Harnessing Virtual Reality for Social Good

Say you’ve just finished four years of college and got your liberal arts degree.

Midway through your commencement ceremony, you have an epiphany: “I want to break into tech!”

Maybe it’s the extra beer you had that’s doing the talking, or maybe you watched an episode of Black Mirror on Netflix and got inspired.

Whatever it was, you decide you want to work on the fascinating field of virtual reality.

One caveat.

You’re not an engineer. You don’t know how to code.

What would you do?

Fortunately, there are many aspects to tech that don’t require a technical degree.

For VR in particular, with a keen eye for storytelling, experience in visual content creation (e.g. photography, videography, production), applying to the right programs and developing relationships with the right people, you might just be able to start a career in the space.

That’s how Ben Ross and Brittany Neff, co-founders of Co.Reality, an immersive storytelling collective that uses virtual reality as a means for social impact, got their start.

Last fall, Ben and Brittany co-directed and co-produced Rise Above, a VR project funded by Facebook’s VR division Oculus as part of its inaugural VR for Good program.

The film was created to highlight the work of NYC-based nonprofit Womankind and details one girl’s journey of empowerment as a survivor of sexual assault. Their work was showcased at the prestigious Sundance Festival and was part of the official VR selection at the SXSW Conference, where upwards of 50,000 people attended.

Neither Ben nor Brittany had any technical education in virtual reality. They both graduated with degrees in International Relations from Tufts University, and are now running their own boutique production company as filmmaker and producer, respectively.

In fact, their liberal arts education helped them carve a unique niche to break into the space.


BH: How did you get interested in VR?

Ben: I started with a background in film and documentary photography. I studied International Relations and Filmmaking in college, made a few short documentaries, and photographed for the UN – but I wasn’t completely satisfied with what I was able to create

After college, I decided to leave the documentary space and go into the nonprofit world. I was working at a food bank in Sacramento and experienced some of the burnout that I think a lot of nonprofits feel when they try to tackle a huge challenge with limited funding.

Eventually I came down to LA, where I was hired as a personal assistant to VR-pioneer Chris Milk at his company Vrse. works, now known as Here Be Dragons. I immediately realized after working with VR hands-on that this was the missing link between the filmmaking and nonprofit worlds that would allow me to tell compelling stories in a way that would really motivate people to create deeper social change.


BH: What specific resources did you use to get started?

Brittany: Ben really wanted to start making his own content and so he applied for  the inaugural Oculus VR for Good program last fall. Hundreds of filmmakers and nonprofits applied for this grant and Ben was one of the 10 filmmakers selected.

Ben was also partnered with a New York nonprofit called Womankind, an organization that works with survivors of gender-based violence to rise above trauma and build a path to healing. For my college thesis I’d done research on women’s health in Kerala, India and I’d always been passionate about women’s rights and gender equality, so I immediately connected with the subject matter and became involved. 


BH:  How did you decide to break away from Vrse.works to start Co.Reality?

Brittany: When Ben was awarded the grant from Oculus, he left Vrse.works and we started our company, Co.Reality. Co-directing and co-producing the story of  a survivor of sexual assault was an incredibly  moving and powerful experience, it began to define who we are as a company and the kind of important and underrepresented stories we want to call attention to at Co.Reality.

Still, even after we finished the film last fall, I wasn’t entirely sure how much I wanted to be involved in the VR space. But after the November election, something clicked for me. I began to more fully understand the potential for VR and AR to shift perspectives and impact the world, and it gave me a new sense of urgency. I now feel a moral responsibility to be a voice to discuss the ethics of immersive technologies and establish an industry culture that uses this medium for good and holds content to a certain standard.

Since finishing Rise Above, we have done a handful of other documentary and commercial projects and are now in development on several global VR projects.


BH: Ben, how did you build your skills from being a personal assistant to being able to make your own VR content?

Ben:  As a PA, I was doing a lot of small tasks – driving  my boss’s dog around LA and things like that. Eventually, I worked my way into the production side of the business to learn how VR  films get made. I spent about 6 months in production and then about a year in post-production, and it was really learning all of those technical skills on the job that allowed me to break away and start our own company.


BH: What are the steps that you took to learn the right skills for your to break into VR by yourself?

Ben: VR is a really complex set of problems – for example, you have to figure out the spatial relationship of the camera and “who” the camera is. You’re working with actors and subjects whom you have zero control over while shooting, and it’s much harder and a lot more costly to composite or paint out errors than in traditional filmmaking.

In order to learn all of these aspects of VR, not only did I jump around the company a lot, but I also took a lot of different opportunities to learn the various parts of the process. I would be on set for a large production just as a PA, but I would also ask our Chief Technical Officer if I could borrow his personal camera rig for a weekend. I filmed and taught myself how to stitch a couple of projects, and also connected with other people in the industry.


BH: How do you build credibility in VR as a non-engineer so you can attract talent to work with you?

I recognized that one of the major problems in VR – or at least in the company – was that everything was moving so quickly that people were not staying on top of the latest content or technology that was coming out. So I just started putting together a weekly newsletter for the entire staff to update them on the latest content and hardware. Out of that, I became the point person  for new directors that were  preparing to direct in VR for the first time.

And this was because I’d stepped beyond my official job responsibilities and shown people that I could speak intellectually about VR as a medium. There is definitely the opportunity to learn particularly in this field, because no one really knows what they’re doing in VR. In a sense, everyone starts in the same place and so a PA has just as much likelihood of progressing in the industry as a producer, which is really exciting!


BH: Is there anything that you think is unique about breaking into VR as an industry?

Ben: One of the things that is really unique about VR, and particularly about breaking into it, is that it requires such an interdisciplinary knowledge-base and that it’s actually pulling in people from very different industries than just entertainment – for example, Brittany! Her ability to organize real-life events and people actually worked better in VR, perhaps even more so than traditional experience in film production.

Brittany: That’s right – the rules are being rewritten. VR exists in both traditional worlds of Hollywood and tech, but at the same time it’s also its own thing.

I think the real beauty of this medium is that there is no limit to creativity. There are those in the space that think there are already these hard and fast rules, but many of those ‘rules’ are constantly broken and people are really pushing the envelope to explore what is possible.


BH: Since this is such a new space as you mentioned, what would you say are the most useful skills to have to succeed?

Ben: VR is constantly evolving so there is almost no fixed skillset required. I would say that the skill you need the most is the ability to be adaptable. For example, Brittany and I consider ourselves pretty good at 360 video workflow – but now there’s a big push in VR to do things that are interactive on a room-scale (think holograms!).

That requires a whole other set of technical skills and we’re just diving into that headfirst. I’m taking classes in Unity and developing projects that employ it. So really, it’s a moving target, and the only real consistent piece of advice is to learn as much as you can about the widest range of things possible.

Brittany: Really leverage the community! The community is small enough and there is so much opportunity to get one-on-one time with people working in VR, and to have them support the work that you’re doing. Tech and Hollywood – and most industries, actually – are not that way.


BH: What are some things college students can do to prepare for a career in VR, besides getting a degree in engineer or computer science?

Ben: Start by making something, even if it’s simple and not very good. The first couple of things I made when I was learning how to shoot and stitch things weren’t very good either. But the amount that you can take away in each project is massive.

Brittany: To stand out in this industry, being able to think through how to construct a story is important. Right now, so much of the content in VR just isn’t that compelling. On the other hand, a lot of really amazing documentarians haven’t made the jump to VR – I think  because it’s seen as a tech-dominated space. 


BH: Any final advice?

Ben:  We can’t make these projects alone. I think the most important thing for any VR creator is finding your collaborators: people who share a common vision but have a skillset that is different and complementary to your own.  We’re all in this together and the future of VR depends on our ability to include diverse voices and perspectives.


Guest Post co-written with Natalie Au.

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Jason Choi

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