed empathy to the kind of media exposure which produced an ablility to provide a substantive reply to a survey question like: “What would you do if you were editor of the local newspaper?” Or:”What would you do if you were Prime Minister?” Rather than answering, as most people did, “Who, me, editor of a newspaper?”‘ there were other, more media literate respondents who could imagine themselves in these roles. Lerner argued these were the newly modernizing individuals, who had psychological access to the world outside the village; they were the harbingers of a radical transformation.”
These survey questions of the early days of radio (and the very start of television) resonate remarkably with current questions about immersive journalism and the psychological effects of using interaction and first person perspective in new media storytelling. Have these types of studies been reproduced for television and new media ? Scanning the field, 84-year old Katz concludes that empathy and identification are central concepts in Film Studies, but are largely absent form the catalogue of studied media effects in communication reserach. Katz:” Most research effort has gone into the persuasive effects of political communciation and advertising and, ironically, what we have to show is only how surprisingly ineffective the media are in this domain. Even though we hardly believe it ourselves, the truth is that propaganda and advertising don’t persuade very well.”
Katz feels that more communication research on empathy and identification in the current (new) media landscape is needed and points out the emergence of a new field of communication research focused on “distant suffering”, which includes work by Luc Boltanski, Lilie Chouliaraki, Paul Frosh, Amit Pinchevski and others. Katz: ”There is a sudden rush of interest in the emotional, cognitive and, especially, moral aspects of mediated witnessing of widespread tragedy. Under what conditions, these authors ask, do people rise to the challenge of doing something to right a wrong, or save a life, in response to what they see on the nightly news or learn about from internet? When do people get up from their TV sets to demand that their governments intervene? When do people mobilize to donate money to cope with a far-away disaster?”
With ubiquitous online news and information, moral questions resurface with increased urgency. And, I would add, with increasing immersive media storytelling, reality literally flies in your face. Katz: “We have run out of ways of saying: ‘I didn’t know’. That’s why the concepts of empathy and compassion have been resurrected in order to explain everyday arousal and action, and to revive the idea that the media have the power to empower.” Maybe the news iscurrently not brought to us in ways which allow for identification and empathy. I guess it’s is my job to work on improving that.
Are you feeling lonely? Talk to your virtual girlfriend, recommends Seoul-based developer Nabix. It released an app for the iPhone last month called “Honey, it’s me“, which includes 100 recorded video conversations with two actresses, who will respond to questions and engage in dialogue with the caller. A virtual model called “Mina” can also call users four times a day at her own initiative and say things like “Are you still sleeping?”, “ Time for breakfast!” or “Good night, sweet dreams”. A real Korean model posed for the videos, says Kim Yoon-Kak, head of Nabix, who has kind motives: “I’ve developed this application to console people for their loneliness.”
The “Honey, it’s me” app has been downloaded over 80,000 times per day during an initial free launch period and users seem to be content. “I wish I could meet Mina before I die,” a user wrote. “I recommend this application to lonely single guys who will struggle through the cold winter this year without a girlfriend because Mina will make them forget the fact that they are single.”
The South China Morning Post reports that in Hong Kong, many youth are feeling lonely in December and are more open to start a relationship in this time of the year. They fear being alone at Christmas and would rather be with a ’second choice’ boyfriend or girlfriend than single when going through celebrations with their extensive families. So much for the reputedly strong Chinese sense of family bonding.
There are a number of games and apps on the market to make single men feel less lonely, including a night time app that plays the sound of a female sleeping peacefully on the next pillow. Boys rather than girls seem to be the prime market for these types of toys. “Love Plus”, designed by Konami Digital Entertainment, is a simulation game for the Nintendo DS console, which presents cartoon girlfriend Rinko as a playmate to lonely boys. The game is only released in Japan and has sold 430,000 copies last year, making it the most widely used ’dating game’ according to research firm Enterbrain.
Interestingly, Love Plus is spilling over from the virtual into the real world, since Konami is also offering schoolgirl Rinko on site in the beach town and honey moon destination Atami, Japan through Augmented Reality (AR) features. Coming from the bus in Atami, young men with iPhones may head straight for the statue of Kanichi and Omiya, depicting an old love story set in Atami. By pointing their smart phones at a barcode on the statue, Rinko materializes - as an image at least - and kindly allows her enamored vistors to have their picture taken with her. In total, there are thirteen ‘romantic locations’ in Tatami, which can be overlaid with AR pictures of Rinko and her friends Nene and Manaka. The Ohnoya hotel even offers traditional rooms to the unusual couples, with two futon beds and a barcode allowing men to visualize Rinko sitting on her bed in an elegant summer kimono (rather than her usual school uniform).
Building a relationship
“In conventional love games, you went up levels to make a virtual girl fall in love with you, so she would accept you as a boyfriend,” Konami spokesman Kunio Ishihara says. “But players of Love Plus are in a scenario where they’re a highschool boy who’s already dating one of the virtual girls. The goal is to see if you can build a relationship.” Technically, Love Plus is an open ended ‘communication game’ with voice recognition software and a screen clock that keeps real time to make players feel like they are really sharing their life with the girlfriend. That means the girl can also get moody when neglected by a player and demands attention when she feels unwell. (source: AFP) In the latest version of the game, facial recognition software is introduced to prevent the virtual girlfriends from cheating on their boyfriends.
A lonely generation
In a recent talk at City University, Kai-Fu Lee, CEO of tech investment company Innovation Works, stressed the commercial success of new applications designed to meet the needs of ‘the lonely generation’ in China. Not only is there a generation of lonely children born under the one-child-policy, the boys born since the 1980s are also facing increasing difficulties in finding a girlfriend because of the scarcity of women. With only one child allowed, many parents have found ways to have a boy rather than a girl, which has resulted in a surplus of lonely males of marriageable age. In addition, 50 - 60 hour work weeks are the rule rather than the exception for university students and starting professionals, which is not very conducive to getting to know a life partner and building a stable relationship. Kai-Fu Lee, who quit as president of Google China to start Innovation Works, which invests in Chinese technology start-ups, predicts that virtual solutions to loneliness will be increasingly accompanied by technologically assisted real world dating opportunities, leading to mixed reality living and dating.
My colleague Olli Tapio Leino wrote his PhD on ’Emotions in Play’ at the Center for Computer Games Research at the University of Copenhagen and was kind enough to share some of his insights with me. I am interested in exploring non-fiction storytelling in a gaming environment, since gamers seem to be very immersed and I am interested to find out if we could reproduce that intense experience with documentary content.
Olli explains that the Copenhagen School in game research - to which he belongs - believes that gaming has its own logic, which is focused on ‘play’ and therefore incompatible with ’story’. The idea that gaming represents some kind of new ’storytelling’ belongs to Film Studies and is discarded by the Copenhagen-ers, who believe that actively trying to reach a goal - essential to the gaming logic - is mutually exclusive with experiencing ’story’, which implies ‘being carried away’ and giving up agency to the storyteller.
Escape from Woomera
This being said, Dr. Leino comes up with a number of interesting examples of ‘news games’ which relate to the real world and provide user interaction inside a game world. Whether these games provide ’situations’, ‘worlds’ or ’stories’ is not so important to me. I’m willing to be very pragmatic about it. Just show me something that works! Unfortunately, Olli thinks that empathy is not an emotion that can be easily experienced during game play. Typically, game players experience frustration (and fulfilment) related to their performance in the game and even if they do feel empathy for certain characters, it is unlikely it will carry over into the real world. For example, in the news game Escape from Woomera, illegal immigrants try to escape from an existing prison in Australia. One can intensely enjoy this game and identify with the escapists, without feeling any empathy for illegal immigrants in the real world afterwards.
Olli and I agree that educational news games, which tend to put the player in the ‘objective’ position of journalist or investigator, are somewhat lame. First of all, those so-called ‘observer’ positions aren’t neutral or objective in real life at all and, secondly, the excitement of gaming comes not with being an observer, but with being an actor, whose acts have real consequences - inside the game world at least. ”The player of a game is locked up in the gamer logic and can not relate to the story in any other way than wanting to win it”, says Olli, “so the only way to critically confront a game player with a documentary story inside a gaming world would be to break that logic”.
That’s exactly what happens in September 12, a news game about the War on terror developed by Montevideo based computer researcher Gonzalo Frasca and the collective Newsgaming.com. When trying to kill terrorists in a crowded town represented in typical game aesthetic, the player will only kill civilians and continue to create more terrorists by doing so. In this game, the players’ acts have real but intended consequences, just as in real life. The game logic is defied, as there is no way to ‘win’ this game, and the authors prefer to call it a ’simulation’ for that reason.
In Madrid, a game by the same makers that was released two days after the terrorist attacks in March 2004, players have to push the buttons in an attempt to keep candles burning and pay homage to the victims of terrorist attacks all over the world. Again, winning is impossible.
Both games are powerful, addictive and painful to play. I would not say they are immersive, however, since I am not so much drawn into a world, but rather confronted with a logic. I guess that confrontation has to be preceded by me entering the game world somehow, but definitely not in a way which makes me forget the current one. In an interview, Frasca compares these ‘critical games’ with cartoons: “We see the concept of newsgaming as a 21st century equivalent to traditional printed political cartoons: short, controversial satirical pieces that convey biased ideological messages. Video games are a perfect medium for this since they can model complex situations”. Frasca, a former journalist with CNN Espanol, used to write the game research blog ludoloy.org (which closed shop last May) and currently runs games studio Powerful Robot . He’s also a researcher at the Copenhagen Computer Games Research Center. So yes, indeed, critical gaming exists. How immersive it is - or can be - deserves further experimentation.
Foxconn is the world’s largest electronics manufacturer, producing iPhones, iPods, Nokias, etc. It employs more than 900,000 workers in China. In the first five months of 2010, the world was shocked to see a continuous series of suicides happening in Foxconn. What actually went wrong? This video is part of the report “Workers as Machines: Military management in Foxconn” released by SACOM.
The most interesting new documentary filmmaker I met in Hong Kong is Jack Linchuan Qiu. He is, in fact, an outstanding social scientist, author of Working Class Network Society, professor at The Chinese University in Hong Kong and, until very recently, not a filmmaker at all. Last spring, he decided to pick up a camera incited by the wave of worker suicides at tech-giant Foxconn, which has close to one million employees in China and produces most of our iPads and iPhones. It also produces something like 40,000 broken fingers annually, as Qiu and other researchers had found out earlier from field research in hospitals in the Pearl River Delta.
Frustrated by the lack of access and information provided by Foxconn, Qiu and colleagues of universities in Hong Kong, Taiwan and Sjanghai joined forces with student network SACOM and decided to resort to new collaborative methods. They used the internet, mobile and video technology to organize a massive, networked data collection effort, in order to better understand the working conditions in the Foxconn factories connected to the suicides.
Pun Ngai - an acclaimed ethnographer who also wrote Made in China on the basis of her experiences as a factory worker - was among the initiators of the project, which involved students successfully applying for summer jobs at Foxconn factories and taking photos and video on the job with cell phone cameras. Qiu had been using video, photography and audio recordings in his fieldwork for years, but resorted to i-movie editing and documentary filmmaking for the first time with the Foxconn project. He started to edit the visual material gathered by the researchers (photos, video and audio) and made a poetic, angry yet very factual twenty minute film, which might evolve into a feature length documentary called ‘Deconstructing Foxconn‘.
Even more moving is his black and white short film about a visit to Taipei on a rainy day, where he reads a poem for the deceased workers in front of the Foxconn headquarters until he’s interrupted by a security guard. The way the camera keeps recording while it’s being handed to the taxi driver reminds me of Jean Rouch‘ best films. On the way back to the airport, Qiu gets involved in a lengthy discussion with the taxi driver, which he keeps entirely in the film.
The work is still in progress, but what I have seen so far is very touching and immersive in the sense that it takes the viewer deep inside Foxconn and provides a view from within through video, photography and audio recordings collected over a long period of time. In this case, the ‘author’ of the film is a group of researchers armed with mobile phones and dressed in Foxconn uniforms, who are able to mix with the factory workers and report unusually rich data on feelings and atmospheres, in addition to quantitative data about wages and working hours. Without photo, video and audio functions on mobile phones, this would have been simply impossible.
Twenty five years ago, journalist and writer Gunter Wallraff did something similar when he went to work as a migrant worker in Germany and wrote a book about it (Lowest of the Low, 1985). Barbara Ehrenreich reported on living the hard life in the US from her own experience in Nickel and Dimed: on (not) getting by in America (2001) and Ngai did it in China more recently, armed with a theoretical perspective. But they did not have cameras.
I do feel that the visual dimension is adding a rich and essential layer to this type of work, which explores new realities immersively, from the inside outward. In Qiu’s film, we meet a seventeen year old girl who jumped and survived but will never be able to walk again. She does not need to say much. Just by seeing her in the hospital bed, we start to understand how she feels ad what she did. I think this kind of rich ‘visual information’ is among the real gains of the pervasive visual culture that is emerging. Many intellectuals, journalists and academics lament the decline of reading and the diminished impact of words. But is that really necessary? When we just stop for a minute, look and think about the depth of information provided in those video frames, I feel grateful for the possibility to watch them. And I wish I could help her get up and go.
Is critical immersion possible? Media archeologist and art historian Erkki Huhtamo of UCLA fame thinks that the suspension of disbelief required for deep and complete immersion works well for fantasy stories such as Avatar or Alice in Wonderland, but not necessarily for creating engagement with pressing real world issues. On a visit to Hong Kong, Huhtamo says:” I’m not sure if we need technical immersion to engage with social and political issues. If the content is compelling, seeing a frame is not a problem.’ In order to activate the viewer, we need to attract the viewer’s attention to reality, he says, but we also need a distancing act to induce reflection on that reality. This is a viewpoint shared by many media artists and critical filmmakers of my generation (and older): alienation - not immersion - leads to awareness, reflection and, ultimately, social change.
As an example of a succesful immersive media work with political content, Huhtamo mentions ‘World Skin’ (1997) by French artists Maurice Benayoun and Jean-Baptiste Barriere, who used 3D CAVE technology (three wall video projection), to present a kind of battle field animation based on 2D newspaper cut outs of war scenes. Standing in the middle of the CAVE, the viewer is invited to act as a photojournalist, taking pictures of the cruelties surrounding him. Huhtamo particularly likes the fact that the immersive effects produced by CAVE are counterbalanced by the flatness and ‘unreality’ of the war photographs in the animation, which he assumes will stimulate the viewer-turned-war photographer to reflect on the madness of war.
Unfortunately, I have not seen World Skin myself, but it seems to be a very succesful art work. The impact of the installation, however, is limited to museum visitors who have already decided to be thoughtful, attentive and probably critical. I am interested in finding out how immersion in everyday media can be compelling (young) viewers/users to think about reality in unexpected ways and put their minds in motion.
Huhtamo points out that the artificiality - which is always part of the act of total, technical immersion - may be counterproductive for relating to real life horrors. For example, would it really be more moving to see refugees struggling on rafts to reach our shores in stereoscopic 3D with special glasses than to see them on TV in the grainy images shot on a mobile phone ? Probably not. As with the CNN footage of the Haiti disaster, it could be turning a disturbing reality into a kind of reassuring fantasy, farther removed from us mentally although we may feel temporarily immersed in it physically.
Still, the way media are fusing with everyday life and practically all social relations, I wonder if we can rest assured on the effectiveness of the alienation-thesis. After all, the only time my students really woke up this semester is when I presented them examples of interactive documentaries, gaming and non-fiction stories in Second Life. Huhtamo’s students in LA are also constantly connected and can not live without checking with their friends on their mobiles every fifteen minutes. With documentary (and news) increasingly perceived as ‘boring’ and newspapers on the way out for most people aged under twenty five, I really doubt that there will be many opportunities for succesful and productive ‘alienation’. Getting attention, by using methods that are somehow, in some way ’immersive’ and pull you viewers into a non-fiction story seems to me an urgent and challenging task for journalist and storytellers. What we need though is good, independent, immersive examples.
I’m not at all convinced that immersion itself excludes raising the kind of social and political awareness, which leads to action. After all, my own most radical immersive experience this fall has been reading - or rather ‘deep reading’ as Huhtamo calls it appealingly - ‘La Carte et le Territoire’, the new novel by Michel Houellebecq. It sucked me in, I could not put it down, it put my mind into motion and it probably is influencing my acts right now. So if immersion in a novel can change my mind, why coudn’t full immersion in a non-fiction film do the same?
My students want to do a short documentary about biking in Hong Kong and I recommended them to get this little camera (100 Euro) to tie to the head of the biker and get his point of view as an additional camera angle:
The Muvi is a pretty cool, very small and incredibly cheap camera with reasonable image quality. It represents a new step in the continuous development of ever smaller and lighter cameras, allowing for a growing range of viewpoints and camera angles in documentary films. Just as direct cinema came with the liberation of the camera from the tripod, one can easily imagine new cinematic styles with the availability of these cameras the size of a thumb. In the current global media society, however, the impact would be far beyond aesthetics.
For example, it’s now literally child’s play to record the world from a child’s perspective - or that of any moving object or subject - adding more points of view to the current scale. Imagine the possible impact of all those emerging voices (and eyes) taking the stage. Will children get voting rights because their points of view can no longer be ignored? Will the current fringe Party for Animal Rights rise to power as a result of the increased representation of pets’ points of view in the flow of media images?
This camera is marketed as a cool gadget for ‘extreme sports’ lovers, but I can imagine much more interesting applications for undercover journalists and NGOs. This little camera can handle a 8GB memory card, which records four hours of video and, even more surprising, it is voice activated. You could go into any workplace with it attached to your forehead, and it will start recording automatically whenever the boss starts yelling at you. Any kind of (loud) abuse could be registered on video this way and serve as instant proof in a court room, which is quite scary when you start to think about it. It is as if we would be carrying a personal security and surveillance system on our heads.
Back to storytelling. The films of Leonard Retel Helmrich come to mind as a more poetic catalog of unusual and immersive camera angles. With the handy cam, we could already film inside a refrigerator, but with the Muvi, we can film inside a bag and its successor may allow for filming inside the body… Personally, I would like to use this camera to make a short film from a child’s perspective, simply called ‘UM’, which is short for ‘unaccompanied minor’, a term used by airlines to refer to the countless children traveling the world in airplanes without their parents for various reasons.
Watch this review, which includes some sample footage. There are many more similar test videos out there. I will share my first trials later.