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Pizza, virtual reality and ethics intersect at Sundance Ignite On Tour

Haley Kim | Asst. Copy Editor

Johnny Cho tries out the virtual reality video "Tree," where viewers get to grow as if they were a tree.

UPDATED: March 25, 2017 at 1:05 p.m.

Johnny Cho looked like he had just discovered limbs. Slowly, he flexed and curled his arms, waving them as his torso swayed.

In a sense, his limbs were brand-new — they had been turned into tree branches in the virtual reality experience “Tree.” With a vest, headset, noise-canceling headphones, fan and a heater, Cho, a graduate student at Syracuse University, had been transformed into a tall, leafy plant.

“Tree” is one of the exhibits featured at the Sundance Ignite On Tour, a two-day event featuring virtual reality artists and their work. The showcase is hosted by the Sundance Institute, the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications and the School of Visual and Performing Arts. On Thursday, SU students and faculty and VR professionals chatted in a workshop before heading over to the Joyce Hergenhan Auditorium in Newhouse 3 for a panel about VR in journalism.

The event continued into Friday. People signed up for a time slot outside the Herg to try out one experience. In the afternoon, there were more panels on topics like the beginnings of virtual reality, ethics and VR and a discussion with local VR artists.

At the Alan Gerry Center for Media Innovation lab, students, faculty and the visiting VR professionals mingled, ate pizza and discussed each other’s work.

Shweta Gulati, a graduate student in Newhouse, said “After Solitary” was her first time experiencing a visual story. The volumetric video profiles Kenny Moore, who lived in solitary confinement for years in the Maine State Prison. Users can walk around Moore’s cramped cell, watching him explain how he used to “fish” to communicate with other prisoners and describe how the isolation caused him to cut and take chunks of his skin off himself.

“Unlike other forms of storytelling, where you would just see it but you don’t actually feel it, this makes you feel and be in there,” Gulati said. “It was just really something.”

Cassandra Herrman, co-director of “After Solitary,” said the hardest parts about creating volumetric video is the technology’s novelty and working with huge files. Editing is also different from traditional film because it’s not linear — if one part is changed, every single piece after has to be recoded and retimed, she said.

About 15 students gathered around Winslow Porter, one of the directors of “Tree,” who explained how to set it up. While the programming might be complex, the haptic technology doesn’t necessarily have to be high-end — Porter and Milica Zec, the other director, got some of their equipment from Home Depot.

Around 7 p.m. the group moved to the Herg for the panel. Dan Pacheco, the Peter A. Horvitz Endowed Chair in Journalism Innovation and one of the organizers for the event, said while there has been a lot of growth in VR over the last few years, it’s too early to tell whether VR is the greatest new thing or just a “flash in the pan.” But Pacheco isn’t particularly concerned with popularity.

“We should be thinking, ‘What’s unique and powerful about this medium, how can we tell stories in a really new way that engages people?’ And that is actually what drives the adoption,” he said.

One of the most accessible forms of VR right now is 360 videos. Veda Shastri, who works on The Daily 360 at The New York Times, said most of their content is under two minutes and people usually watch it through the phone or the Times home page. The Daily 360 is a “gateway drug” to 360 videos, she said.

“Tree,” on the other hand, is an immersive experience that requires more equipment. It’s part of a trilogy, said Zec, one of the directors. “Giant,” the first part and also being shown at the event, focuses on how humans harm other humans, and “Tree” is about humans harming nature. The third part will be about hope, Zec said.

Storytellers and journalists do have an ethical responsibility to the craft, Porter said in a later part of the panel. There is a possibility of traumatizing or re-traumatizing people, and before a person goes into one of the experiences, they are briefed about what the story is and given a trigger warning, Porter said. While there is no legislation now, it’s a question that will become increasingly more important.

“We’re slowly getting to this point where we’re actually able to be able to put memories into peoples’ heads,” Porter said. “And that’s when things get a little bit murky.”

The panelists also discussed the idea of VR isolating people. Right now it’s difficult because only one person can be in the headset at a time, Porter said. But escapism isn’t just VR — it can also be watching a film on a laptop. There is always a choice to disconnect from the computer or headset and interact with others, he said.

Because a lot of pieces can cause trauma, said Herrman, the director of “After Solitary,” it’s important to show them in places that build community and discussion.

“I think it’s really thinking about how to get these pieces into more communities and spaces that are outside of film festivals, which in a certain way are elite,” Herrman said. “And to me, that would alleviate some of that sense of isolation.”

CORRECTION: In a previous version of this post, Milica Zec was misnamed. The Daily Orange regrets this error.

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