6x9 - The Guardian’s first Virtual Reality experience

The challenge

The Guardian was approached by Google with the idea of collaborating on a virtual reality experience. The challenge was how to create a fully 3D virtual experience without compromising the journalistic integrity of the subject.

The solution

The initial phase of the project was determining which subject would best be suited for a VR experience. The Guardian had been covering the long-term effects solitary confinement had on inmates, so it was decided that this would be the focus of the experience, placing viewers in the shoes of a prisoner trapped within a cell.

After deciding on the subject, we began exploring how we could create the experience in VR. As the creative technologist on the team, I was responsible for interaction design, the development of an internal prototype, and overseeing external production.

I chose to use Unity as the 3D engine since it supported Google Cardboard and was optimized for mobile exports. Unity is also very popular in the game industry, which meant we had greater access to external resources.

Unity editor screenshot
Unity editor used to place 3D spatial audio

Before reaching out to an external developer, I created an internal prototype using Unity. This gave us the opportunity to learn about the asset pipeline and explore the possibilities the Unity engine provided.

We collaborated with the third party ‘The Mill’ to create a fully interactive 3D experience that took full advantage of the Google Cardboard hardware while also telling a journalistic story in a new way.

The VR application was released for iPhones and Android devices, as well as the Gear VR. To celebrate the release of the app, a special edition of the print paper included a Google Cardboard that readers could assemble themselves.

The final step was to create a 360-degree panorama video of the virtual reality experience, which was released on YouTube.

Inside the prison cell
360 degree render of the prison cell

The project was a great success, appearing at both the Sundance and Tribeca film festivals. Robert De Niro was one of the first people to try it, later discussing the experience on The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon.

The project was subsequently featured in SXSL’s White House lawn event, where policymakers had the opportunity to try it for themselves.

Project skills