The Undelivered Letters

NYU ITP Thesis Project


Showcase        2017 NYU ITP Spring show

Instructor         Andrew Lazarow    

Creative Field   VR, journalistic documentary

Time                   20 February, 2017 - 2 May, 2017


PROJECT OVERVIEW

“The Undelivered Letters” is an immersive journalistic documentary virtual reality project that pays tribute to victims of the Taiwanese White Terror. It aims to shed light on stories that have been buried in the archives for decades, and breathing new life into the realm of history and politics through VR. 

I came up with this idea because my background is journalism and I have always been interested in political and cultural issues. In my thesis project, I explore how emerging media technology can advance the field of journalistic documentary and history. I have chosen to focus my project on a dark political period in Taiwan from 1945 to 1987, post WWII through the Cold War. 

HISTRY BACKGROUND

After World War II, Chiang Kai-shek and his son ruled Taiwan and imposed martial law until 1987. Chiang repressed the people who dared to question his corrupt dictatorship, or showed sympathies to communists. During this time, roughly 140,000 innocent Taiwanese were imprisoned, and over 4,000 people were executed. This era later came to be known as the “White Terror.”

During the White Terror, some imprisoned victims were able to write goodbye letters to their families before they were executed. However, the government didn’t release them until half a century later. Some of the recipients passed away and never had the chance to get the letters from their loved one. I chose four of them to present in my thesis project. Their names are 高一生 (Yi-Sheng Kao), 劉耀廷 (Yao-ting Liu), 黃溫恭 (Wen-Gong Huang) and 詹天增 (Tien-Tseng Chan) . 

I believe if we want to prevent future cycles of state violations, we must revisit history and learn from past trauma. The intended audience of my project will be young generation around the world who are not familiar with the worldwide state violence in the Cold War. 

WORKING FLOW

Based on the research I made, I recreated the letters, photos and related artworks into audio file, 3d models and animations, and also find some related assets in Unity store. I combined all of them in Unity and Oculus Rift.

DESIGN PROCESS

Visual Design

1. Jail with “memories”

When the user wears the VR headset, she or he will be transported to the main scene, which is the prison cell. Then the user can explore the space and private belongings of White Terror victims. The main scene is populated with sculptures that were recreated from a White Terror victim, Wu-Jan Chen (陳武鎮).

Wu-Jan Chen made oil paintings that portrayed what he and other victims experienced in prison. I gave depth to the paintings in Cinema4D to create sculptures, as part of the jail scene. 

2. Animation of Hand Writing

The main visual effects in most scenes are handwriting animations. I used After effects to recreate the letters’ hand writing in animation, to mimic the victims’ last moment, as they tried to reach out to their loved ones.

Sound Design

1. Bilingual audio recording: I recorded the letters both in English and its original languages, including Chinese and Japanese because I try to maintain the original tone, and offer a translation for English speakers.

2. Background music design: The background music in every scene has strong connections to each victim. For example, the background music of Yi-Sheng Kao's scene is the song which Yi-Sheng Kao's created for his wife.

Interaction Design

I.  Raycase for changing scenes: I used “Raycase" to change the scenes. This means, when the users look at the letter, it will automatically transport the user to a new scene related to the letter’s writer. The reason why I used “Raycase” to change the scene is many users feel like “they are playing a game”, rather than “living inside someone’s memory” when they use handheld controllers.

2. One-way experience: After the users watch the story and return to the main scene, they won’t have the chance to go back again. It prevents the user from accidentally jumping into the same scene again. Conceptually, it means the memories and moments are fleeting.

3. Comfortable transition: I used fade in and fade out effect between scenes to make the transition comfortable and smooth. Also, it can create the feeling of immersing in memories.

Conclusion

After the exploration of my thesis, I came up with several ideas toward my thesis question: 

1. VR is particularly suited to stories which have strong connection with spaces, including one significant event takes place in a defined space, or a historical event took place in a space disappeared forever.  

2. Instead of watching news or reading articles from outside, VR is a powerful way to place viewers on the scene of an event and engage the audience emotionally.

3. Today, most VR journalism is shot in 360 video, but it’s not as compelling as constructed VR, because constructed VR allows audiences to reach out, react, and feel emotional connections to stories.

FUTURE PLAN

Based on the exploration, my next step is to refine the project by interviewing the victims’ families and represent them in VR. I hope to build a new kind of interactive VR documentary to memorialize the era, and help its stories and their impact live on.

 

 

 

Music credits: 

Music in Yi-Sheng Kao’s story is from Taiwan Public Television; music in Yao-Ting Liu’s story is from Tairan Xiao Cultural and Educational Foundation.