Presence and truth: Turning North Korea’s unreal facade into virtual reality

[This thoughtful piece from The Verge reminds us of some of the complex ethical issues that we’ll have to confront as VR and presence become more common; here’s a key line: “If VR can reveal truth, it can also make lies more vivid.” –Matthew]

North Korea (Getty Images)

How do you turn North Korea’s unreal facade into virtual reality?

Unfiltered access to a filtered experience

By Adi Robertson
December 10, 2015

When The New York Times released virtual reality mini-documentary The Displaced, its creators talked about the medium’s capacity to convey the unfiltered truth of a scene. It’s not that audiences no longer have to suspend disbelief in an image, but an immersive 360-degree view takes away some of an artist’s power to direct their eyes. There’s a sense in which VR can let us feel closer to a video’s subjects as well, forcing us to focus purely on the world they inhabit. This is why it’s common to hear VR talked about as an “empathy machine.”

But a new virtual reality experience is an interesting example of the tension between immersion and truth or empathy. It’s the latest Google Cardboard project (on iOS and Android) created by ABC News and VR studio Jaunt, a trip through North Korea’s capital Pyongyang. Rather, as the producers admit, it’s a trip through the carefully segregated areas that foreign visitors are allowed to see, culminating in a military parade marking the 70th anniversary of the ruling Workers’ Party.

Taking the limits of Cardboard into account, the short film is an excellent piece of VR cinematography. It captures well-shot spherical images of Pyongyang’s striking, sterile environments — including Kim Il Sun’s birthplace and one of the handful of subway stations open to foreigners — and overlays the occasional flatscreen image to show something Jaunt’s cameras couldn’t capture, like close-up video of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. The effect is like a huge picture-in-picture display that doesn’t pull viewers out of the larger experience.

It’s also, obviously, video of pure propaganda. As ABC notes in an accompanying article, there’s almost no chance of journalists getting a clear look at North Korea, especially with a camera whose explicit purpose is to capture everything in sight. So the filmmakers decided to play it as straight as humanly possible, filming each stage of the trip with a voiceover of ABC journalist Bob Woodruff dryly translating North Korean tour talking points with a brief reminder that the country has “no freedom of expression, no freedom of speech, and certainly no freedom of the press.” The idea is to provide viewers with, essentially, unfiltered access to an extremely filtered experience.

The whole project is an interesting contrast to reports that primarily attempt to reveal what isn’t seen — forcing readers or viewers to look at cracks in the illusion or adding context that cameras can’t capture. ABC’s North Korea short makes the country’s facade feel as real as today’s technology will allow, which is an achievement in its own right.

North Korea is an isolated and bizarre enough destination that there’s clear aesthetic value in the film. But there’s also something strange in simply passing on the regime’s reconstruction of reality and noting that it’s a reconstruction. Older forms of media often emphasize explaining what’s going on around an image, zeroing in on a particular shot, or other forms of authorial control. There’s still no consensus, though, on how to shoot in virtual reality. The New York Times chose to combine The Displaced’s video with narration from the subjects and an accompanying longform feature that delved deep into their history, but other pieces — often tourist destination shoots — can be purely experiential. Even with the written article, ABC’s North Korea tour falls toward that end of the spectrum. It feels like the prototypical example of a certain conception of VR filmmaking, where transmitting pure imagery is considered the ultimate goal, and creators are simply a set of surrogate eyes.

It’s not that most people won’t recognize that reality is darker than the tour suggests. But as a piece of journalism — even with the written companion article — the film still ends up promoting the popular conception of North Korea as a quirky, isolated backwater, not home to one of the most singularly horrific regimes in the modern world. If you’re going to note that North Korea has no freedom of speech or press, it’s strange to say nothing about the routine torture, starvation, and enslavement of its citizens. It’s hard to capture something that’s not there, so I understand the argument that it wouldn’t fit in what’s supposed to be a purely narrative, experiential piece. But it still feels like a disturbing twist on the idea that immersion can promote understanding. If VR can reveal truth, it can also make lies more vivid.

I may only feel this way because I’m deeply ambivalent of North Korea’s status as a disaster tourism hotspot, in real or virtual reality. But it’s worth noting that there’s already an interesting VR project on North Korea called DMZ: Memories of No Man’s Land. More an interactive experience than standard VR video, it combines immersive images with historical detail, including firsthand memories from soldiers who patrolled the border between North and South Korea. If you happen to have a Gear VR available, it’s an excellent complement to Jaunt and ABC’s trip into the surreal landscape of Pyongyang’s tourist-friendly pocket universe — and an example of the range of VR documentary work.

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