#242: Building Empathy with a 360-degree Video about a Sexual Assault from Two Perspectives

Morris-MaySpecular Theory CMO Ryan Pulliam and founder Morris May talk about some of the 360-degree video experiences that they’ve produced over the last year including an edgy Sundance film called Perspective: The Party, which tells the story of a sexual assault from the point of view of the victim and perpetrator.


ryan-pulliamSpecular Theory has had a busy year of producing different 360-degree videos for different clients including Terminator Genisys: The YouTube Chronicles in 360 featuring Arnold Schwarzenegger, a music video for the The Donnies The Amys, as well as a Jeep® Brand VR Surf Experience.

Morris May also collaborated with Go Fish director Rose Troche, on an experience called Perspective: Th Party that showed at the New Frontiers section of Sundance this year. The description of the experience is that “A young woman attends a college party with the intention of shedding her shy girl high school persona. At the same party a young man is after a similar reinvention. They meet. Add booze. Misinterpreted signals and do things that cannot be undone.”

Morris talks about how Perspective: The Party is an exploration of empathy, and how it generated a lot of buzz at Sundance. It’s the first part of a longer series that is described as:

Perspective is a Virtual Reality series created by Morris May and Rose Troche. Together they are setting out to use the inherent power of the virtual realities 1st person point of view to create live action narrative films that challenge viewer’s perception of social issues and constructs that might otherwise never have been. With the use of the Oculus Rift you experience both realities, and in doing so begin to understand the slight differences in perception that sometimes lead to misguided assumptions.

There’s a lot of potential in this type of series, and Specular Theory is on the leading edge of experimenting with storytelling with the live action, 360-degree medium. Morris explains that they have made a conscious choice to be really aggressive when it comes to moving the camera within a 360-degree experience. I’m personally really sensitive to movement within VR, and I definitely experienced some motion sickness after watching their music video experience. But Morris says that he’s more concerned with trying to be innovative and push the boundaries of what type of storytelling experiences are possible despite the fact that it may not be comfortable for all people. That said, it’s worth paying attention to Specular Theory’s work since they’re doing some of the most innovative and interesting experiments with 360-degree video.

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Rough Transcript

[00:00:05.452] Kent Bye: The Voices of VR Podcast.

[00:00:12.105] Ryan Pulliam: I am Ryan Pulliam, the CMO of Specular Theory.

[00:00:14.935] Morris May: Morris May, CEO of Specular Theory. As you know, we've talked before, and I'm excited to see you again. We are a content creation studio primarily, but we also have some tools to help people create content, to share content also. So we're not platform-specific, and our company's really focused on cinematic virtual reality, primarily storytelling. I know it's like a topic that's big now, but we've been at it for a couple years with some pretty good successes. So we try to continue to push the medium and really develop interesting content. That's kind of our mission statement is virtual reality content for virtual reality as opposed to adapted from a game or made from a movie. We kind of really try to approach from the ground up in a new way of thinking to kind of make what we believe will be the most immersive type of storytelling on the planet virtual reality.

[00:01:01.067] Kent Bye: What are some of the projects that you've been working on, some of the clients and some of the stuff that you've been, you know, because you're kind of doing some agency work but also your own projects. So, you know, tell me a bit about what you've been working on.

[00:01:10.730] Ryan Pulliam: Yeah, it's been a super exciting year, actually. We kind of started off and kicked off the year with Sundance Project and Perspective, which is amazing, and kind of put our name on the map, I think, for storytelling and using virtuality as an empathy tool. And then, I guess around springtime, we started working on the new Terminator Genisys YouTube Chronicles video, which is a three-part web series, and we created the 360 component and had a lot of success from that, and that was really exciting to use YouTube 360 really see the traction and the comments that we got and the feedback and then we actually just launched a live-action surf experience yesterday which came out in Portugal for the World Surf League and Jeep Europe and so fans will get to be on site and literally get to get barreled and surf with big waves.

[00:01:57.083] Kent Bye: Yeah, maybe you could expand a bit on this perspective because that was a Sundance movie and tell me a bit about you know what the story was and what the reaction was.

[00:02:05.045] Morris May: Yeah, we had an amazing reaction, actually. It's one of the most talked about pieces at Sundance, believe it or not. But it's actually, the premise is perspective. The idea is you see an event happen from a person's perspective, and then you see that exact same event happen again from a different person's perspective. So the idea is you would gain a new perspective by seeing different people's perspectives of the same kind of hot-button topic. It works really well. You gain empathy for one character, then you switch and learn empathy for another character. So it's an educational tool, but also entertainment. Rose Truchet and I have kind of partnered on a project. She's an absolute genius independent film director who's really grasped storytelling in the medium. We're lined up to do three together, so we're excited about that. That's kind of our passion.

[00:02:43.682] Ryan Pulliam: I was thinking of Rose, actually. We just launched a music video, and it's up on YouTube 360 right now, and also worked again with Rose on that project. So it's been a fun ride.

[00:02:53.425] Morris May: That's been a really fun project. I got the VR pill, I think, so that's one of the best 360 music video done to date. So we got a lot of impressive excitement for that one. We're just working in that medium of doing 360 videos. MTV days are back again. It's just so exciting and new and so fun. It's just crazy.

[00:03:09.719] Kent Bye: And isn't part of the buzz around the perspective film is that it was about a sexual assault, is that correct? And maybe you could talk a bit about what was actually shown in that, because when I tell people that it was about a sexual assault and I haven't seen it, then their mind kind of goes wild. So maybe you could describe a bit about what was shown.

[00:03:24.796] Morris May: Yeah, it was kind of strange. No one thought it was a good idea, but now it's got a lot of traction. We actually showed it at the House of Representatives in Sacramento. They wanted to see it. Every college campus has kind of approached it. So it's got a lot of traction as far as being an amazing educational tool to kind of make people aware of that. sexual assault happens enormously on campuses. It's a big issue. And it's been very successful in that regard. But essentially you are sort of from the perspective of a date rape person. I mean, you're a person that does the kind of the date raping. So it's kind of, you see both sides of this very kind of hotbed topic of date rape. And each of the series, each episode is like that. It's a very hot button topic where you see something that you wouldn't normally see to kind of understand the way different people behave.

[00:04:10.127] Ryan Pulliam: Cinematically, I mean, it's rated PG, like there isn't graphic nudity or violence, but I think that actually makes the story more powerful because I think it becomes that much more real because you really feel like this is what it's like in college and you're at a frat party and things happen and it's questionable, you know, who's kind of leading who and, you know, who's drunk and who's not and things happen. I think that was the biggest thing because at the time when it launched at Sundance we were just concerned because we had already been moving on building camera rigs and everything had kind of been outdated by the time that it launched so we were a little worried about that and literally the entire feedback was just based on the story. No one even mentioned the technology and I think that's something that you really want to get out of this.

[00:04:48.271] Morris May: Like you said about the hot-button topic, we had no idea what people's reaction would be or with no understanding whether it would be successful. We literally never showed it to anyone. I literally put it on a thumb drive and just flew to Sundance and loaded it on the machine of Oculus. But we got an amazing response. We didn't have any negativity or anyone that was offended or put off in any way. It stirred quite a bit of debate. It's amazing. It's amazing. It proves something that I've always believed in, that this medium has a way to touch people that you cannot do any other way. We get some of the press reviews that it's the most immersive, most involving experience you've ever had watching a screen. So that kind of feedback is just astounding for us. So we're excited to do it again.

[00:05:29.860] Kent Bye: Yeah, I'm curious what the reaction was in terms of building empathy and what type of things that you see as VR as a medium that is especially well suited for empathy.

[00:05:39.745] Ryan Pulliam: I think in this case I mean there's just no other way to be in someone else's shoes and see through their eyes like so you really just can't have that perspective literally and figuratively and so I think that's super powerful I mean it was it was interesting to watch even in the piece that we did you know you're the perspective of the guy and the girl and so it was actually really interesting to see the guys be the perspective of the girl which sadly I guess females are just more accustomed to that perspective, but you know, you could tell guys were really uncomfortable with it and they were seeing guys in a whole new way, kind of thing. So I think that's an amazing concept.

[00:06:12.301] Morris May: It is the perfect empathy machine. There is no other way to really embody empathy. So that's kind of like a lot of our workers focus on that. It's really about you're a character in a situation as opposed to just watching something happen in front of you.

[00:06:25.913] Kent Bye: Yeah, and so you are definitely going towards the path of live action, and you just got out of seeing, you know, Oculus Story Studios' latest edition of storytelling with Henry, and so I'm just curious some of your reactions.

[00:06:37.858] Morris May: I completely applaud them for taking this seriously and diving in. I'm assuming their approach is, hey, this is going to be a big thing for storytelling. We better figure it out and get involved in it. You know, my personal taste is, again, like the live action, you know, seeing actors look at you in the eye and hearing their dialogue and getting those performances to me is kind of my thing that inspires me. But we enjoyed watching it and we applaud them for kind of starting to get in there and, you know, instead of just talking about it, trying to get in there and do it.

[00:07:06.759] Ryan Pulliam: No, it was good. Yeah, it was enjoyable. I kept thinking, my God, if I was a child and watching this, I would have been just in heaven. And yeah, I think the quality is great. I like the headset. And I think it's, you know, you could tell how detailed it is. And, you know, it's fun to kind of look around. And so now I'm excited to try Toybox.

[00:07:22.318] Kent Bye: So you've been building your own camera rigs and, you know, having to figure out the audio solution. So what's your kind of strategy moving forward with continuing to kind of roll your own? Are you hoping that there's going to be a more consumer version that you don't have to worry about the technology as much as to just go focus on the creative end?

[00:07:38.487] Morris May: We're like always battling that day by day. I mean at the end of the day we hope that somebody comes out with it that will use it, but we do have the advantage that we can be a little more, a little quicker, a little more cutting edge, a little better quality by rolling it ourselves. We can adapt quicker. I think there's no really, we're finding there's no real one camera solution for everything that you want to possibly film. We know how to do waterproof things for the water. We had to do certain kind of experiences where we had these guys playing Dungeons and Dragons at a table, so seeing below their hands and seeing the ground was really important. By custom rolling it, we can do things that you can't do as, in other words, this is our camera, use it. But really it's about the story and crafting the technology to tell the story with perspective. It's designed to let you roam around in a space. We have some advantages and disadvantages. Ideally, we're hoping that we eventually don't have to do any kind of camera work. Audio is a whole disastrous cluster of unknowns to us at the point. We've seen things that work so well and audio is, even all the talk about how important audio is, We still see audio that is so much more important than even we speculated it would be. It's almost a bad VR experience for us now without some kind of spatial audio and cues and being able to look around. It's like it's come that far. So we're trying to kind of narrow it down and have some standards and some practices. So we're looking into that.

[00:09:00.601] Kent Bye: In terms of the movement of the camera and the sort of style and language, I know that, you know, notice that there's some like image stabilization, but also locomotion for me is particularly difficult. I get fairly motion sick. So, you know, trying to be a little bit more creative, but yet at the same time trying to make it a comfortable experience for everybody. And so talk a bit about that trade off.

[00:09:22.123] Morris May: We're like bananas crazy. We don't care we will I will run with a camera. I will throw it to people So we do it much more aggressively than anyone tells us we should we don't think people should tell us We don't think that the manufacturers of the camera should be dictating what we're doing with it That's why we built our own image stabilization system to get around this problem I mean in fairness like our if you're sensitive to motion sickness our experience a lot of our experiences will push that and But that's a choice that we made. We think it's important to kind of push the boundaries and find out exactly what we can get away with. And every single version we do is substantially better. I mean, the Terminator is a three and a half minute video where you run through the YouTube space while you're being shot at from the eyes of a T-1000 Terminator. So that's not really normal kind of VR experience for live action. So we did it and it works incredibly well on cardboard. It's not that nauseating. Every few months we get better and better at it.

[00:10:15.903] Kent Bye: So what other kind of projects are you, like, excited about, like, working on in the future? What's sort of next for you guys?

[00:10:21.808] Morris May: Continue on with the perspective. We're still, like, experimenting with, you know, as soon as we think we've figured it out, we're still doing new things and figuring out really what does and doesn't work. We've done some very simple things that are designed for the web that are very effective, just people playing Dungeons and Dragons together. It sounds silly, but it's very simple and very effective in VR. Still pushing the narrative of story. A lot of behind-the-scenes things we're doing now. I guess Ryan I'll talk to you about. She was some of her model friends that actually came out amazingly well. We didn't predict that it would come out as well as it did, but some behind-the-scenes kind of things, some experience things, some story things. Definitely trying to do things that are only possible in VR is kind of our motto and goal and creed.

[00:11:01.453] Ryan Pulliam: Yeah, we have a lot in the pipe that I'm super excited about. But I think, you know, for the most part, it's kind of the Swiss Army knife. I don't think we're really trying to go after one particular genre. I think if it's a really cool project, and like Maura said, if it pushes boundaries and we just think it'd be fun to work with these people, or we just think the content is awesome, then we're going to go out there and do it. So we've got everything kind of that you could think of.

[00:11:20.325] Morris May: We showed up for the Terminator thing, and we had no idea what it was. And I'm comparing my pictures, and you said, like, oh, yeah, Arnold's going to be in it. And we're like, oh, Arnold's going to be in it. Oh, yeah, we'll do that. Yeah, that sounds great. I mean, that kind of thing is just, you know, It's really crazy, like he grabbed me on set and he was like, Arnold Schwarzenegger's shaking me. It's like literally terrifying. And you wear the headset and it's the same thing. You're like, he's grabbing me and shaking me. It's terrifying. It really works. So seeing that kind of stuff for us unfold is just unbelievably exciting. So the star factor of seeing, I think you're going to see celebrities in VR is a whole new weird thing for us. Like, whoa, that's, so-and-so. But is he acting? Is that him? Am I standing next to him? It's like these things that you just don't really think about are really starting to become really interesting to us.

[00:12:06.743] Kent Bye: Yeah, and finally, just sort of as we're moving towards the consumer launch, I'm just, you know, curious about what type of content that you hope to, you know, you've obviously been working in the live action for a while, you've learned a lot of lessons and, you know, where, as it moves towards the consumer release, what type of things that you feel like you're going to make a statement and this is the type of thing that you're going to specialize in?

[00:12:29.760] Morris May: I think empathy, I think storytelling. I definitely think we're going to push the bounds of what can be done. A new way of looking at things. I mean, anything that's sort of groundbreaking in every possible genre is kind of what we want to do. Even just training and things that are not, you would think of as not being necessarily the most interesting content, but to be able to make the perfect case study for every possible type of virtual reality content is kind of on our list. Because that, I think, we learn from cross-training. So we just learn from all these different disciplines how to make great VR.

[00:13:00.667] Ryan Pulliam: We've kind of decided that if, you know, if it can be done in 2D, then we don't want to do it in virtual reality. So I think that's kind of just the criteria for really taking advantage of the 360 space and really, you know, testing the limit with storytelling and also the technology.

[00:13:15.128] Morris May: But at the same time, not to make it hokey or gimmicky, like stage it for 3D. So that's the kind of border, that's the kind of strange area to be in. Like, it doesn't have to be 360, should it be 360, does it work in 360, those are all our, like, battling that with every project. Okay, great. Well, thank you.

[00:13:33.416] Ryan Pulliam: Thank you.

[00:13:34.456] Kent Bye: Thanks for everything you do. And thank you for listening! If you'd like to support the Voices of VR podcast, then please consider becoming a patron at patreon.com slash voicesofvr.

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