At the touch of a button, I am transported from a chic office in Mumbai’s Andheri to a rundown house near the Kusmunda coal mine in Chhattisgarh. For a Virtual Reality (VR) virgin, it is a disconcerting experience. As I look up, down and sideways, the discomfort amplifies. But you get hooked to this discomfort instantly—it’s a feeling similar to that of being invisible among people, being a fly on the wall.

Unlike cinema, we aren’t allowed to be distracted from the screen; the headgear covers our entire field of vision. There is a reason why VR, a thrilling new art form, is considered an “empathy machine", more powerful than cinema.

Moments later, out on a bleak, vast expanse of land, we are in the middle of a fly-ash pond. A voice-over in broken Hindi tells us that it is “more radioactive than nuclear waste".

This is a 2-minute excerpt from the Cost Of Coal, a VR documentary. The 5-minute film, currently in post-production, will launch ElseVR (pronounced elsewhere), an online quarterly magazine that will feature essays and stories using Virtual Reality and Augmented Reality (AR). The film is produced by the Memesys Culture Lab that describes itself as “a cinema and new media studio at the intersection of science, philosophy and culture".

Once the stuff of science fiction and later the domain of the geek, VR is here, expanding the possibilities of cinema, journalism and entertainment. Some newsrooms around the world already have dedicated sections for VR.

According to Anand Gandhi, director of the film Ship Of Theseus (2013) and co-founder of Memesys, VR is simply an evolved language of communication. “How do I transmit what I am sensing, feeling, the way I look at the world, my information gathering, to another human being? VR is a milestone in the constantly evolving language of communication because it can transmit important and complex data into things that can be felt, touched, seen and heard," he says. Gandhi adds to a niche field that has opened after companies such as Facebook, Google, Samsung and Microsoft that have launched their own VR headsets.

In the coming months, Memesys plans to release more VR/AR-driven content, including a cricket tutorial and science-based shows.

The groundwork for ElseVR began one-and-a-half years ago when Gandhi put together a group of professionals from varied fields like writing, technology (Zain Memon), film-making (Khushboo Ranka) and advertising (Shirin Johari).

Journalist Shubhangi Swarup, who joined Memesys in February as executive editor of ElseVR, explains how they are trying to blend the rigour of serious journalism with the experiential quality of VR. “You read stories about injustice and magnanimity but you don’t get it till you experience it. VR is brilliant in setting the scene. We try to get journalists, non-fiction writers who have spent a lot of time on a subject, to team up with a film-maker with similar aesthetics." Cost Of Coal is a collaboration between Aruna Chandrasekhar, who has reported extensively on coal mines and their effect on Adivasis and Dalits, and Faiza Khan, director of Supermen Of Malegaon, who is familiar with the region’s landscape and politics. Some of the other confirmed names are Sooni Taraporevala—on Mumbai’s neighbourhood walks—and Ishan Tankha—on Old Delhi’s sights and sounds.

The medium can pose unexpected challenges. Khan used 6-14 cameras, shooting simultaneously from all directions, each covering 180 degrees, stitching it together later on the edit table. “It is a fragmented process, where we shot with them first. Later, we sat down and did audio interviews," she says. “For the person you’re filming with, it can be a little unnerving because they are expected to interact with a machine."

Visit www.facebook.com/Memesys Lab for details on other projects and the release date of Cost Of Coal.

Close