I’m standing in the middle of a room. It’s a dilapidated space with exposed brick walls riddled with devastating signs of war. Desks lie toppled over and notebooks are scattered everywhere. When I look down, there are fading stains of coagulated blood streaking the ground. I hear a chalk scraping across a blackboard and turn around to see a young boy writing across the surface in the bombed-out classroom in eastern Ukraine.

The scene is unfolding before me via the New York Times Virtual Reality app on my smartphone at my home in Delhi. It’s a virtual reality film titled Displaced that tracks the lives of three refugee children from several war-torn regions. For the 11 minutes’ duration of the movie, I am there with the children, walking with them, listening to their stories. The children seem inconceivably close. I feel I can reach out and touch them.

VR still from the documentary 'Displaced'. Credit: Radhika Iyengar
VR still from the documentary 'Displaced'. Credit: Radhika Iyengar

Virtual reality is slowly appropriating our reality, from women falling in love with virtual characters in Japan, to men actually marrying them; from imagining the future through virtual environments, like landing on Mars, to being transported to the age of the dinosaurs. We are becoming drawn into the unfamiliar experiences virtual reality offers – experiences, which for the longest time seemed inaccessible and, often, unthinkable.

In 2014, Mark Zuckerberg had prognosticated on Facebook, “Virtual reality was once the dream of science fiction, but the Internet was also once a dream, and so were computers and smartphones. The future is coming and we have a chance to build it together.”

Parts of the prophecy are getting realised. Over the past few years, a new form of journalism has emerged that interweaves traditional reportage with VR. Nonny de la Peña, dubbed the godmother of VR, calls it “immersive journalism” or “immersive storytelling”. Strip off the technological jargon and VR journalism, in essence, is the means of offering viewers an experiential way of consuming news. It allows them to be present in a situation or event that transpired miles or years away. It can take them to distant places that not everyone can visit, but can, to a certain extent, experience.

As in the rest of the world, virtual reality is in its embryonic stage in India. Anand Gandhi, who catapulted onto the indie film-making scene with his directorial debut Ship of Theseus, is now trying to remould the cast of storytelling through virtual reality. He is the first filmmaker to bring the technology to the country. Last July, Gandhi launched Memesys Culture Lab, a studio focused on creating experimental and experiential work, functioning as a convergence point for science, philosophy, film and culture. Elsevr (pronounced Elsewhere) is the virtual reality and augmented reality production arm of Memesys.

Anand Gandhi's team at Memesys Culture Lab. Courtesy: Memesys Culture Lab
Anand Gandhi's team at Memesys Culture Lab. Courtesy: Memesys Culture Lab

Over the past one year, Gandhi has been handpicking writers, film-makers, innovators, visual artists, thinkers and storytellers across the subcontinent to join his team. For instance, he is working with Faiza Ahmad Khan (director of the ingenious documentary Supermen of Malegaon). Khan recently finished directing a virtual reality documentary in Chhattisgarh. The film, titled Cost of Coal, belongs to the first batch of six documentaries that will be released in late August or early September by Elsevr. It drops the viewers into the coal-mining community of Korba and gives an insight into how the expansion of the Kusmunda coal mine will impact the lives of 13,000 people.

Interestingly, the creators and innovators worldwide who are exploring and experimenting with virtual reality, including Gandhi, are in their late 20s or 30s – a generation that grew up in a culture that simmered with the plurality of possibilities science fiction offered to the imagination. The fascination with virtual reality can be read as a response to that. Gandhi says he wolfed down books authored by Isaac Asimov and other sci-fi writers. “We’ve been following the medium of VR both theoretically and conceptually for many, many years, even before it became possible,” Gandhi said. “In a way, we were waiting for this.”

Still from Cost of Coal. Courtesy: Memesys Culture Lab
Still from Cost of Coal. Courtesy: Memesys Culture Lab

Immersive journalism has seen the emergence of film-makers who’ve begun scrambling to use the technology to tell the most visceral, palpable stories. It is something that traditional media can arguably not offer. When a deluge of refugees began spilling onto the shores of other nations and the animosity against them was mounting, Chris Milk, an innovator and founder of the 360-virtual reality production house Within, released Clouds Over Sidra. Created in collaboration with the United Nations, the film is a narrative-driven virtual reality documentary about a 12-year-old Syrian refugee girl, Sidra, who lives in a refugee camp in Jordan with her family.

In the documentary, the girl sits cross-legged in a small, makeshift camp, looking directly at you, narrating her experiences. In the background, you can hear the wail of her younger brother who scampers about. Although you’re miles away, you no longer feel that you are looking at Sidra through a cold, impenetrable glass screen – you feel as though you are sitting right next to her in that spatchcock dwelling. “And because of that [experience], you feel her humanity in a deeper way,” said Milk in a TED Talk, “you empathise with her in a deeper way, and I think we can change minds with this machine.”

This technology to immerse is being employed by journalists and storytellers as an apparatus to inform audiences who’re responsible for making important global, socio-economic decisions about those who are living in the most incapacitating circumstances.

Virtual reality carries the allure of a magician’s hat. From the means of providing a therapeutic experience to sick children who are confined to their hospital beds, to gifting disabled World War II veterans the ability to visit the war memorial site – VR can conjure up myriad memorable experiences. To watch the films of course, you need a headset.

Google Cardboard. Credit: Radhika Iyengar
Google Cardboard. Credit: Radhika Iyengar

While the Oculus Rift and the Samsung Gear VR are some expensive tickets to the virtual world, Google has introduced Google Cardboard that’s brought virtual reality literally into our homes. It is a light and portable VR headset priced at $15 (Rs 1,000) that functions as a mount for smartphones. Of course, VR films can also be viewed on traditional devices. In India, Gandhi plans to partner with various companies to release the documentaries. “All our content will be device agnostic and free, which means that the content can be ported to any device,” said Gandhi.

Once in India, VR may irreversibly alter the narrative arc of Indian storytelling. “We are moving in a direction where the loss of translation and communication between one system of thought and another will be limited and there will be the ability to feel greater empathy,” Gandhi said. “But like any other medium of communication of the past, it will be a tool that will depend on the author. It’s the oldest problem of all technology – it’s like the knife of the surgeon or the knife of the killer. Therefore, it all depends on the intention of the person using the VR technology at the end of the day.”

Regardless, VR will give us an exceptional opportunity, perhaps unlike any other medium. The introduction of Facebook Live, the social media giant’s foray into live broadcasting, has tipped the scale. Imagine a day when you could watch a live protest anywhere in the world while wearing your Google Cardboard and instantly being able to become an active participant of the event. It’s possible and Zuckerberg is presumably already working on it.