Very real – and starkly frightening.
Right now, more than 80,000 people are in solitary confinement in the US, locked in tiny concrete boxes where every element of their environment is controlled. They spend 22-24 hours a day in their cells, with little to no human contact for days or even decades. The sensory deprivation they endure causes severe psychological damage.
These people are invisible to us—and eventually to themselves. 6×9 is a virtual reality piece which lets users experience first-hand what life is like in solitary confinement, and learn the psychological deterioration that can ensure from long term solitary confinement.
6×9 take a very difficult topic and tells the story in a way that could only be told through this medium. Unlike most pieces of VR journalism, 6×9 places you in the place of the protagonist. You are the main character in the piece, taking the place of a prisoner in an isolation cell. This is a radically different way to approach journalism.
The piece was done with the highest journalistic standards. Sounds were real. Original interviews were done with seven former inmates who were in solitary confinement for between one and eight years in California and New York as well as two leading academic psychologists, Dr. Terry Kupers and Dr. Craig Haney. You hear their voices throughout the experience.
The spacialised 3D sound design is also authentic, coming from Maine Supermax penitentiary. The cell was put together with references from the former inmates and solitary watch who consulted on details throughout the 9 month production process. Even the cover of books in the cell were based on the actual books the interviewees read during their time in isolation.
The psychological experiences (floating, apparitions, vision blur) were based on interviews with those who experienced it and then cross references with psychologists in the UK and US. We overcame significant challenges technically, journalistically and even ethically trying to make the experience realistic and true but without sending people to their psychiatrist.
When ‘inside’ the cell the viewer can interact with the objects within it, learning what they can and can’t do in solitary confinement. Unlike most non-fiction VR, 6×9 was able to give the user a certain degree of agency and ownership of the space.
6×9 is available in a range of bands: YouTube 360 degree video iOS and Android app in which you can watch 6×9 in ‘magic window’ mode or with Google Cardboard. Gear VR Physical installation. (Tribeca Film Festival, London and Sheffield). The installation really really pushes the boundaries of what we think of as journalism.
The film has received great attention across the world. Robert de Niro came to watch it at Tribeca Film Festival and later went on the Jimmy Fallon show to talk about it. It has played at over 50 festivals around the world from Cannes to Melbourne, Sundance to Toronto.
6×9 has been covered in the media around the world, described as “groundbreaking” (mic.com), “one of the 8 best films at sundance” (New York Times) and “the best VR documentary at Tribeca” (Wearable). 6×9 was supplemented by additional editorial to support the virtual reality piece. All lived on www.theguardian.com/solitary-vr.
There were 14 articles which ranged from facts about solitary to an interview with Albert Woodfox just realised after 43 years in solitary confinement. We had 10 podcasts – from individual stories, to a documentary presented by Gary Younge. We had two specially commissioned videos, one on the impact on the families of those who are in solitary.
We are helping the industry by writing about our experiences, talking about our experiences, and have committed to work with Google News Labs to help other news organisations learn from our successes and mistakes. We are about to embark on a further set of first person narratives to test this genre further and will share our learnings along the way.