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How VR can help humanity by putting you in someone else’s shoes

how virtual reality is helping those in need francis fugitives editorial

Ghanaian schoolteacher Francis Pii Kugbila (left) was locked in a mud hut for two years following a mental health breakdown. Filmmakers shot the VR film ‘Francis’ to help tell his story.

When we think of virtual reality at the moment, we think most often of video games and extreme sports videos. But a hidden storytelling power lies deep within the medium. It offers a more valuable form of escapism for those who really need it, and an immersive educational experience that can raise awareness of issues that may otherwise go unnoticed. Fugitives Editorial and StoryUP are two creative agencies producing immersive content for these very purposes, putting VR to work not just for entertainment, but for social good.

Digital Trends recently spoke with both companies, and each offered a unique perspective on creating VR content. StoryUP has worked almost exclusively in the medium since the company’s founding, whereas Fugitives Editorial comes from a traditional video background and just completed its first VR project.

Putting people in someone else’s shoes

StoryUP got its start producing immersive videos of World War II memorials, allowing veterans too old or too ill to travel a chance to experience those hallowed locations. Through the Honor Everywhere 360 program, VR viewers are provided for free to any WWII veteran, and come pre-loaded with StoryUP’s memorial tour content.

“Through the magic of VR, we created an experience that allowed them to be there,” StoryUP’s chief storyteller, Sarah Hill, told Digital Trends.

Beyond working with veterans, StoryUP also creates immersive video experiences for people going through intense medical procedures, like dialysis or chemotherapy. “We create a variety of experiences for people who want to escape their present situation,” said Hill, noting that VR presents unique opportunities for accomplishing that goal.

StoryUP needed to put viewers in the shoes of people who lacked mobility. VR was the perfect medium for it.

Most recently, StoryUP headed to Zambia on behalf of the PET Project, which provides mobility-limited individuals with custom personal energy transportation (PET) devices that can handle the the country’s rugged terrain. As standard wheelchair wheels are too thin to work on the rocky, uneven roads, PETs are a lifesaver to people who otherwise have to literally drag themselves along the ground.

“What we were trying to do is allow people to step inside the shoes of people who lack mobility,” Hill said. Immersive video therefore made perfect sense for documenting the PET Project’s efforts.

The video includes plenty of low-angle shots that mimic the perspective of someone crawling on the ground. It puts viewers in the place of being looked down upon by passersby, along with the emotional consequences of being in such a position.

To view this video in 360, switch to full screen playback.

To then illustrate how a PET can both physically and metaphorically lift people off the ground, StoryUP strapped a 360-degree camera rig to a DJI Inspire drone for a ground-level to aerial transition. The maneuver was not complex by any means, but it served a powerful thematic purpose, one that was bolstered by the immersive effects of VR.

A huge learning experience with equally huge payoff

The idea of putting a viewer in someone else’s shoes seems to be VR’s greatest asset, and it was the same approach taken by Fugitives Editorial on their film Francis, a VR movie that sought to improve global mental health awareness. The film follows the story of Francis Pii Kugbila, a Ghanaian schoolteacher who suffered a mental health crisis. Misunderstood by his community, he was locked away in a mud hut for two years until a friend finally found him and set him free. The film premiered to over 500 mental health professionals earlier this year in Washington, D.C. as part of the 2016 Spring Meetings of the World Bank and World Health Organization.

VR isn’t just something that you watch; it’s something you experience.

The project started as a collection of still photos and clips of 2K and 4K footage, which the client asked Fugitives Editorial to put together in a VR project. Having never worked in the medium before, this posed a challenge for the team.

“It was a huge learning curve,” Fugitives Editorial President and CEO Chris Gernon told Digital Trends. “We asked ourselves, ‘Is VR the right choice for this?’ We could have told the story in the traditional way, but we felt that VR would give you the opportunity to get immersed in a world and create greater empathy for the character.”

After experimenting first with creating something in CGI, the team realized that to really tell the story they wanted to tell, they would need to go Ghana too meet Francis and capture live action footage. CGI was relatively easy to implement in VR, but it lacked the grit and realism of the actual environment.

For the film’s climax, viewers are put in Francis’s shoes, locked inside the mud hut. Here, the team combined 360-degree footage captured on location and digitally inserted still images from the existing archive of photos to flesh out the story. As the images appear in the darkness, viewers are given the chance to look around the room, seeing each moment as if reliving Francis’s own memories.

To view this video in 360, switch to full screen playback.

“VR allowed us to put you in that area, where you feel somewhat trapped,” said Travis Hatfield, Senior Editor at Fugitives Editorial. “I couldn’t imagine just using normal shots to get the same feeling that you get when you can look all around.”

This hints at the one key thread running through both StoryUP’s and Fugitives Editorial’s opinions on virtual reality: It isn’t just something you watch, it’s something you experience. But in order to create and share that experience, VR requires tools that aren’t always readily available.

Francis is currently screening around the world as part of a traveling exhibit, and 150 VR headsets are traveling with it. While not strictly a requirement, the headset maximizes the immersive value of the medium. With the headset, “You notice so much more,” Gernon said. “Body language, expressions – everything looks different.”

Research shows VR is more engaging

On a project like Francis, which counts the Strongheart Group, World Bank, and World Health Organization among its partners, it makes sense to provide headsets along with the content, but smaller projects and clients may not have that luxury. StoryUP’s Sarah Hill doesn’t think access to VR headsets should limit the desire to produce content for the medium, however, citing phones and YouTube as two examples of how 360-degree videos can be widely shared and consumed. Even if these platforms lack some of the immersive power of a headset, StoryUP’s research suggests VR content is still more engaging than traditional fixed-frame video.

Neurofeedback has shown that VR is more emotionally engaging than traditional video, making it a great asset for storytellers.

“It is shared more, watched longer, liked more, and it’s watched with more frequency. Viewers will come back and watch it again because they’re afraid they could have missed something,” Hill explained. “I’ve been telling video stories for the last 20 years, and I have never had [viewers] have such an emotional reaction to content as they have with immersive video.”

Obviously, these types of metrics are meaningful to brands and advertisers looking to increase engagement, but it also means VR can be an effective tool for creating socially conscious content. And it goes beyond basic analytics: StoryUP has even used EEG devices to monitor viewers’ brain activity as they watch VR content. This revealed that immersive video has a profound emotional effect on viewers, with measurable changes in brainwave activity. The right content can even lower people’s stress levels. “It doesn’t just come with view metrics, but emotion metrics,” Hill said.

Related: HTC Viveport online app store now open to virtual reality fans worldwide

Creating good 360-degree content still requires additional investments of both time and money – GoPro’s Omni 360-degree rig, for example, sells for $5,000 and includes six GoPro Hero4 Black cameras, compared to just $400 for a single camera. But StoryUP’s research suggests the payoff makes the investment well worth it.

Working in VR is easier than you think

As the technology evolves, the process of creating VR content is getting easier and easier. Beyond the hardware, this is mostly thanks to software tools that are already familiar to video editors. StoryUP and Fugitives Editorial both use Adobe Premiere Pro and After Effects with Mettle 360/VR plugins, and both companies said working with immersive video isn’t that drastically different from editing fixed-frame video.

“A lot of people feel that VR is this crazy thing: ‘How will I ever do that?’” said Hatfield. While correctly stitching all the angles together made for some additional labor, he was impressed with how simple editing VR content actually was. “Once you get the footage, it becomes like any other project. That’s why we worked in Premiere, it was just so easy to use. That was a huge surprise, because we thought it was going to be this huge deal.”

Not having to fuss over the tech meant the team was free to focus on the theme and character of the film. “VR is a presentation type of opportunity,” Gernon added. “It’s very theatrical. A lot of the projects today are just putting the camera down and shooting, and I don’t feel like that’s good storytelling. It needs to happen purposefully, with drive, with rhythm.”

Thanks to support from AMD and HP, Fugitives Editorial had access to all the hardware and computing power it needed for real-time editing and playback in its studio. Editors could work off of both reference monitors and an Oculus Rift headset to immediately check how the film played back in the VR space.

Related: The best VR headset you can buy

But even without a studio full of equipment, it’s still possible to cut together a VR project. StoryUP has often had to edit rough cuts together in the field in remote locations from Congo to the Amazon. In those cases, StoryUP made do with solar-powered laptops that can still churn through footage in Premiere.

“We stitch in the field. If you don’t, you might not get the shot,” Hill said. “We also rough edit in the field so we can send things back for archiving. We’re really fortunate that the software developers have been innovating right along with us.”

VR presents nearly endless possibilities

From improved metrics and emotional engagement to simplified workflows, everything seems to suggest that VR is much more than the latest fad, unlike the 3D craze that has fizzled out in recent years. And as creators see it, we’ve just barely scratched the surface of the medium’s true potential.

“Doctors are using it to practice brain surgery,” Hatfield said. “And then you think about school children [using VR] to experience prehistoric time from the perspective of someone living there. The sky is the limit.”

But Hatfield also cautioned that VR is only as good as the supporting technology and companies that choose to embrace it. “It’s being held back by the resolution of displays, and companies like Apple. Everything is awesome, but it’s limited right now to a subset of people.”

“Doing the Francis piece opened our eyes to what an impact a piece like this can have.”

Being such a new technology, VR can also cause headaches for agencies and individuals trying to get into the game. As Gernon explained, “We were discussing purchasing a new camera rig, but the technology is changing so rapidly that it’s hard to know that what you’re buying is the best thing for the company at that moment.”

These concerns will likely subside over time, and despite the current challenges, Gernon said Fugitives Editorial is all-in when it comes to creating immersive video content in the future.

“Doing the Francis piece opened our eyes to what an impact a piece like this can have,” he said. “Where everyone else is concentrated on things like gaming, we’re concentrated on storytelling and human interest stories that allow us to connect to an individual in a meaningful way.”

As for StoryUP, continuing with VR is business as usual. “All we do is immersive content,” said Hill. The company’s next step is increasing access to that content by building a VR channel that can be used in schools, nursing homes, and other institutions.

These efforts are combined with StoryUP’s continued research based on neurofeedback. In the right hands, deeper emotional insights will only improve virtual reality’s already impressive ability to elicit an empathetic response from viewers. As Hill described it, content creators and publishers will be able to predictably tell viewers not just what a video is about, but how it will make them feel. It is proof of the power of virtual reality, which is quickly becoming the most valuable tool content creators have, whether they use it to advertise a product, tell a story, or bring important social issues out of the metaphorical mud hut and into the light.