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VR journalism seeks new ways of storytelling

MBC’s TV documentary special, ‘Meeting you,’ sheds light on the tragic death of a contract worker by using virtual reality technology

Screenshot of trailer from the last episode of season 2, “Meeting You: Meeting Kim Yong-kyun” aired on Feb. 4. (MBC)
Screenshot of trailer from the last episode of season 2, “Meeting You: Meeting Kim Yong-kyun” aired on Feb. 4. (MBC)
In a deep, dark underground tunnel, photos of a young man appear, alongside those of his favorite music albums, films, endearing messages exchanged with his parents and video clips of him fooling around cheerfully with his friends.

As one walks through the tunnel, the young man’s access card for Taean power station appears. It reads, “Name: Kim Yong-kyun; Expiration date: 2018-12-31.”

Those are scenes from the last episode of season 2 of MBC’s VR documentary series, “Meeting You,” broadcasted on Feb. 4. The hour-long documentary was based on a true story that occurred in 2018, aiming to bring back to life of a then 24-year-old Kim.

“If we can travel into other people’s time and space, would we understand them?” the narrator said at the start of the episode.

Kim, a contract worker at a power plant in Taean, passed away on December 2018, due to a tragic accident caused by a malfunctioning conveyor belt.

After getting consent from Kim’s family, the production team met with his colleagues at work, close friends and relatives, to recreate scenes of his workplace and life based on interviews, using the latest VR technology.

A group of 12 ordinary citizens who had only heard Kim’s story through the media, then visited the studio that had been redesigned with computer graphics into a power plant facility.

Entering into Kim’s world through VR, some participants shivered in fear and anger, while others looked back on the past, regretting the times they turned away from such news with disinterest.
Screenshot of trailer from the first episode of “Meeting You” aired on February 2020. (MBC)
Screenshot of trailer from the first episode of “Meeting You” aired on February 2020. (MBC)
The first episode of “Meeting you” was aired earlier last year, based on an actual story of a mother who had to let go of her daughter suffering from an incurable disease. The VR episode, titled “Reuniting with the daughter,” was a scene the mother had dreamed of day and night ever since her loss.

Despite mixed feedbacks from viewers as to whether the program delivered “warmth to the family of the deceased,” or acted as a moment of “moral abuse,” the program was awarded the best TV documentary in 2020 by the Asia-Pacific Broadcasting Union.

“Maybe the real worth and evaluation of VR documentaries will begin when the novelty of technology itself wears off, and only its necessity and quality remain as judging factors,” Kim Jong-woo, producer of “Meeting you” wrote in his production review.

Kim confessed how hard it was to persuade family members and relatives of the need to recreate the plot into VR, considering the huge budget poured into the production process.

A noticeable difference in Kim Yong-kyun’s episode from the previous segments, is that it was designed to pull the audience beyond empathizing with the individual person, and to shed light on social issues. Critics in the media industry viewed the episode as having inched closer to VR journalism, which requires stories to be based on solid evidence and representations.

The advancement of VR technology may still be far from drawing the full picture of Kim’s life stories, but with trial and error, the production team hopes it had delivered part of the intended message: to record and shed light on the tragedy, so such incidents will not repeat again.

By Kim Hae-yeon (hykim@heraldcorp.com)
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