360 VIRTUAL REALITY
"Virtual reality is the 'ultimate empathy machine.' These experiences are more than documentaries. They're opportunities to walk a mile in someone else's shoes."
- Chris Milk, (VR Pioneer, Founder & CEO of WITHIN)
- Chris Milk, (VR Pioneer, Founder & CEO of WITHIN)
Virtual reality is something everyone's talking about nowadays. It's not hard to see why - if you've tried it out for yourself, you know it's bloody awesome! But what exactly is it? With terms like 360 video, virtual reality, 360VR being leisurely thrown around together, it's easy to be confused about what it all means.
Virtual reality (VR) is a term used to describe artificial, computer-generated environments that people can experience and often interact with. That's typically done by wearing a headset, and maybe wielding some controllers in your hands too. A lot of VR content are games (but not always!).
360 video is a little different from VR, despite sharing many similarities and typically being lumped together (hence why it's frequently called 360VR). It's probably easier to think of 360 video as a spherical film. When you film in 360, you are recording the real world / live-action, just like you would do with a normal camera or your smartphone. When you watch a 360 film the story still flows in a linear direction, just like a normal movie. The key difference is that with 360 video, you are recording everything around you. When you play this footage back, you can look around in all directions and see everything too, as if you were there. It's seriously awesome stuff!
Unlike conventional filmmaking and photography, 360 VR is able to go beyond storytelling - it can transport people into the story so they can experience it for themselves! This medium can connect viewers with people and problems that they may never encounter, and deliver such a visceral response that people are driven to take actions or change their behaviour as a result. It's no wonder people consider 360 VR the ultimate 'empathy machine.'
The underwater world is especially well suited to 360 VR. Unless we turn everyone into a SCUBA diver, the reality is that the oceans are an environment that many people will likely never experience. This includes local stakeholders who rely on the oceans, and key decision makers who govern our relationship with it. How can you expect people to care about what happens to something that is out of sight and out of mind?
360 VR can change that. We can make reality virtual, and make the oceans accessible to everyone, and impossible to ignore.
When used strategically with a clear goal and target audience in mind, and delivered at the right moment, 360 VR can deliver change. The same can be said about using photography and normal films, but consider how powerful impact may be if the audience feels like they actually have experienced something, rather than just see it through a rectangular frame!
Drawing from my existing experience across several projects, below are some of the most effective and common ways I use 360 VR content, in partnership with NGO and commercial clients, to aid in conservation.
Use 360 VR to create an immersive educational experience like no other. Use it as a teaching tool in the classroom, or as part of an exhibit in an aquarium / museum.
Whether you're trying to recruit local stakeholders to join your cause, or convince decision-makers to make the right choice - 360 VR is a powerful way to change someone's behaviour and convince them to take action.
Take your 360 VR film to events, or upload it online, to solicit donations from the masses; or transport a single philanthropist to a project site to show them why the work you do is worth funding.
In September 2016, world governments gathered at a conference in South Africa known as CITES. Here they would vote on proposals for certain endangered species to receive international, legally-binding protection from the wildlife trade that threatens them. Of the many species up for consideration, devil rays - a family of endangered fish - were being proposed for the first time. Around the world devil ray populations have plummeted, in large part due to targeted fisheries that provide for a growing international trade in their gills. It was clear that a victory at CITES would be crucial to the future survival of these vulnerable rays.
I collaborated with the Manta Trust - a UK-registered charity specialising in the conservation of manta and devil rays - to launch a targeted media campaign, dubbed Love Mini Mantas. The aim of the campaign was simple - to ensure the devil ray proposal was successful at the upcoming CITES conference. To achieve this goal we decided the primary objective was to create an underwater 360 VR film, to specifically show to the voting politicians and ministers attending CITES. It was apparent that many delegates were not divers, would likely have never heard of a devil ray before, and would have their attention frequently diverted during the conference towards proposals for better known species like rhinos and elephants. By taking them on a virtual dive with these animals, the hope was that the film would engage the delegates with the devil ray proposal in a novel and interactive way, and perhaps even sway their government into voting in favour of their protection.
With support from various partners, we shot and edited The Mini Mantas of Maria (TMMoM) in the Azores in August 2016. In the film, viewers joined marine biologist Ana Sobral as she told the story of her love of Santa Maria Island, and her desire to save the elusive Chilean devil rays that visit its underwater seamounts.
In the week leading up to the vote on the devil ray proposal, the TMMoM was played at the CITES conference via way of a booth and several Samsung GearVR headsets. Over 350 delegates came to watch the film, including 130 key decision makers from 56 of the 152 attending nations.
Devil rays successfully gained CITES protection on 4th October 2016. Various officials and delegates themselves confirmed that the film had swung the decision of at least several nations, that were previously sat on the fence about their voting position. As species must gain a 2/3 majority to gain protection at CITES, proposals are often won or lost by less than a dozen votes. It became clear that the 360 VR film helped deliver the final push that the devil ray proposal needed to cross the political finishing line.