Virtual Reality: From Empathy to Action – Liveblog at SXSW


Is Virtual Reality “the empathy machine?” That’s one of the ways people try to describe the immersive quality of VR headsets, which look really dumb from the outside but present compelling views in all directions when you are wearing them. Panelists for this session at the JW Marriott are Allison Arden, VP and Publisher of Advertising Age, Bryan Mochizuki, marketing director at the Clinton Global Initiative, Robert Holzer, founder & CEO of Matter Unlimited; Yelena Rachitsky, producer & head of education at Occulus Story Studio. In other words, an all-star cast. If you can’t see the liveblog entries, try clicking on the headline of this post.

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Len Edgerly March 15, 201610:33 am

Introduction of panelists: Bryan Mochizuki of Clinton Initiative. Started with an idea Clinton had about benefits of bringing global leaders together to discuss action for good. Rob Holzer founder of a creative agency in NY, Matter Unlimited, “An Agency for Good” He is executive producer for film we will see, “Inside Impact: East Africa” with Bill Clinton and Chelsea. An amazing first step in telling stories with this platform.

Len Edgerly March 15, 201610:34 am

It’s Yelena Rachitsky’s birthday today. Nice round of applause. She is producer and head of education for Oculus Story Studio.

Len Edgerly March 15, 201610:38 am

Moderator is Allison Arden of Advertising Age. How many of you are involved in social good projects? A lot. A few involved in VR projects. Everyone has experienced VR. Just a few have seen Inside Impact video. Shows Clinton introducing “a 360 degree virtual experience.” Filmed with Solar Sister, putting solar power in homes. Discovery Learning Academy. Film lasts 6 or 7 minutes. Clinton said “I felt that I was back there.” He recorded voice over while wearing a VR headset.

Len Edgerly March 15, 201610:40 am

Bryan Mochizuki says CGI has had success making films to document projects. Made it a year and a half ago, early in VR. It enables you to put people into a place they’ve never been before. We went from a casual conversation about VR to a way to put it into action, following Clinton to East Africa. We were excited to be one of the first in this space.

Len Edgerly March 15, 201610:43 am

Rob Holzer from the agency: When I took the VR headset off the first time, I realized I’d been moved like never before with standard video. “A lot of stars aligned to make this particular film happen.” Impact has been astonishing. I have put the film on thousands of people at events like this. Interesting wording there. “No one says ‘I watched this thing.’ They say ‘I was there.'”

Len Edgerly March 15, 201610:45 am

Yelena Rachitsky of Oculus saw the power of documentaries. Social media made people more active. I was interested in how technology was changing to make us feel more part of stories. Nothing really took of until Virtual Reality. Chris Milk mentioned a lot on this topic. Link: . The feeling part of something is for Yelena is more powerful than watching something where you know you are not really part of it.

Len Edgerly March 15, 201610:47 am

“This is five minutes old. We are in the tumbleweeds days of this thing,” Rob Holzer says of VR. That’s why it’s attracting such attention here at SXSW. It reminds Rob of 1995 in Internet space. “We were a community of people making stuff. Nobody knew how to make a good web experience.” He hopes a community builds. We’re all looking at what’s cool and trying to figure it out, while technology builds. It still comes back to a story. I don’t care what medium we’re in.

Len Edgerly March 15, 201610:50 am

“Working with a US president is challenging,” Rob Holzer says. Bryan Mochizuki says they expected people to find it weirder than they did. Clinton got it in a second. Told him there will be this thing in the room picking up everything around it. In a single take he walked in to meet a Solar Sister leader. One take. Powerful. You have one chance to get it, and camera will get everything around it. As filmmakers you need to forget traditional practices.

Len Edgerly March 15, 201610:54 am

Yelena Rachitsky of Oculus: When you move, you move the world with you using a simple cardboard VR viewer. With a VR headset you can move in the world. 360 degree live action means less control of the audience. Director has to step back. Create space for freedom and exploration. Guide people into the story with sound and lighting or a firefly to take people into a space. Follow her on twitter at @yelenart

Len Edgerly March 15, 201610:56 am

Smart. Panel opens us to questions earlier than usual. Rob Holzer says they have headsets so people will be able to watch the film afterward.

Q. How are you measuring impact of VR?
A. Rob – it’s early days on measurement side. Great anecdotal stories. UN used a Chris Milk VR for a fund raiser. Raised huge amount more than expected. We are working with MIT and others on measurement longer term. If you need measurement it will be tough to justify. A lot of organizations are looking at it as a way to connect with donors. There is a trust gap for charities; one in three Americans don’t trust charities. It’s a bit of a leap, but anecdotes show it’s working.
Len Edgerly March 15, 201610:58 am

Mochizuki of CGI: We are more interested in long tail of this thing. People change their habits, how they think–not necessarily whether they reach for their checkbooks to make a donation right away. It’s hard to measure in the short term.

Len Edgerly March 15, 201611:01 am

Q. VR hits me at a visceral space, not so much intellectually. Do you consider VR to be “the thing” or the empathetic lever in a larger construct.”

A. (Yelena) – Until I experienced VR film on Syrian refugees, I didn’t understand the issue. I see it as informational, visceral and we will figure out how to convey information on it. There is tagging being tried–if you look in a direction, information pops up.
Tech is using very fast. Smell? Completely blend illusion and reality. Others are using other senses, Yelena says. How to use haptic prompts during experience–and smell. Wow. Spatial sound deepens the immersion. It’s going to exponentially get deeper and deeper.
Len Edgerly March 15, 201611:03 am

Rob Holzer – We are an agency working a number of films. An organization needs to know how to leverage a VR piece among other communication channels. How is your leadership speaking about the issue? Corporate partners can leverage the VR content.

Yelena: Facebook bought Oculus. It will become more social. It won’t be so solo.
Len Edgerly March 15, 201611:07 am

Q. How long should a VR piece be?

A (Rob Holzer) – CGI piece is 7.5 minutes. No one has said it was too long. They want to stay in the scenes longer.
Len Edgerly March 15, 201611:10 am

Q. Are we going to get lost in VR?

A (Yelena) – When people think back, they have a memory not something they saw. Some VR can be traumatic. Need to have time and space and openness to process. It’s different than film.
(Holzer): It’s a tool. It’s up to use it wisely. There will be sports and porn, everything in VR. We look at it as a tool to bring people closer to issues. What should we show? These are big questions, because VR is so visceral. People have to be careful about that.
Len Edgerly March 15, 201611:12 am

Q. How can VR be abused?

A. (Yelena): I work for a VR company, I should probably not say. Laughter. VR porn is obviously going to be huge.
(Holzer) – regular film is used horribly by ISIS. VR takes you one step closer. Filmmakers have to be careful.
(Yelena) – big thing is to not give people motion sickness. Move camera move very slowly.
Len Edgerly March 15, 201611:14 am

Rob: I have seen some really weird VR activation of brands. They have tons of money to make VR. It’s bandwagon days. I go back to the whacky website days of the late 1990s. Brands would make massive online experiences that nobody went to. Will see a lot of films in social impact space that will not get to the heart of the story. We want to keep everything at this level (the CGI piece) and up.

Len Edgerly March 15, 201611:17 am

Rob Holzer’s experience in learning what VR techniques work to tell stories is impressive. Micro to macro wisdom.

Bryan Mochizuki: What are the right stories? One thing that works is taking people to places they have never been. Sistine Chapel, Great Wall of China for students. That’s more interesting than your friend’s back yard on a couple of GoPro cameras.
Len Edgerly March 15, 201611:19 am

Yelena: When you’re looked at in VR that’s a very intimate moment. It’s a new form of the close up. But you are a silent first person character, the awkward person at dinner who can’t talk to anyone.

There are also live VR experiences, where you can talk to people in the VR. Mind bending.
Len Edgerly March 15, 201611:22 am

Q. What are best practices? What happens when people take off the headset?

A. (Rob) At CGI we had 10 chairs, people roaming around. Some groups say we want 500 people viewing at once. Mobile VR viewing stations that give people a chance to contribute to an organization. People react differently with headsets on. Some jump up and move around. Some won’t move their heads to see stuff. Some cry afterward.
Bryan Mochizuki: At some places you want a line to create buzz, waiting to experience the VR, other times better to schedule without waiting.
Len Edgerly March 15, 201611:25 am

Q. Distribution?

A. (Rob Holzer): Last year was the hand wringing year when people were trying to decide whether to do VR. Most decided to do it. Samsung sold out there Christmas VR. Oculus launching next week. Other sets will come into the market.
(Yelena) – There is a deeper level of immersion available, so try the better headsets, not just cardboard viewer.
Mochizuki: Our CGI was one of first videos on Facebook 360.A great way to get eyeballs.
Rob: It’s cooler on the phone than on the desktop.
4D headphones are coming for sound.
Len Edgerly March 15, 201611:26 am

Fantastic moderating by @AlisonArden of Advertising Age. Short questions, just often enough to keep moving.

Len Edgerly March 15, 201611:28 am

“Use responsibly,” Alison Arden concludes.