I’ve been looking at conferences for a while now, but nothing ever jumped out to me quite like SXSW did. Founded in Texas, in 1987, SXSW (South by Southwest) is best known as an annual conference and festival, which celebrates the convergence of the film, music and interactive industries.
Although the website was slightly confusing (okay – very confusing – sorry!), I knew from the off that this is where I would learn and grow as an individual the most – the fact it was in Texas was also a slight plus, not going to lie… But either way, this is where I wanted to be and I’m incredibly lucky that, as a permanent member of staff at RMA, this wish became a reality.
Pay the man.
I’ve always been intrigued by the world of Virtual Reality and what it entails, but like many others the extent to my VR experience before SXSW was pretty basic. I’d tried out a few varieties of google cardboard, downloading free apps from the app store and sliding my phone in to the headset, awaiting the magical ‘VR experience’, but always felt quite let down with the outcome.
I remember being on holiday and seeing tourists flock around a man with a VR headset, paying him for five minutes of the experience – a little like paying for a photograph with a Falcon or Mime. I never paid for the pleasure, but I enjoyed watching other people in this alternative reality and wondered if they were faking or exaggerating their actions. I suppose I believed it was a bit of a con. Surely that girl knows that she isn’t really falling down a big hole? Why does she look so scared?
Nonetheless, VR as a concept still interested me greatly. Not so much within the gaming world, as has been the larger percentage of its initial adoption, but it’s potential to really enhance humanity. How would we use this in the medical sector? Could we train our emergency services in a more cost effective way? And selfishly, if I painted my wall that shade of blue, how would it look against my sofa?
SXSW answered a lot of these questions for me, and gave me a glimpse in to just how immersive the experience could be. Although, for now I still don’t know which shade of blue would look best on my wall…
But before we get in to that, let me tell you a bit about the moment VR became a game changer for me.
Meeting Donald Trump. Kind of.
In addition to the talks, at SXSW, companies sponsor bars or small ‘house-like’ areas and fill them with fun little photo ops and free drinks. The conference really does transform Austin and take over the city. In this one particular bar, I had a photo with a puppy, got my hands on multiple bags of pop-chips (big fan) and taken a boomerang of me falling in to a large ball pit; when I saw a queue for a free VR experience. I had a bit of time to kill before my next talk, so thought ‘why not!’. As I got to the front, I saw the people before me holding controllers in their hands, reaching around and pretending to throw things. A TV screen to the side displayed a view of what the participant could see. They were throwing pies at Donald Trump. This was exciting.
Again, the experience looked fun, but nothing too dissimilar from google cardboard. In my eyes, the only differences were the controllers.
So, it got to my turn. I put on the headset and held the controllers. The view on the TV screen became my reality.
There was Donald Trump. Yes, a characterized version of him, but still him.
Just stood there.
It was quite intense.
The man who helped me get set up was asking me to let go of the controllers – he told me to look down – where I saw that my ‘hands’ were the wrong way around. I refused to let go because I couldn’t see him holding them – they would fall to the floor and break, and then I’d probably be in a lot of trouble. Of course, he was holding the controllers, but in my reality, he was nothing more than a voice. He wasn’t holding them at all. I found it an odd experience that, even though I’d seen what I’d seen on the ‘outside’ – I totally trusted this experience over what I’d always known, even if just for a few seconds.
Fast forward five minutes and the experience was over, I had terrible aim, but Donald definitely got pie’d, so that means I won right?
The important take away for me from this though, was the knowledge of just how real this experience can seem. Whilst a scary thought, bringing us back to the idea of VR being used for good, suddenly there becomes a lot of potential.
A few hours later and I’m at my final talk of the very same day. ‘Designing VR Rx’.
– Walter Greenleaf: Research Neuroscientist & Medical Product Developer from Stanford University.
– Johannes Saam: Senior Creative Developer at Framestore.
– Mia Tramz: Managing Editor at LIFE VR & Senior Multimedia Editor at TIME.
‘Project Lumen’, a free relaxation experience, created by Framestore and in collaboration with Walter Greenleaf, is described as ‘self-guided, nonlinear meditaion rooted at the intersection of virtual reality and wellness.’ What this means, is that a user can take time out of their every day stresses and focus on themselves, in a positive and stimulating way. Whilst they are within the sphere of Project Lumen, they are taking control of their own mental health and wellbeing.
Within Project Lumen, the user’s gaze controls this safe space. For example, if a user were to focus on a particular tree inside of the ‘enchanted world’, it would grow. The user has complete control as to how their world appears, from colour to creation. A comforting voice supports and nurtures the user, and after a small time will encourage them to leave the experience if they feel ready – but always allow them to remain inside if not. Sound design, which can be often overlooked (guilty!), compliments the experience, nurturing another of the users senses.
Whilst not an alternative to receiving medical help, it’s interesting to ponder whether an experience such as Lumen could enhance and compliment it, as well as providing much needed assistance to professional services with limited resource.
Taking this one step further, is ‘Project Braveheart’.
Receiving treatment at a hospital as an adult can be a daunting experience, so to imagine how children attending major surgery must feel can be quite upsetting – so, again, can VR help this process? Project Braveheart aims to reduce stress levels in children prior to surgery, firstly by taking them on a tour of the hospital, and secondly utilizing Project Lumen in a slightly adapted way.
Here – children are able to experience areas of the hospital that they would never otherwise be able to see, and hear from doctors, like their own, about their procedure and what it will entail, completely at their own pace. The idea being that the unknown is what we are truly afraid of. When we instill confidence and knowledge in to a child, we give them back the courage they need and the confirmation they desire.
This, alongside the adapted virtual world of relaxation; which boasts faster growth for shorter attention spans, softened visuals, lighter palettes and additional voiceovers to help children practice relaxation techniques at home, has so far been proven to be a very positive experience. In cases, this has convinced children to go through with surgery they had earlier denied.
Should we? Shouldn’t we?
No – as with anything so new, there is currently no data to prove long term affects of VR on humanity – or a developing child – so I do believe this is something that we will have to monitor; but I don’t think this should halt the progress being made right now.
Will 2018 be the year doctors open up to prescribing VR to patients?
Can we change for the better, or save, a life through the virtual world?
Are we designing towards a healthier mental health in an age where technology is blamed for deteriorating just that?
I hope so. And I certainly believe we’ll get there in time.
Check it out: framestore.com/work/lumen