Editor’s note: Earlier this month, Media Impact Funders brought funders together at Philanthropy New York with organizers and presenters from the first VR for Change summit to explore how immersive platforms offer new ways to engage and mobilize users around social issues.
Because this is a new and quickly evolving medium, attendees had many questions. The lively conversation ranged across definitions of new technologies, ways to match funders’ goals to VR productions, emerging research on impact, and the costs of supporting such projects as platforms continue to roll out.
Diana Barrett of the Fledgling Fund has thought through many of these questions in her own practice. In this post adapted from a piece published in the online publication Immerse, she shares what she’s learned about the impact of VR, and how Fledgling chooses the projects they support. 

By Diana Barrett | Founder & president, the Fledgling Fund

People often ask me how, as a funder in the social issue documentary space, we are thinking about new forms and new technologies. It is a great question but doesn’t really have an easy answer. At the very least, we’re trying to understand the terms and the definitions.

Many projects grouped under the umbrella of “virtual reality” are in fact 360 videos, shot with various degrees of sophistication and very different than VR that is built on a gaming platform. At some level that is semantics, but still an important distinction, I think.

What I have found more helpful to think about is the degree of immersion that each project provides, remembering that we’ve all been immersed, to various degrees, in experiences that transport us to another way of being and feeling. Sometimes this immersion can be decidedly low tech: a book, music or a traditional film.

However, putting on a headset can take this feeling, this sense of departure and re-entering, to the next degree.

For some VR experiences, we see in a way that is truly new: We can look up and around and in back of us. In others, we have agency; we can affect what is being shown, moving objects, walking towards others to get a closer look. In projects such as Treewhich Fledgling supported and which premiered at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival, we have the illusion of becoming an object, of being a tree. We can begin to imagine what it might feel like to burst through the jungle floor and then the canopy above us. Notes on Blindness allows us to begin to experience how it feels to become blind, navigating through a dark space using our sense of hearing.

Where is this going?

At Fledgling, we have an eye toward the impact of stories in whatever form. Can they engage us in meaningful ways that lead to some change in our attitudes and behaviors? And with VR, I am fascinated by the effect that this technology has on the brain.

We hear the term “empathy” a great deal. This seems to be the catchword of choice. But, I’m not at all convinced that a VR project can increase empathy, which is a complex emotion, not easily or quickly elicited. In fact, research suggests that children who spend lots of time with technology have a reduced quotient of empathy. I suspect that no one medium increases empathy; it must be elicited over time using a range of stimuli. Different stories engage the brain in different ways and considerably more research is needed to inform production. I also believe that how you are affected by story remains highly individual and personal.

The very first VR piece I saw was The Enemy, (originally incubated at the MIT Open Documentary Lab), a collaboration between Ben Khelifa and Fox Harrell, which depicts two soldiers, one Israeli and one Palestinian. I was totally engaged and fascinated by the technology. But, I recognize this was the first piece I saw. I wonder if it would have the same effect now. Would I be more critical, less moved? That is impossible to know.

As funders, we are challenged. The technology is new and rapidly changing. Costs are high and impact is not proven or fully understood. As a small funder, the challenge is greater. Do we get involved, and if so, where is the most effective leverage point? The breadth of experiences is enormous, the possibilities seemingly endless. And, I think at this stage in the field’s evolution, there needs to be a comfort level with risk and uncertainty.

How to decide?

We have determined that the best approach for us is to continue to explore, to ask questions, to talk to makers, researchers, technologists, and other funders in an effort to better understand the field, the work, the potential impact and the funding needs. But, importantly, we have also decided to do some strategic funding in the space — because we believe that there is potential with this technology and that, at this point, storytellers need the space to experiment and see how they can push the field forward in innovative ways.

That being said, given where we sit, as funders interested in using documentary storytelling to help move the needle on big social issues, we do have a set of criteria or screens that we use in our decision-making:

  • The Story: Fledgling sees visual storytelling as a lever to improve the lives of the most vulnerable. We look for compelling, authentic and timely stories that add a new perspective or new information to a critical social issue.
  • The Approach: As we all know, there are many ways to tell a story and we are always questioning, “Why this approach?“ Can the story be told more easily using traditional methods, or a mix of methods? Transmedia documentaries, immersive essays, interactive projects using both photography and video, all of these are effective. A fundamental issue for us is that the producers make the case that using an immersive VR experience is justified and adds something unique. I often view projects shot in 360 that frankly do not add a great deal to the theme being explored. Just because you can turn your head and see the surroundings does not necessarily add to the experience.
  • User Experience: This is related to the approach but distinct in my mind. I think about whether the viewer already has some understanding of the issue? Counterintuitively, I think it’s easier to appreciate a story if you have some familiarity with the subject. We can at least intellectually understand what being blind involves, we can imagine being in a rain forest. Adding to this life experience through immersive technologies can be remarkably effective.
  • Role of our Funding: Virtual reality is often expensive to create. Can the expense and the steep learning curve be justified? Another key question for us is: When in the process do we fund? At Fledgling, we generally fund late in the cycle of a long-form film because our emphasis has been on outreach and engagement. That also allows us to get a good sense of the project, of its “watchability” and possible impact. In the world of immersive technology, it’s difficult to fund at the same stage. And, in fact, it is sometimes more effective to fund the basic model or demo to provide enough of the sense of what the final project will look like. In other cases, we have provided end money to help close the gap. We have decided at this point not to think of it at a specific stage of funding, but instead to look at each project individually and determine whether our funding will move a project to the next stage.
  • Value to the Field: Individual projects not only have the potential to contribute to social change but also can contribute to the documentary storytelling field. We consider what lessons a project can offer to others who are working with new forms and the team’s commitment to sharing what they have learned.
  • Distribution and Reach: The distribution channels and platforms for many emerging forms of storytelling, such as VR and AR, are still unclear. However, we understand that in order to lay the foundation for social change, stories and projects must reach the key players in the social change process — whether policymakers, corporate leaders or grassroots activists. We look for those projects that have the potential to reach and engage audiences important to moving an issue forward.

Given the evolving and rapidly changing nature of this field, these criteria will continue to evolve. And, while it is an exciting time to be working in this space, it remains a complex field that is not fully defined. There is both skepticism and excitement around the technology and real challenges with distribution and reach. And, as always, there is a need for funding that allows social issue storytellers to experiment and innovate and there is great value creating opportunities for collaboration, dialogue and brainstorming among makers, funders, academics, activists and others.

Image: Visual note-taking by @corleymay at the VR for Change Summit.
Immerse is an initiative of Tribeca Film Institute, MIT Open DocLab and The Fledgling Fund. It’s edited by Jessica Clark, who is also MIF’s director of research and strategy.