Photo: Linsey Addario © New York Times

In November 2015, the New York Times launched an initiative directed at expanding the boundaries of reporting: 360-degree video in three dimension. Delivered via a smart phone app and viewed either with or without an inexpensive 3D viewer called Cardboard, the results have left a profound impression on nearly every person I know who has experienced it. The Times’s first venture was “The Displaced“, a 3D video portrait into the lives of several refugee children. It is stunning for its ability to make one feel part of the scene, while still remaining outside of it. We become the proverbial fly-on-the-wall — one with a panoptical view. As we turn our heads, or look up and down, the views change. When a noise comes from the left or right, we swivel to find its source. For the viewer, this creates a palpable sense of agency and involvement, and yet at the same time, the story’s arc is obviously preset; we cannot affect the action. This creates a fascinating tension between a linear narrative drive on the one hand and multi-directional possibilities on the other. Recently, the filmmakers of the NYT piece offered some compelling reflections on the matter. Interestingly, in the name of making the video experience feel more immersive, they went out of their way to support the illusion of viewer control. For instance, during the filming, they explicitly chose to hide themselves from the camera’s view — not an easy task, especially since the shoot technically was quite difficult to manage. What happens when technology enables the presence of a narrator or narrative to become nearly invisible? The filmmakers hoped that their endeavor would encourage connection and empathy with their subjects. Will it?