At Toronto’s Hot Docs documentary film festival, the Globe will premiere a virtual reality piece about life in solitary confinement.

By H.G. Watson, Associate Editor

I’m standing in a small room. One single window illuminates the space, giving light to the cramped and dingy living quarters.

On the concrete walls, messages have been scribbled by past occupants. A romance novel sits on a single bed, itself only a few feet away from a dirty, metal toilet. A male voice explains to me that was the only literature available in the prison where the solitary confinement cell I’m standing in is located.

Or rather, the solitary confinement cell that I am virtually standing in.

Once I take the virtual reality headset off, I’m actually standing in the Globe and Mail offices in downtown Toronto. “Surviving Solitary,” premiering this week at Toronto’s Hot Doc’s film festival, is the Globe’s first foray into telling stories with virtual reality.

More news organizations are experimenting with virtual reality worldwide. The New York Times sent cardboard virtual reality headsets to their subscribers last year, and the Guardian recently premiered their own project about solitary confinement. The Globe’s explores the same subject from a Canadian context. It is, to their knowlege the first virtual reality project published by a Canadian news organization.

For the team that worked on the story, getting the reader to empathize with those who are in solitary confinement was the key. “We’re just trying to add a new dimension to this story because solitary confinement is something that very few Canadians will ever experience,” said Danielle Webb, an interactive news developer at the Globe.

She, along with designer Dawson Guilbeault and Kevin O’Gorman, the ‎integration and web operations manager at the Globe, has been working on the project since November—all three were seconded from their usual newsroom positions to do it, although they are now splitting their time between their regular jobs and “Surviving Solitary.”

Solitary confinement was a topic the Globe had already been covering thoroughly. Virtual reality seemed to make sense for the next step of storytelling, said Guilbeault—a way of putting the reader in the shoes of an inmate.

The virtual reality experience created by the Globe team is not dissimilar from walking through a museum diorama with a headset. Looking at certain objects in each cell—a bed, the door, a plate of food—triggers an audio description from people who have been inmates in solitary confinement, recorded by reporters Sean Fine, Joe Friesen and Patrick White, who worked on the project.

Guilbeault said people are often surprised by how many things are actually in the room. “[The inmates] try and exert whatever control they can over their environment,” he said. It’s a detail that may have been harder to convey in a print news story.

The process of creating “Surviving Solitary” is still developing, from both a technical and story standpoint. As the team learned what they could and couldn’t do, they would have to relay back to the reporters what information they needed to complete the story. Sometimes, that meant doing some training—reporters had to do follow-up interviews in order to capture broadcast-quality audio.

“It was sometimes a little tricky to explain what we were looking for when so much of it was a bit of a question mark, because we were figuring out the technology and the storytelling process at the same time as developing a story,” said Webb.

The project gives viewers a chance to explore two solitary confinement cells—one in a federal prison, the other in a provincial prison; one narrated by a male inmate, the other by a woman, so the audience can experience the different experiences people have. The team is hoping to add third cell to provide an even richer storytelling experience.

The Hot Docs presentation will give them a chance to get out of the “echo chamber” of the newsroom, as Webb puts it, and in front of the public who can provide valuable feedback.

In a perfect world, said O’Gorman, they would distribute virtual reality viewers to Globe subscribers to view the project. For now, however, that is something that they are still discussing.

“I think trying to figure out a way to get it out to everybody would be my end goal,” O’Gorman added.

View “Solitary Confinement” for free at the Hot Docs Film Festival at Hot Docs House, 610 Markham Street, Toronto, until May 7.

H.G. Watson can be reached at hgwatson@j-source.ca or on Twitter.