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.”
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: www.publicVRlab.com.