Are we there yet? Media content and sense of presence in non-fiction virtual reality

Sense of presence is a central but widely contested concept in virtual reality (VR) and has been the subject of significant debate, discussion and research. Key factors considered to influence sense of presence are: media form, media content and user characteristics but as yet, relatively little consideration has been given to how these apply to the emerging field of non-fiction VR. Non-fiction VR can be distinguished from other forms of VR by trying to engage audiences with real-world stories, where sense of presence is intended to offer audiences opportunities for empathic engagement and social transformation. This paper offers a framework to analyse how four media content dimensions (immersion, positionality of the user, interactivity and narrative agency) influence sense of presence in non-fiction VR projects. With the intention of offering deeper insights on how sense of presence relates to the purposes of non-fiction narrative, it unpacks each media content variable and illustrates how these can be applied critically in relation to two notable non-fiction VR works, Gone Gitmo [2007. Directed by Nonny de la Peña and Peggy Weil] and 6×9: A Virtual Experience of Solitary Confinement [2016. Directed by Francesca Panetta and Lindsay Poulton. The Guardian].

McRoberts, J. (2018) “Are we there yet? Media content and sense of presence in non-fiction virtual reality”. In: Studies in Documentary Film Vol 12 Issue 2, Pp. 101—118, DOI 10.1080/17503280.2017.1344924

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