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Virtual Reality (VR) in the Public Interest….

Tomorrow we’re driving down to Games for Change in NYC. As usual, I’m thinking about VR-in-the-public interest and how we can differentiate gaming from the many other ways we can learn, share, create and teach VR. At the Public VR Lab, we’ve been teaching our community and beyond for over a year now to use new tools and equipment for community storytelling, immersive journalism, and documentary filmmaking in order to heal from trauma and to create awareness and action around the health of our planet. Here’s a few of this week’s highlights and resources we’ve seen so far in the space.

On the content creation side, our team is learning how we can deploy content, trainings and toolkits to our members, community of media makers and to share with other colleagues. While this may seem something drawn from the 1992 novel “Snow Crash” and its “metaverse,” it means the beginning of public creation tools and a door to many new social, creative and possibly economic platforms/spaces that are sure to follow for an almost ready VR-ready world. This might be the closest thing to Dreamweaver for VR that we’ve seen to date. P.S Snow Crash is a must-read.

Start Building Your VR Second Life in Sansar

Empathy-producing content can help us to understand what it is like to “be” a tree, or understand what it might be like to be in the body of another, and to feel “presence” that helps you to put yourself outside of your own experience. Feeling empathy inside of VR can even move us to action on issues like social and environmental justice in the “real” world.

VR-related technologies can help shape beautiful new ways we see ourselves, our current reality, and can shift our perception of what truth and reality are. VR can help us experience and understand many things from visceral perspectives that embody the experience of the “other.”

Tree, is a virtual-reality project that transforms you into a rainforest tree. With your arms as branches and your body as the trunk, you’ll experience the tree’s growth from a seedling into its fullest form and witness its fate firsthand. Tree elevates the concept of empathy in VR, helping the participant understand what it’s like to be a tree in the Amazon. I particularly love the redwood version of this created by Marshmallow Laser Feast (I so love this name!) with a haptic feedback vest that makes you feel like you are entering inside the tree. 

And this project, RIOT  whose filmmaker, Karen Palmer, will speak at our favorite festival for storytelling, the Future of Storytelling in NYC this October. According to FOST, she was inspired by the events in Ferguson, MO, following the shooting of Michael Brown, and created RIOT, an emotionally responsive, live-action film that uses AI and machine learning through facial recognition to allow participants to navigate though a dangerous riot. Palmer’s work challenges participants to understand other people’s lived experiences, and represents a powerful development in the emerging field of neurogames.

Another area of VR-in-the-public interest growth is in the health sector, and how VR can make us “think” differently and even heal from trauma. This New York Times had a great story today about the use of VR by therapists to heal patients from the fear and trauma of car accidents, the fear of heights, flying, spiders, PTSD, and other forms of anxiety and stress.

And lastly, the team at the Public VR Lab sat in on an insightful VRARA webinar a few weeks ago hosted with Robert Scoble as he shared his always intriguing insights about where tech and VR in particular is headed (here). Check it out!

Gateway Arts Visits the Public VR Lab

We’ve been super busy this month at the Public VR Lab and Brookline Interactive Group.

We’re hiring a new Assistant Director, have several summer multimedia programs (aka “camps”) for kids, launched new VR classes for adults, and co-coordinated Crowdsourced Boston to get ten other community media centers involved in re-creating Back to the Future! BIG’s talented members won three awards at the Alliance for Community Media‘s national Hometown Awards, and BIG won Best Public Access Station in the country! Woot!

We are laying our plans for our fall eleven-day film sprint, curating the immersive content and LIVE VR ART at the Northampton Film Festival for their September 27-October 1st, 2017 fest, in collaboration with our sister organization, Northampton Community Television (NCTV).

We’re launching a national collaborative on a VR project around immigration stories, and an affiliate program will be announced soon so that libraries, teen centers, arts and cultural organizations and media centers can learn to share VR with their communities, have the equipment and training they need to start a Lab on site and engage their communities in a conversation about the future of 3D computing!

Our VR demos are weekly, and recently we had Lead Boston, Brookline High School math camps, and the Gateway Arts program stop by for a tour and VR demos at the Lab.

Check out the cool vid of their folks playing for the first time in VR above!


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FRONTLINE’s VR Team to Speak at the First Public VR Lab Meetup in Brookline

Brookline Interactive Group (BIG) is hosting the first ever Public VR Lab Meetup event, and is thrilled to announce that FRONTLINE’s Virtual Reality team will be speaking at at this event. This event will take place on Thursday, August 4th, 2016 from 5:30-9:00 p.m. at BIG’s innovative community media space at 46 Tappan St in Brookline.

At this event, the FRONTLINE team will speak about their VR production process and, for one night only at the event, share some of their immersive journalism projects. FRONTLINE Series coordinating producer Carla Borras and production assistant Kenzie Audette will talk about FRONTLINE’s foray into virtual reality, their virtual reality processes, and some of the lessons they have learned along the way.

They will also share behind the scene stories from the filmmakers, some of the challenges FRONTLINE has faced pioneering high-end VR journalism, which include Night of the Storm, Return to Chernobyl, On the Brink of Famine, and Ebola Outbreak pieces, and tips for creating VR films.

Brookline Interactive Group (BIG) is the organizer and co-sponsor of this event, along with Northampton Community Television, who are the founders of the Public VR Lab. The Lab is a collaborative effort to facilitate a public dialogue around new VR-related technologies, and support the community creation of 360, virtual and augmented content, access to tools and headsets, and socially-relevant and locally-focused VR experiences. BIG and NCTV have launched accessibility and literacy initiatives in VR at their community media centers in western Mass. See more about their accessibility and literacy initiative in VR at:

In addition to FRONTLINE’s presentation, this event provides an exclusive opportunity for attendees to demo and experience FRONTLINE’s immersive journalism project on BIG and NCTV’s multiple HTC VIVE VR headsets and controllers. The event will also feature conversations about the future of the public Commons in VR, ample refreshments, and the opportunity to try other gaming and story-focused VR experiences.

All VR enthusiasts are encouraged to sign up for the Public VR Lab meetup group and register to attend this event. As spots are limited, BIG recommends attendees sign up early. Meetup members may register at: or at BIG’s eventbrite link:

For questions about the August 4th Public VR Lab meetup event, please contact Kathy Bisbee, Executive Director of BIG, at

The Public VR Lab is a collaborative effort to facilitate a public dialogue around new VR-related technologies, and support the community creation of 360, virtual and augmented content, access to tools and headsets, and socially-relevant and locally-focused VR experiences. Brookline Interactive Group (BIG) and Northampton Community Television (NCTV) launched this VR accessibility and literacy initiative in Spring of 2016 at their community media centers in Northampton and Brookline, MA.

About Brookline Interactive Group (BIG):

Brookline Interactive Group (BIG) is an integrated media and technology education center and a community media hub for Brookline, MA. BIG provides access to innovative media-making tools, facilitates diverse community dialogue, incubates hyperlocal storytelling, arts, media literacy and technology projects, and serves over 500 youth annually. BIG offers extensive multimedia training, collaboratively produces local content, and provides low-cost professional media services to non-profit organizations, education partners, businesses, and to local government.

About Northampton Community Television (NCTV)

Northampton Community Television is a community media arts center whose mission is to serve as a model organization to enable expression of all kinds across mediums, providing resources and programming and educational opportunities to the community through all means technologically available. We are independent hyperlocal media. We are a physical public makerspace. We are a legal street art multimedia wall. We are a storytelling hub. We are an economic development organization. We provide opportunities for voices that do not have other opportunities. We provide free services to local nonprofit organizations and the community and tools for the professional multimedia community.

Photo: “Razer OSVR Open-Source Virtual Reality for Gaming” by Maurizio Pesce via Flickr. Licensed under CC BY 2.0

Northampton Community Television Tries out the Ricoh Theta S



Northampton Schools Superintendent Dives into Virtual Downtown –

Northampton Schools Superintendent John Provost took a tour of his downtown office Tuesday.

But this version of his office behind City Hall was built by a Northampton High School student. And the tour, well, wasn’t exactly rooted in reality.

Community Media’s Role in Literacy and Accessibility is Critical in VR

Two Massachusetts nonprofit innovators, Northampton Community Television (NCTV) and Brookline Interactive Group (BIG), are partnering to forge new models of public media in the United States by adding Virtual Reality, or VR, into their community media toolkits.

“The age of virtual reality (VR) is here, and the technology looks poised to change the way stories are told and consumed,” reflected Al Williams, executive director at NCTV.  While VR technology is in its nascent stages and still only has low levels of consumer awareness and limited access by the general public, it has been the recent talk of the technology, film, gaming, journalism and storytelling worlds.

Over the past two weeks NCTV and BIG began offering free VR demos, both for the gaming and storytelling aspects of VR, using both the Samsung and HTC VIVE headsets and controllers, which only recently shipped and are the first headsets with a volumetric design.

“It’s been incredibly insightful to watch how people use and react to this technology, and we have been documenting the reactions of some first-time users,” said Williams, who captured his mother testing out the system for the first time. “Fantastic!” she exclaimed.

Entities like the New York Times, Frontline, and Sony Playstation have been growing programs to support and develop VR content, which has the potential to be the most immersive and empathetic form of communication developed to date. Want to tell a story about a Syrian refugee camp? Experience a rare, endangered rhinoceros? Feel the movement of the ocean as dolphins swim around you? Or work with revolutionary 3D drawing tools? VR is the it technology of the day, and perhaps of the future.

But as this new technology unfolds, who will provide the public unfettered access to these powerful creative tools and assure responsible and accessible use?

With most forms of media, corporate entities have had the first access to expensive, new forms of technology, designed to reach audiences with new, captivating methods.  “Unfortunately,” said Kathy Bisbee, executive director of BIG, “in the case of VR, these same corporations are going to be funding and controlling most of the early VR content, and thus are determining what kinds of content the public can create, consume and digest in this new medium. Only recently is the price of VR camera equipment becoming more affordable, and by the holidays, many families will own a VR headset. We should be mindful of this new source of screen time, and develop methodologies to think critically, use it wisely, and deconstruct these messages and a new version of ‘reality’ in a new content format that seems so convincingly real.”

Northampton High School student Zev Seltzer uses the HTC Vive.

Bisbee said that from her research and experience with the new technology, “VR can powerfully manipulate how we see the world, real or not, and it can manipulate how we make sense of it. All of the research shows that it can profoundly affect and change how we feel about others and ourselves. So there’s an incredible opportunity to impact people positively through immersive storytelling in VR, as well as an important opportunity to educate, inform and deconstruct messages and redefine our sense of reality.”

Williams added that the same accessibility issues exist for VR as have in the past for new technologies and media tools. “At best, large public gatekeepers have acted as public media institutes that act as proxies for the public, without actually providing the public access to those tools,” citing the need for public accessibility to be part of the VR conversation.

Northampton Community Television (NCTV) and Brookline Interactive Group (BIG), two community media centers in Massachusetts, are looking to change that dynamic.

Already armed with early HTC Vive VR systems to provide the public with opportunities to experience and view VR content, these media centers are aiming to understand and educate the public on the possible ramifications of media literacy in virtual reality, which they have coined “virtual literacy.” These next generation public access television nonprofits seek to educate, inform, and provide a new kind of accessibility in the newest medium now available to and by the community.

Both organizations are curating educational and experiential content to demo for free to the community, as well as developing community viewing through libraries, at senior centers, and to after school and summer programs that will provide access to local residents in western Mass and near Boston. Their centers will also begin teaching immersive storytelling in 360 video and in VR, and in late 2016 will begin offering production services, virtual literacy curriculum, classes, and access to the “virtual commons.”

“VR is the next generation of the public Commons,” said Bisbee, “VR is both a literal virtual commons that we have to ensure will be accessible to the public in VR and a real physical space at our media centers.”

In the works in 2016, the new VR-oriented community media centers are laying the groundwork for programs to support the production of experiential storytelling, immersive journalism, storytelling in games, and new forms of artistic expression in the public sphere.

“We want to ensure that the public is a partner, not just a blind virtual consumer, in this emerging communication medium by supporting virtual literacy, public access to the technology, and best practices in its use,” shared Williams about their collaborative initiative. BIG and NCTV will together roll out curriculum, public demonstrations, and production and literacy training programs throughout the summer and fall.

NCTV is currently offering public demos of the HTC Vive volumetric VR system at their facilities on Tuesdays from 6-7pm, and Wednesdays and Fridays from 2-3pm.

More info about this VR community initiative is available at:

Featured image by Maurizio Pesce via Flickr under CC BY 2.0.