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How A Solitary Confinement Experience Was Built In Virtual Reality

Movies and TV have tried, but VR might be the only way to truly get even an inkling of what it's like to be locked alone in a cell.

How A Solitary Confinement Experience Was Built In Virtual Reality

With notable films and television programs detailing prison life, some might think they have a fairly accurate portrait of life in solitary confinement. And most people wouldn’t exactly be keen on experiencing anything even remotely like it. But The Guardian’s Special Projects group, tasked with virtual-reality storytelling, is wagering that people will want to experience solitary confinement—virtually.

In 6x9, directed by Special Projects editors Francesca Panetta and Lindsay Poulton, viewers are placed in an interactive, virtual segregation cell rendered in CGI. The project, announced this week, aims to highlight the psychological deterioration and sensory deprivation experienced by segregated inmates, 6x9 participants are encouraged to interact with objects and learn what can and cannot be done in solitary confinement.

Soundtracking the experience is audio from interviews with seven former inmates who did stints in solitary confinement, and who were in prison from one to eight years in California and New York. Academic psychologists Dr. Terry Kupers and Dr. Craig Haney, who have both studied the effects of solitary confinement for decades, also explain the effects of this type of segregation in audio recordings.

Panetta told Co.Create that 6x9 grew out of the Special Project’s brainstorming sessions for VR productions, but that the team had also wanted to do a big piece on solitary confinement anyway.

"My job here is to innovate in ways we tell stories [and] I had wanted to make a VR piece," Panetta said. "At the same time we were discussing doing a big piece on solitary confinement. In fact the larger piece on solitary fell by the wayside, but the idea of 6x9 was seeded. We realized that it was a perfect story for the genre—one that is solely about location and environment and your place within that."

Panetta’s research involved a lot of reading, watching documentaries, and talking to people who had experienced solitary confinement over the phone. So Panetta and Poulton traveled to the U.S. last September to interview the seven inmates, as well as talk to Dr. Kupers and Dr. Haney.

To create the virtual solitary cell, the team enlisted London-based VFX studio The Mill. The company’s producer, Jarred Vladich, told Co.Create that The Mill used prison cell reference photography and documentaries to give the cell its distinct look. They also explored the process of aging the cell to give it an authentic and realistic appearance.

Panetta and Poulton also sent The Mill’s 2D cell renderings to the seven inmates, who advised on how closely it resembled actual solitary confinement. Panetta said that an inmate suggested the blanket should be smaller, while another emphasized that the food portions should be more meager.

"Research for The Mill centered around creating a true representation of the cell, both visually and aurally," Vladich explained. "More hands on techniques were used (scanning textures and scratched text) to create realistic effects in CG. All visual elements needed to complement the audio experience—so a lot of care was taken to make sure these worked in harmony."

With the virtual cell created, Panetta and Poulton worked to evoke the sense of psychological deterioration and sensory deprivation. Symptoms include visual blur, a sensation of floating, and hallucinations that appear in the space.

"Toward the end of the piece you experience the visual hallucinations which are common in solitary," said Panetta. "You see someone by the door, but when you look they disappear, reappearing when you look away."

While the visuals are impressive, perhaps the most unsettling aspect of 6x9 is the detail that went into the crescendoing voices and sounds both from within and without the cell. Panetta even took a prototype of the experience to a London psychologist to see whether the team’s realization of symptoms were accurate.

"Exploring physical deterioration required a lot of user testing," said Vladich. "Understanding how far you can push things like forced blurring, floating and spatial sound treatment meant a lot of headset testing to ensure we were getting the right effects, but also not making the experience unbearable."

The interactive aspect of 6x9 is, as Panetta explained, gaze-based. When a viewer looks at an object in the scene, an audio story of that object is played. Look away and the story pauses; look back at the object and the story continues.

When inmates put on the VR headset to experience 6x9, Panetta said they were amazed by the realism, as were Doctors Kupers and Haney. What normally took hours to explain to another person now could be communicated almost instantly.

"In minutes you could give a much better sense of what they had experienced," Panetta said. "When I asked how accurately it felt to their cell and their experience, all said it felt uncannily accurate."

"The collaboration was a very unique and open experience for us," Vladich said. "Each team from The Guardian and The Mill had such a great depth of talent, which is realized in the complexity and quality of the final experience. Being such a sensitive subject matter we all approached the project with the same vigor to ensure we were doing it justice."

As one YouTube user commented after watching 6x9, "That's as close as I ever need to be to prison, let alone solitary." Those who watch the VR experience will likely agree. 

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