New Frontier virtual reality experience is based on creator’s monthlong incarceration in an internet addiction camp
Zhang and Guo have been working on the project since 2018
In 2007, Mengtai Zhang spent a month in one of China’s infamous internet addiction camps.
The Chinese government, which deemed internet addiction as a public health crisis in the early 2000s, treated the so-called “electric heroin” and “spiritual opium” of video games in a way that bordered on the inhumane and cruel, according to Zhang.
“In my experience there were a lot of crazy things going on, and while I was there, I didn’t think they were really doing research about internet addiction,” he said. “I think if my parents knew that, they wouldn’t have sent me there.”
Zhang, whose parents determined he was a teenage internet addict who needed help, felt many of the kids who were sent to these camps were not addicted to the internet, but were using it to escape turbulent family dynamics.
“In my own experience, my parents had been fighting for a divorce for quite a long time, and while I was in the camp, I met many patients who also experienced family conflicts.”
This was one of the issues Zhang wanted to bring to light with “Diagnosia,” an immersive virtual reality documentary that is part of the 2022 Sundance Film Festival’s New Frontier program.
“I’ve had this idea since 2018,” he said. “When news about gaming disorder had been recognized as a formal mental disorder by WHO, I was pretty shocked, because I saw this as not quite a mental disorder.”
So Zhang decided to not only reflect on his own experience, but also do his own research about internet addiction in China and around the world.
“His first project was an animated two-video installation that told his experience in an abstract way,” said Lemon Guo, lead artist, producer, composer and sound designer of “Diagnosia.” “It was based on his experience, but more in line with a short story about a man escaping from an addiction camp.”
That video still contained immersive elements, according to Zhang.
“The audience was sandwiched between two large screens, and they could walk around and decide what they wanted to look at,” he said. “I kept that idea in mind about the immersive and how to allow people to experience it from a first-person perspective.”
The next interaction of the project was a web-based VR experience.
“People could log in and write about how they felt about the internet,” he said. “It was a short experience, so we decided to develop it more.”
Sponsorship from the International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam (IDFA) in 2021 gave Zhang and Guo the boost needed to make “Diagnosia” into a full virtual reality experience.
“We also got additional funding from a New York organization called Wave Farm, so we were able to have some more help on the coding and 3D modeling,” Guo said.
The two, with the help of programmer Ethan Edwards, who helped with the coding, finished the project in 2021, in time to premiere it at IDFA.
Zhang and Guo worked through many challenges to get “Dianosia” to IDFA.
A huge undertaking was writing the story, Guo said.
“In 2018 Mengtai wrote a memoir that detailed his entire experience in the camp,” she said. “So we started there.”
Zhang also wanted viewers to have a comfortable VR experience.
“People who don’t have a lot of experience with VR might get motion sickness,” he said. “So we tried to limit the duration of each segment to 20 or 30 minutes. And me and Lemon spent a lot of time deciding what parts went where.”
“That meant we had to boil down a whole month of the camp into 30-minute stories,” Guo said. “One challenge for VR is you cannot cut between scenes the same way you do with film. We had to figure out how to build a limited number of scenes and have things happen within the scenes.”
The two also had to learn how to code.
“There is a lot of coding, but fortunately we had Ethan, who joined later on who helped us crack some of the difficult parts,” Guo said.
Sundance 2022 logo
“Diagnosia,” an immersive live event, is part of the 2022 Sundance Film Festival’s New Frontier program. A discussion with creators Mengtai Zhang and Lemon Guo is scheduled for 2 p.m. on Jan. 26 and will remain accessible to festival credential holders through Jan. 30.
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