Guest blog by startup Hack the Planet:

"Putting creative minds together is a great thing"

The Hague-based startup Hack the Planet has been working towards launching its latest project, Meet the Soldier. It’s a 3D, virtual reality film with a humanitarian cause – the first of its kind in the world. They recently hosted a meetup, titled “Humanitarian storytelling in VR”, that focused on all that virtual reality (VR) has to offer to the humanitarian field. In the guest contribution below, Hack the Planet’s Floris van der Breggen reflects on the gathering.

Sounds of gunshots, views of dry lands and raided villages, feelings of hostility and violence. It’s quite different from the atmosphere on a typical day in The Hague, but you could have felt exactly this if you had put on a pair of VR goggles at our recent meetup about “Humanitarian Storytelling in VR”, taking place at Q42.

“The best way to create understanding is through first-hand experience, which is exactly what virtual reality can do” – startup Hack the Planet

Enhancing humanitarian storytelling

It had been a year since we came up with the idea behind our virtual reality documentary Meet the Soldier. A great moment to gather our film director Teddy Cherim and 360° producer Justin Karten (Scopic), along with a community of about thirty filmmakers, humanitarian enthusiasts, engineers, and other creatives. We focused the meetup on an increasingly relevant question in today’s world of filmmaking: what does virtual reality have to bring to the world of humanitarian storytelling?

Taking our own VR documentary Meet the Soldier as an example, we pointed out that virtually transporting yourself to a Ugandan village is fundamentally different from watching the African continent on a TV screen: humanitarian stories are about understanding other contexts, other people, other perspectives. The best way to create understanding is through first-hand experience, which is exactly what VR can do.

Increased empathy

This concept of increased empathy through VR was thoroughly discussed during the meetup. We fired questions at the featured guests and the crowd. Justin and Teddy emphasized the way in which the human brain simply tunes into a different world when VR goggles are put on. As a result, the film not only shows particular angles of a character’s story, but also its complete surroundings.

In Meet the Soldier, for instance, you may find Ugandan soldier Arriko staring straight into your eyes, while a goat passes by on the left, and two of Arriko’s wives are washing clothes just behind you. Having such visuals and audio in 360° gives you the required context to understand the lives of tribal soldiers in Uganda, and thereby the conflict as a whole.

Conveying emotions

However, this broad 360° angle also poses a challenge for humanitarian stories: capturing emotions. How to convey emotions in the way that a classic close-up movie scene can? 360° film logically supports neither zooming in nor steering the viewer to specific points in the scene, so how can a filmmaker still guide the viewer through the emotional pathway that film characters move through?

Whereas certain guests suggested proper use of stereoscopic music to encourage emotions, others emphasized well-thought out composition of a scene so that the viewer’s point of focus is still guided towards the important points. Indeed, much like the work of a good director.

Our own little cinema

After discussing, we asked the members of the crowd if they had ever seen a VR film. We were surprised to find out that about 75% of our guests hadn’t had a first-hand VR film experience to date. Clearly, it was time to see what all the talk had been about.

We opened our own little VR cinema (Q42’s main meeting room + popcorn + 10 VR sets) to let people watch the first cuts of Meet the Soldier. 360° producers Wolfstreet (Meet the Soldier’s producer), Scopic and What Took You So Long also offered to watch some of their humanitarian films, such as Refugees and Nasra the Mechanic.

Over beer and popcorn, ideas were created and connections were made. Our only lasting question after the meetup was: when do we do this again? Putting creative minds together is a great thing by itself; organizing a gathering around such a compelling subject as humanitarian storytelling in VR is just beautiful.

Interested in VR-movie Meet the Soldier? Meet the Soldier is nearly finalized and will be featured for a limited time during this month’s Movies that Matter Festival in Theater aan het Spui. Entrance is free of charge and the movie is available for viewing throughout the festival from 24 thru 31 March. Check out the details here. Also, stay tuned here and stay up-to-date on Hack the Planet’s overall endeavors by checking back here and following them on Facebook.