The Choice is an interactive documentary that explores the issue of reproductive rights in Texas. The team uses a special stereoscopic compositing pipeline that combines depth sensor information with a stereo camera capture, but creates a shader to preserve stereoscopic differences of specular reflections in the texture that’s being projected onto a mesh. The end result is that it creates a more plausible face-to-face context to bear witness to testimony of traumatic experiences. The view is given the option to go down some branches by being able to chose which question to ask next, but the end result is trying to recreate experience of having someone share their story with you in the type of one-on-one intimacy that can be recreated within a volumetric context in VR. I had a chance to talk with collaborators Dr. Joanne-Aśka Popińska and Tom C. Hall about their technical innovations, but also the topic of reproductive rights through the personal story of a planned pregnancy that threatened the life of the mother and reveals the peculiarities of Texas politics that has cultivated an environment where doctors are either deliberately withholding or lying to patients if they believe the information they share may lead to decisions by the patient that goes against their personal political beliefs.
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[00:00:05.452] Kent Bye: The Voices of VR Podcast. Hello, my name is Kent Bye and welcome to The Voices of VR Podcast. So today's episode is going to be one part, a deep dive into some new stereographic techniques that is being used in a piece called The Choice. And then the second half is going to be diving into the actual content of The Choice. So this was an immersive documentary that was shown at the South by Southwest 2022 by Joanne Oshko-Pipińska, as well as Tom C. Hall. And they've actually had this background in stereography and trying to come up with new ways of creating these stereoscopic effects. And there's a deep dive into the technical aspects of that in the first part of this conversation. But the second part is what they're trying to use that for, to give you that sense that you're actually sitting across from somebody and having a conversation with them. Everything's pre-recorded, so you're only having the opportunity to make a choice from one or two different questions that you're asking. But in essence, there's this emotional arc that is covering the topic of, what's happening with women's reproductive rights within the United States, especially in the state of Texas, where there's been a lot of rolling back of a lot of these reproductive rights and making it more and more difficult for people. If they choose to have an abortion and terminate their pregnancy, then it's becoming more and more difficult to do that. And because they're making what is essentially a pro-choice film, They wanted to make it for people who were anti-choice or pro-life to watch and connect to the more universal personal story. A lot of people think about the certain type of archetype of people who might get an abortion. There are certain late-term abortions that sometimes are medically related. Sometimes the pregnancy can put the mother's life in danger. In Texas, there was some confusion around some of the laws in the sense that doctors were potentially legally allowed to either hide deliberately information from the patient or to lie to the patient. If they believed that it was going to lead the patient to get an abortion, they could make a political choice to withhold that information from the patient. This is really wild stuff that's happening here in Texas. It was a deep dive. into a personal story of a woman who had to go through a lot of this stuff. Even when she did decide that she wanted to terminate the pregnancy, the access that she had to go through was just a lot of hoops, and it was not an easy journey for her. This was a planned pregnancy. She wanted to actually have the baby. Anyway, this is a politically charged issue, obviously, but the use of immersive technology is to be able to explore this for more of an individual personalized story, but also to be able to have a little bit more of a conversation and to go down potentially different branching paths. I think this one had a little bit more of a fixed arc, but in the future they hope to dive a little bit more into this kind of branching narrative. This face-to-face conversational style I think works quite well. Their technical innovations are also really quite interesting and intriguing, especially if you're in the realm of 360 degree stereoscopic videos. This is a whole nother volumetric technique that allows the luxury of treating it a little bit more of like a long form documentary to capture lots and lots of conversations and data, which isn't always possible in these other volumetric techniques. So that's going to be coming on today's episode of the Wastes of VR podcast. So this interview with John Oskar Popinska and Tom C. Hall happened on Tuesday, March 15th, 2022. So with that, let's go ahead and dive right in.
[00:03:23.299] Joanne Aska Popinska: I'm Joanna Popińska, I'm XR director and here at Saubai we are premiering our project The Choice.
[00:03:31.084] Tom C Hall: Hi, I'm Tom Seahall, I'm an XR filmmaker as well. I'm a partner and spouse of Dr. Joanna Popińska here and we both worked on this project The Choice together for several years and then the last two years would have been like the actual meat of the work.
[00:03:45.512] Kent Bye: Okay, well why don't you each give a bit more context as to your background and your journey into this space.
[00:03:51.472] Tom C Hall: If I can jump on that question, that's actually kind of a funny thing, because that's also how we met. So both me and Joanne, and if I say Asha, by the way, in Polish, Asha, and the Polish people listening will know it's the same name. But when me and Joanne met, it was back when the beginning, or maybe the midpoint of the hype of 3D movies. So we both worked in the 3D camera cinematography space. I was a stereographer. She worked for her company in Poland that also developed and produced 3D movies and also actually made 3D camera equipment. And then we met at a workshop in Dublin and we hit it off both professionally and personally. And then we've been working together ever since. And then there's a lot of ideas and I think Potential that we saw in 3d movies, you know like stereoscopic movies but the dreams of what we wanted to be weren't really possible until VR came about and then when the DK one was going around and we realized all the ideas that we had about exploring these spaces that aren't restricted by The limitations of stereo on a screen and of course the headache people get headaches in VR too but like the the nausea of sitting in a movie theater with the dim screen were eliminated because now you are within your own theater and then suddenly all these ideas came bubbling forth and that was the gestation of us getting into VR.
[00:05:02.559] Joanne Aska Popinska: And for me, so my background, my education is in sociology and as a sociologist like the reason why I went there was because I'm interested in society, in people, in like social issues. But I realized that sociologists talk to sociologists and not like to regular people. And I really wanted to connect with people and talk about important issues with other people, not just like some academic circle. So this was my beginning and then I decided, okay, film is the way. And it took me a little while to actually find my voice and be sure what I want to do in film. I was doing a lot of things, camera, department, 3D, color grading, VFX, like I did it all. And then when VR started being popular, we really got into it. I was fascinated with the embodiment and presence and that you really feel that you are there. And this is at the similar time is when my home country Poland started attacking women's rights. And I saw that this might be a subject for me to tell something about. And this was like the beginning of The Choice Project.
[00:06:09.549] Kent Bye: I think I first met you and encountered a demo of this piece at VRTO, maybe in 2019. I was really struck by how you're actually developing your own stereoscopic technique. It was something that unlike I had ever seen and so maybe you could start there with the technical aspects because there's between the two of you of all these stereoscopic cinematic experiences that you each have, it seems like you've got some unique insights into how to technologically produce but also edit. So yeah, I'm curious, what are you doing on the back end to actually produce this piece?
[00:06:40.150] Joanne Aska Popinska: I will start and then I will let Tom take over about more technical explanation, but the reason why we developed our own filming approach was because of the effect that we wanted to achieve. So I really wanted you to feel that you are present with another human with VR. and we thought that volumetric is enough for that because you feel the volume, you feel the presence and you feel that you are in the same environment but I felt that it's not there, it's not enough and like with some technologies it was feeling ghostly, avatarish and I really wanted you to know that you were talking to a human and this is when Tom came up with his brilliant idea.
[00:07:16.611] Tom C Hall: Well, I wouldn't say it's a brilliant idea, but it was recognizing a thing that I used to say back when I was a stereographer, and if people remember back when movies were made in 3D, there was the films that were shot in real 3D, and some of them were eyeball-destroying to watch, but some of them were really quite incredible, and then there were the films that are converted. And the analogy I always used to do when I was at a meeting with somebody, and if somebody's listening at home they can try it out, is you take like an orange or a lemon, and you hold it up to yourself and you look at the surface of the lemon. And as you look at it, you can see with your left and right eye, if you close one and the other, that the highlights are completely different. Like the specular is different. Some pits are occluded, some pits that have highlights, some that don't. And all of those disparities or those retinal rivalries are not things that are in 3D parallax because there's a separation between them for depth perception. They're not a part of the depth perception. They're part of the perception of your understanding of the material itself. And all of those artifacts are present in a human face. Like skin has a different specular response. than the clothes of somebody that they're wearing. The eyes in particular, the highlight, catch light in somebody's eye will be in a different depth plane than the rest of the eye. Things like hair will occlude, your tongue will be occluded by your teeth from eye to eye, and all those little cues, when you remove them from an image, create the sensation that it's a texture that's been extruded. And a lot of the really great volumetric technologies out there, you know, they could be great for physicality of things, but when you look into somebody's face, It's like they're made out of clay, and it's the absence of all of those things. Now, of course, the approach would be to go in and do physics-based rendering and to reintroduce those things through shaders. But obviously, one, it's very expensive and complicated. But two, for our project in particular, because it's a documentary, because it's a factual and we're representing a real person, we don't want to synthesize the image in any way that we can avoid. So yeah, we'll color grade it. We'll adjust it. We obviously edit it because we filmed our subject for four and a half hours, which was another part of the technology that we wanted. to be able to hit record and just let it run for four and a half hours, and then at the end, the resulting data that we produce, we would then bake into video files so that we could log and capture it, cut it like a regular documentary, and then take the data set of the RGB information and the depth information on a per frame basis, run it through a pipeline, like a tool chain, because my background's in visual effects, I was a VFX supervisor, so I had this whole big tool chain that we built, and then drop it into Unity and watch it, and not have to make decisions based on what things that you're gonna compute into geometry to watch in VR because of costs or because of the time it takes. It's like, no, no, no. We just take all four and a half hours, it's video files, it's all baked into these big ProRes texture atlases, and then once we're happy with the edit, we put it out, we watch it, oh no, that doesn't work, change this, change that, to have that flexibility. But that stereo aspect on the geometry was something that was the big epiphany for us. Because it's like they say that the storytelling in cinema is through the eyes, and that's something that this effect we think reproduces really well. And actually the origin from it comes actually from a Wim Wenders 3D film that he did, Pina. That was like 2008, 2009? Maybe 2010, you know better than me.
[00:10:17.428] Joanne Aska Popinska: I don't remember the year anymore. Yeah, but what he did is he put you in the front like eye to eye with dancers and they don't talk. He puts convergence point at their back of their neck so they stick out of the screen a little bit and it was a profound feeling that they are looking directly at me. So this is like similar effect that we used for the choice.
[00:10:39.190] Tom C Hall: And that's one of the things that stereo vision outside of depth perception is very powerful about is the human face and like having those artifacts reproduced Allows you because they're going back a little bit to like how I was mentioning like your skin your teeth your eyes When somebody's about to cry you see the moisture build up in their eyes the only way you can really perceive that without it being I wouldn't even know how you do it on a 2D screen without like an extreme close-up is that you see the specular of the moisture growing of the tear forming under the eyes and that specular will be different in each eye and you'll see it in before and in Kristen's story it's very very emotional and she over the course of the story she becomes very emotional and that aspect is present like you were there with her and you can feel those social cues as they develop in the experience.
[00:11:24.528] Kent Bye: One more follow-up technical question before we start to dive into the topic of the experience, which I think is quite deep and profound on its own right, but I'm just trying to understand most of stereoscopic 360 video has this effect where it's hard to get close to people, then you kind of lose the depth in some ways. You have to be a certain distance. What is it that you're doing in terms of how you're capturing it? Do you have two cameras or like what is it that you're actually doing to be able to capture that to be able to have this whole pipeline that you're doing?
[00:11:53.425] Tom C Hall: Yeah, so the technique, both from the capture and from the presentation in the final headset, what we do is we have a depth camera and then we capture a stereo pair, so a left and right image, in line and in time with the depth capture, and then we composite those together through our pipeline, and then in the resulting engine we have a piece of mesh that we then drive a video atlas through that gives it the left image channel, the right image channel, and then the vertex displacements. So the vertex shader is animated as the video is being fed through it, so that on a per frame basis it represents the shape. Kind of like how early depth kit worked with that shader effect that they had, but using it for our purpose with a stereo texture on it. And what that means is that because The screen plane essentially is changing on a per frame basis. You're never having serious amounts of parallax, so like the separation between the two images of each eye never grows to a substantial degree that you gain eye strain. Like if anybody has watched considerable amounts of 180 3D or 360 3D if your eyeballs can handle it. you get humongous amounts of eye strain over a long viewing period and that's because you have a large amount of visual parallax separation between the left and right images and as you roll your head or you move your position physically in relationship to that stereo pair you start developing actual eye strain and it's not simulation sickness, like inner ear sort of disconnect, it's actually a different physiological process of your eyes trying to correct the vertical offset of the two images. That's one of the reasons why a lot of 3D movies gave people migraines when you watched it. And then over the course of the hype of the last cycle of 3D movies, the depth got shorter and smaller and smaller, because the stereographers were like, well, we don't want to give people headaches, but then it's kind of shitty, and then you're like, why are you paying so much for this movie that's so dark? And that was that artifact of being like, man, that's exhausting. And that's something that the IMAX guys knew way, way back. It's like, well, you can't have these intense 3D things be longer than 40 minutes, because people are going to want to pull their eyeballs out. It's just that sweet length. But by having the geometry animating with where the parallax is, the separation between the two images aren't very substantial. Maybe, well, we don't really have the same screen percentages in VR, but at least say, like, half a percent screen separation, if people know what that means. half a percent or a percent of screen separation. So you don't have that inducement of that eye strain, so that you just have the disparity. You just have the retinal rivalry of different things in each eye, but not separated and parallaxed. So your eyeballs aren't constantly fighting like they would be in a 3D 180 or 3D 360 thing to correct close things that are coming out of that screen plane.
[00:14:28.395] Kent Bye: Okay, wow, that's a super technical deep dive. I really appreciate the details of that because I know that we chatted about this when I first met you and didn't really understand it but now I have a better sense and the value of being able to have it rendered out in Unity and be able to move your head around and it gives a feeling of being present with this experience which I think is really a powerful testimony of what's happening here in Texas. So we are here in Texas for South by Southwest. And maybe you could set the context for both the topic of the choice, and you mentioned your home country, Poland, how this sort of catalyzed with this attack on women's rights. And so maybe you could set the context for the choice and how this project came about for you.
[00:15:07.366] Joanne Aska Popinska: Certainly. So I come from Poland and Poland is this beautiful country that has not very beautiful government recently. Our government has been pressing on many minorities and women, immigrants, LGBTQ people a lot. There has been a lot happening there. A couple of years ago they started trying to ban abortion and people were protesting, people were striking because the whole society is pro-choice. But effectively last year we actually have banned abortion in Poland. Not fully, I don't want to go too much into legalities because the The main issue, especially here in Texas as well, is creating the atmosphere of fear, creating the atmosphere of not knowing what is legal, what is allowed, what doctors can do, cannot do. And pretty much now in Poland people are afraid to have abortion, even in situations where they should be able to have it. And this is a very similar situation to the interview to the person that we filmed, which is Kristen. And she is Native American, she lives in Austin. But before I tell you more about her, I will tell you about my motivation to talk about this subject. So I was wondering, like many of us, why we're still talking about it and why there is so much misunderstanding about what abortion is, who are the people who have abortions. And I started analysing the debate itself. So I am a sociologist with my education and my previous life, as I say, and I started to look at what are the arguments being used, what people who are anti-choice, what are the questions that they ask and what is misunderstanding, what is the stereotype, the bias. And as a sociologist I used to work with conflict and stereotypes and the approach that I find very useful is the simplest one which is conversation. Just meeting another human, talking with them and that's it. And maybe you know this will not solve all the world problems but it creates the atmosphere for understanding that on the other side there is also a human. So this was the starting point to think how do I do it and this is when we started playing with VR and I realized that VR gives me this amazing opportunity of putting you face to face with another person and making you feel that you are a part of this conversation. So it's not that you are just passively watching some documentary, some presentation, but you are taking a part of it. So this was the starting point and what's next and why Texas? So I live in Canada and we started recording some interviews in Canada but I started thinking who is my audience, my main audience and who I want to affect with this project. And the people I want to affect, again going back to Poland, I have a lot of friends who are anti-choice and I respect them. I think they are humans, they are people that I like, love, respect. I think they are clever. And I was wondering how to tell them a story that would make them understand who is on the other side. So with this approach, I started also to think what kind of stereotypes they commonly have, they share. And one of the most common stereotypes about abortion is that it's anti-family. and the women who have it are cold, they have no feelings. So I started looking for a story that would show this side. And also some challenges, because there is also a question about personal choice versus when you face challenges, like oppression, really, from healthcare systems, like you do in Texas. So we filmed some interviews in Canada, they were great, they were amazing, but they were showing only how it should be, so that it's your personal decision, whether you want to, whether you are ready or not, but there was no circumstances that would block you from having it. And this is when in March 2020 we came to Sao Pai, we had actually, we already knew Kristen from my social media outreach, So we were supposed to present the demo of The Choice here, and we were supposed to spend two weeks. I had six interviewees set up, and South By was cancelled. We still came here. We thought, okay, we have two amazing weeks, very relaxing time to meet with everybody and record with them. But then we learned that Canada will be closing the borders in the next two days, so we had to wrap it very quickly. and I chose two people to record the interviews because we had only one day to work with. One of them was Kristen, the other one was Makayla. Kristen is our first finished interview, the one that we are premiering in North America at South By, we had the international premiere at IDFA. And Kristen is a native American woman. She lives in Texas, and she had planned pregnancy, wanted pregnancy, and she did everything, like, you know, when you prepare to have a baby, you take care of your health, you also start preparing the room, the clothes, the stuff. So she was preparing to have a family, and then she started feeling not all right. She started bleeding. She went to a doctor, and the doctor told her, like, they checked her, and they said, Everything is all right. So she was like, okay, the doctor told me that it's fine. I do not have to worry. A couple weeks later again, she started feeling that something is not okay. She goes to a doctor again. The same situation repeated for five months. And at a certain point she felt that something is really bad. She stopped feeling the movement of the foetus and she changed the doctor. And the new doctor, when he started checking her, he was horrified. because of how many abnormalities he discovered. So there was hydrocephalus, there was spina bifida, which is like the hole in your spine, Tandrer syndrome, which is 1% chance of surviving the pregnancy for a fetus. So there was multiple, multiple issues. If every single one pretty much makes you eligible for termination, they just hid it from her. And the reason why is a little bit unclear. So in 2017, Texas Senate started introducing the bill that would allow doctors to mislead patients about what the situation is, if the doctors think that the patient might be considering abortion. So it was directly to stop people from having abortions. So they just didn't tell her that something is happening. And when she finally discovered how bad it is, she almost died herself. But this is when this story already begins. Because then looking for care, finding a clinic, finding the proper care, it was yet another story. And this is like in the middle of the experience, you start discovering, learning that she needed this one thing, but then finding care in Texas, it's another story pretty much. So yeah, so that's the baseline, what the choice is, and what's the story.
[00:21:49.546] Kent Bye: Yeah, the fact that there's a law passed that makes it legal for doctors to lie to patients if they believe that it's gonna lead to something that seems like a pretty wild situation, that that's the case, and I wasn't aware of that until watching this piece, so yeah.
[00:22:04.081] Tom C Hall: Well, that's actually an interesting thing. So that was SB 25 in 2017. Because we had a panel yesterday, we talked to Representative Donna Howard, which kind of gave us a little bit more information about how that bill functioned. So basically, what they were proposing was a bill to protect, so like wrongful death lawsuits, like the liability for wrongful death malpractice, they were trying to make an alternative of a wrongful birth. So you would protect a doctor from forcing you to have a pregnancy that wasn't viable. And that was their bizarro inversion of that principle. And it ended up not passing because in Texas, what they do every other year, the government stands down, like they don't do anything, because I guess government doesn't need to function on odd years or something. The bill died but we found even in the time working on the project and even here that there are people who thought that that bill Actually passed through and became law But it was a part of creating this climate and it's like I can imagine from the perspective Potentially of the people involved on the hospital side that there could have been maybe not the nurse themselves But their superior or the hospital administrators saying hey we see this law coming down the pipe This could become a problem for us in the future policy. Just don't bring it up and Or it could be malicious. You can't know. And it's one of those things where creating these counter narratives, these dark narratives of constructing these laws can really have profound chilling effects. And then, of course, now with SB8, it's the laws that finally bite, that they finally actually hold on. And even though it's for a procedural reason, it was thrown out of the Supreme Court and they have to go and deal with it again. And this climate is a prerequisite. for getting these laws actually finally in place. And that's one of the things that is really distressing. And I think as documentary filmmakers, we find it's really important to tell these stories because there is a counter storytelling that exists that is for a negative purpose, whether it's for abortion rights, whether it's for voter rights, whatever it is in the current world. And I mean, I love VR games. I love the metaverse, you know, exploring, you know, amazing worlds. But I really feel like, and I think Joanne agrees with me, if we're going to work in this space, we want to tell stories that are important about our current time. And this is a perfect example of that, of like, you know, if there's going to be a counter story, then us as filmmakers, we need to challenge that counter story with personal truth with the personal experience and You know, even if it's pushing up against an avalanche just still trying to put in the effort
[00:24:33.867] Kent Bye: Yeah, I saw that there was actually one of the opening keynote talks where it was like a recent Texas Supreme Court decision that happened that ACLU and others were fighting to stop different things. It ended up being like a decision that was going in the wrong direction in terms of people who are fighting for women's rights here in Texas. So it seems like this is, as a topic, continuing to go down this path of increasing that climate here. So as a sociologist, do you think that focusing here and what's happening in Texas is a good example of what may start to spread out? Curious to hear your perspective of trying to deconstruct this as an issue and turn it into a story. But is this, from a collective level, how you think about it from a sociological perspective?
[00:25:17.616] Joanne Aska Popinska: So, first of all, I want to say that it is the story that is rooted in Texas, but it's very universal. And there's a lot of countries, even now, like talking to our audience at South By, I'm discovering how many more countries are restrictive. And it's not just the story about abortion that is universal and that really connects with other people. So we have people coming to our booth and after watching the choice, they tell us, for example, that they had miscarriage. And miscarriage is another subject that people don't even think. If you didn't have miscarriage, you don't think that this is a taboo subject. Maybe not taboo, but like... not something that you can talk openly about. And for example, if you're a woman, I don't know how it is in the US, but I know in Poland that if you have a miscarriage, they put you in a hospital in the same room with other women who just had their babies delivered. And this is brutal, brutal. So this is just one situation that like it's really similar but very different. So from this perspective, we think that this experience has something more to say than just about this one situation, this one specific person in Texas. And you want to add something, Tom?
[00:26:31.047] Tom C Hall: What I was going to say, too, just talking about the bigger picture, one of the things that we find with VR that's still a limitation that's getting better is accessibility and that about getting this story in precision sort of engagement. And that's something that from South By that we're working on very much looking forward towards. Like, how do we get this in front of influential people? How do we get this in front of, like, we had suggestions that, you know, this should be shown at medical schools for doctors to see what the perspective of being, you know, because That's the thing it could have been the doctors and nurses involved in this stuff could have been following hospital policy Then that's wrong obviously because it's unethical but that they can see the consequences of that because that's the power of VR in that it can be very very Influential on somebody and very very lingering. I think because from a media consumption standpoint people haven't developed their callus and to VR yet, like they do, like you watch something on YouTube, or you engage with Twitter, and you're so pounded down with stuff, with noise, that people develop the organ to shut it off, and VR still is able to get through that. So from a, like expanding out from just outside of Texas, and just outside of here, is to find that impact campaign to get it in front of the right sets of eyeballs.
[00:27:44.463] Joanne Aska Popinska: But also like about a question like can this spread out so for the many years now that we've been working on this project we constantly heard that abortion like for example in Canada that abortion is solved or that like we were in constant sort of asking ourselves if this will be valid when we will finish. And a couple of years forward, when we were starting, Poland was only protesting and we were sure that it's like, yeah, we have to protest, but it will never pass. Today it passed and there is no abortion in Poland pretty much. In the US, we thought that, you know, it will sort of go towards a proper progressive direction. Today we are wondering if Roe v Wade will be removed. So it's spreading into the direction that we hope that this project will be irrelevant. When we are premiering it, it's more relevant than ever. And that's actually scary.
[00:28:38.567] Kent Bye: Yeah, definitely an unfortunate development there in that sense. Well, the piece is called The Choice and you actually have a number of choices that the viewer is making to decide what to ask. And so it's like having a conversation is a conceit you're hearing and, you know, sometimes there's only one thing and you're still kind of selecting, but maybe you could just talk about that decision to have the deliberate action to be able to ask the questions in between, but also the structure. If there's branching that happens or if it converges, you know, what the logic was to be able to have it more in this conversational context?
[00:29:15.840] Joanne Aska Popinska: So first thing that was important in creating the user experience was for me to make you aware that it is you who is taking part in this conversation. At the beginning and even on our old Kickstarter campaign you can see some framing device that we were thinking about like to give you a role to be somebody who has to talk to her and you have a reason and that's why you're starting to talk. But then when we were working on it and still developing tech and developing idea for it, I realized that I want my audience to understand that they are important. So every single person is important from the perspective that if I make a space for somebody to talk or not, this already changes something. So I wanted you as an audience member to understand your role in just this conversation and then in the bigger picture creating a society that makes this space. So that's why it is you who select these questions, it is you who sort of unfolds the conversation. And then with the branching narrative, like first I will talk about one versus two questions. So I also wanted to make it like it is a real conversation and in a real conversation you sometimes, when somebody says something, you instantly know what you want to ask, what to follow up with, like what you want to know. But sometimes you need a moment either to digest a little bit what you heard or just like you still are not sure what's the next question that you want to ask. So that's why we have one question or two questions and one question is in the moments when I thought it would be better to speed up a little bit. And when there is a situation when I expect the audience to want to have a moment for thinking for a moment, then I want them to slow down and this is where you have two questions. And sometimes it just leads to two answers, but sometimes we were supposed not to talk about it, but sometimes it leads to the same answer. Very few times, but it does happen. And actually, almost nobody realizes that and they come back to us and ask, oh, in this situation, like, what if I would have asked this other question? And I'm surprised that some of them come back to this specific question. So this is about branching. There is some branching, but also speaking about branching, I started building quite complicated branching narrative because she talks about many, many, many aspects. But I realized that if I branch too much, I lose emotional arc. And for this story, it was very important for me to introduce you to certain emotions before it really hits you hard, because there is a moment where it hits you really hard. And I really wanted to leave the audience with the feeling that she had. And the feeling that she had was that she couldn't do anything. So she was very badly treated. She had no options. And when we interviewed her, she felt helpless, hopeless and not knowing what's next for her. and I wanted the audience to have the similar feeling when you finish the experience and I need to build up these emotions and I need to build up the expectations that I lead you somewhere and this is really hard to do with branching narrative so it is branching a little bit but there is like main arc that you follow no matter what questions you choose.
[00:32:29.925] Tom C Hall: And the tricky thing that we kind of discovered in assembling that branching narrative is that in conversation, even when you're asking questions, the other person does have something that they're trying to say and there is an emotional logic in the order in which things, and in the course of editing, you know, there are things that we've abridged or, you know, rearranged for factual reasons so you understand context. But like, you know, and particularly in a story like Christian's where it's very much a series of crises that build on top of each other. It's difficult to shuffle that in a way that doesn't dilute it. But some of the other interviews that we have filmed are more structured in a way that will probably be much more branching where there'll be entire subjects that will go one way or entire subjects that go the other way. And that's kind of more the Canadian interviews where there isn't that kind of oppressive system, at least in the parts of Canada that do have access. There are New Brunswick is one province I'm thinking of, but also rural parts of Canada that do have access issues that are oppressive to people trying to receive reproductive care. But still, it's different than in the United States. And those stories, once we get to making them, will be more branching. But Kristen's story really is something that you need to follow her emotional arc as much as the story's emotional arc. So to go a little bit more wide net would have probably diluted the emotional response.
[00:33:48.453] Kent Bye: It sounds like you've been innovating a lot of technology and then you have this piece that has either impact campaigns that could be done to be able to use this or trying to think about how to sustain this as a business and keep the lights on and whatnot. So what's the plan moving forward to how to balance all those things in terms of getting this piece out into the world?
[00:34:08.348] Joanne Aska Popinska: The biggest challenge of every VR creator is outreach and people being able to watch it because still there's not enough headsets. So after the festival run we want this to reach the people that we think can do a really good use of it, which is activists, advocates, people who do the grassroots work and people who want to create cultural change and then of course affect how the laws work in the US or other countries. So our big plan for the Impact Campaign is to literally educate those organizations and activists about VR, tell them about the project, that it exists, what it is, how it works, and then show them how VR is easy, because there's a lot of thoughts that VR is for games, VR is very expensive, VR is really hard to set up. So we already started doing it with some organizations. One of our partners, actually, Abortion Conversation Projects, they ordered a headset, And then we met on Zoom and in five minutes we walked them through how to set it up, how to set up the choice. And five minutes in then they were watching. So they already know that it's cheap, easy and effective, but there is a lot, a lot, a lot of organizations who have no idea. They started learning. I'm actually very grateful that we are premiering in Sao Pai, where there's a lot of organizations who are actually at the edge of the war for reproductive rights. And they came to our presentations, to our booth, and to learn about the project. But this is what's next for us. We want to go to these organizations and the whole Plan for Impact campaign is actually to find partners who could help us with doing that. So to find who would be interested, who would be the best person in each state or city to actually get their hands on it. and learn how it works, why it works, and then how easy it is for them to take it with them. Because they do use storytelling, they do use personal testimonies, but it's a little bit complicated to, you know, drag the same person over and over. They get exhausted, they get attacked for what they say. With the story, the way that we recorded it, it's very fresh, it's very natural, and it is very effective in creating the emotional connection with people. So, like, you take this for your conversation with some, I don't know, either students or lawmakers, and this is a perfect starting point for the conversation. And also, like, we all know that storytelling is something that really helps to create, like, the urge to do something. Like, instead of throwing data at you or some, I don't know, presentation with numbers and facts, it's much easier to show one good story that you connect with. and then tell you about the data and then tell you about what needs to be done. So this is our huge hope and plan for this project that this will work like that. And of course we have more stories recorded already and our next step is to work on those.
[00:36:57.494] Kent Bye: Great. And we're here at South by Southwest. You know, this is a pretty intense topic for some people that may have their own personal experiences. And I saw that there's a little decompression room that's there that you have available for folks. But I'm just wondering what the reaction has been so far here at South by.
[00:37:14.665] Tom C Hall: Yeah, the reaction has been quite moving. People have been really affected by the piece, especially the benefit here at South By is that Kristen herself lives in Austin, so she's actually been available to speak with some people who want to meet her after the experience. What she's told us is that it's just been really cathartic for her to talk to all these other people and about their feelings and their personal experiences and people in their lives that have experienced similar things to this. And it is something that people here, I think, understand that this is the front line, this is ground zero, and that this crisis is not subsiding anytime soon. In a way that in Canada and in Europe, when we showed Adidfa, people still have an arm's length to it. And I think people here understand it very much more. We would love to get it in front of people who are more anti-choice. You know, South Byte's kind of a self-selecting audience. Because we've had actually very interesting reactions with people over the course of working on the project. And there's actually, I'm not going to name any names, but there's a VR game developer who was being a little bit colorful at a presentation we were doing when it was a work in progress. And Joanne was trying to dunk on him and said, hell, why don't you watch it and then you can have better insults. And then he sat and he watched an earlier cut of it and he took the headset off and he was embarrassed. Like his face was embarrassed and he was like, I'm so sorry. I feel terrible for what I was saying. I didn't think about it. This could have happened to my wife. We have a daughter like this. And then we, you know, okay, fine. You know, he was trying to be owning us with facts and logic and now he felt embarrassed. But then a year and a half later, and this was like pre-pandemic, we were at Oculus Connect and he was talking about our project positively to other people. So a year and a half later, it still lingered with him. And it was like, he still has probably other different political views, but when it came to abortion rights and understanding late-term abortion, it really, really stuck with him. And it's like, okay. So I think our theory of change is that a lot of people, especially young men, which is a big demographic of VR consumers, have a lot of their opinions on abortion. from cultural osmosis. They listen to certain podcasts, if you understand what I say, and they consume certain kinds of media, so their opinions of it are a part of a greater ecosystem of ideology. And when they're encountered with these personal stories where they feel like they've met this person eye to eye, and they can relate both to having that personal experience but also aspects of her talking about her partner if they're having a partner of their own if they have Experiences with health care not providing them the correct amount of care that they can relate and have an entry point to it Suddenly all of that cultural osmosis cannot compete with that human to human interaction I mean actually there was somebody also I remember that was Actually, do you want to tell that story? Yeah, you should tell it
[00:40:03.418] Joanne Aska Popinska: Sure, so we have a friend who watched The Choice and he didn't tell us ahead that he was anti-choice, this is how he grew up, this is how he was raised. And he told us already after that he was a little bit afraid, he thought that this is some propaganda and he didn't know what to expect. But he watched it and then he loved the experience. It helps itself how we introduce it to Kristen, how we use the animation because this is a big part of the experience as well. But then a couple weeks after his wife got pregnant and she cannot deliver in a way that she is not allowed to have pregnancy because this might be dangerous for her. so she needed to terminate it and they both weren't ready for that and he told us that after talking to Kristen in VR he suddenly realized like first of all that he realized what abortion is and what might be the situation when you need it but also he said that it allowed him to be a better husband, better partner for his wife because he understood how emotional it is for her and how much she needs him, only from what Kristen told him about how important it was for her to have her husband with her and also that it was their journey, it was their baby, so she wanted him to be there. So we had some reactions like that and I think this is one of the most powerful for me. The other powerful reactions are those from people who experienced abortion themselves. And there is a scene in The Choice that for the majority of the experience you talk with her eye to eye and there are illustrations that fill the space and they add a certain layer of like what she is talking about. But there is a scene where when she starts talking about what everybody is afraid to hear, I think, so about the procedure itself. we remove her and we drive you to the clinic like she was driving to San Antonio to another city and this is something that a lot of people empathize and connect with especially if they were in the similar situation because in this scene you start feeling anxiety and you are not sure what is going to happen next And a lot of people told me that this is exactly how they felt. They didn't know what to expect. They didn't know how the clinic staff will treat them. They didn't know how abortion will be like. You know, you can read about it, but when you're going into it, you are afraid, like in any other procedure. I had spine surgery. I was scared. I will not use bad words. I was scared the most in my life when I had the surgery. So you were afraid and we do it with changing the narrative so allowing you for a little bit to take this first person seat and for a little moment we let you think what it is, how you would feel if it was happening to you. We don't want to be too direct with it that's why you constantly hear her talking because it's still her story and we want you to only accompany her. We don't want you to feel oh it's happening to you now like that's not the idea of this project.
[00:43:03.357] Kent Bye: Yeah, so people who had it say that it really hit them that moment Yeah, and finally what do you each think is the ultimate potential of virtual reality and immersive storytelling and what it might be able to enable?
[00:43:20.029] Tom C Hall: I guess for me, my feelings about the potential of virtual reality and XR in general is a little bit more zoomed out in that it feels like the desire of our relationship with technology is to get as close to it as possible. So it feels like, not necessarily the metaverse, but the idea of the human-computer interface is only going to become more and more invasive and more and more connected to our senses. So then it's like, well, how do we use that to instead of accessing either our own pleasures or our own nightmares, our own reflection, to use it to reach through the medium to other human beings? So it's like for us, it's like we didn't want to do a voiceover, even though Joanne just mentioned a section that is a voiceover, but we didn't want to make it like a disconnected story from a person. Like, no, we wanted you to see Christian in the experience. We wanted you to see her in high detail in a way that reflects that she's a person, not like a hologram or an avatar. And that's something that I'm really focused on when it comes to telling stories in VR, is to always reach into VR to reach across, whether time, space, or something, back out into the real world.
[00:44:28.744] Joanne Aska Popinska: And for me, you know, there's a lot of conversation about huge potential of VR in so many different areas and I will not talk about that because there's a lot, a lot and enough conversation about that. I think there is not enough conversation about artists and storytellers. and the reason for that is like we are a perfect example is how hard and long it takes because there is still no financing system there is no it's not easily accessible like people who jump in think that it's easy it may be easy if you just you know put the 360 camera but even then you have to find the language because it's not just putting camera and okay I have just different shape of frame and that's it no you have to think how to tell the story And I really love seeing the projects that play with this new medium, with time, with space, with you being there. I'm really not a fan of some very popular phrase, like a couple of years ago, that the audience becomes the director, the editor, the cinematographer. I think you still need to guide them if you're telling the story. But what I love and I'm really waiting for more and more artistic and film-ish projects that use this medium. Like even in this festival there's so many projects that I wish I had time to say it. I hope I will be able to say it before it finishes. But when I just hear about what people are trying to say and trying to do, I'm like, that's so cool and that's so great. And I just wish that festivals would program more experiences like that, not just like do some buzzwordy thing like, oh, let's shoot haptics, or let's do this gamification in the storytelling or stuff like that. These are buzzwords, and yet this pushes the medium forward. But I want to see and experience stories. And I think there is more and more on that. And I'm really rooting for those artists to have a way to do that.
[00:46:22.025] Kent Bye: Is there anything else that's left unsaid that you'd like to say to the broader immersive community?
[00:46:26.306] Tom C Hall: I would just have to say that people like to, and it's happened many times in VR, and I saw it in 3D as well, and I'm sure in every other new technology, is that people like to get ahead of the horse. And I think the more you get ahead of the horse, the faster the horse will be when it tramples over you. and I feel like a lot of stuff about Metaverses are going in that direction, you know, and a lot of capital is being dumped into it. Some of it fake, like make-believe capital, but a lot of money is being pumped into that, and that's something that happened that caused the last lull in VR, when there was all this investment in PC-based, and anybody who really understood where this needed to go knew that you needed to be standalone. And all of these big investments and these dreams of these huge virtual empires that are going to be built were never going to be viable until we had figured out how to make the headsets independent from a computer. And I feel like now in the VR space, again, there is a lot of enthusiasm that maybe one day could be true, but it's getting so far in front of the horse with the cart that it's exposing it to a lot of risk.
[00:47:27.578] Joanne Aska Popinska: No, so to the community, to the artists, I would say Subway sent us the questionnaire asking us a bunch of stuff about like how it is to be an artist, how it is to create our projects and then about advice, what's the best advice that I ever received in my career. I received a lot of bad advice and like there's so many people who tell you how to do the thing that you're doing and for me like it was really challenging but also now it feels really powerful that I had my own vision. Of course sometime you have to like listen to the feedback very much so but if you know what is your vision, why you are telling the story, why you are using this medium or the other and yeah maybe you need to look a little bit deeper into how to specifically do it But if you have your vision and there are critics and good advices, listen to them, but remember that this is your story and this is your piece, your baby, so to say. And just think how you want it to be told and then find a way. I know it's hard, but find a way to do that. And don't give up, do it your way.
[00:48:34.893] Kent Bye: Awesome. Well, Joanne and Tom, thank you so much for joining me today on the podcast and talk about both the technology that you're creating, but also the stories that you're telling with the choice. And yeah, like we were talking about, unfortunately, very timely here in the United States and specifically here in Texas. And I hope that more people will get a chance to see it and really explore the power of using these first person stories in this way to connect to these stories. So thanks.
[00:48:59.863] Joanne Aska Popinska: One more thing, actually, if you have a VR headset, Oculus Quest, and you would like to watch The Choice and you know you're not around South by Southwest or any other festival that we're showing it at, let us know and we will try to make it so you can watch it.
[00:49:14.494] Kent Bye: Awesome. Well, thank you so much.
[00:49:15.895] Joanne Aska Popinska: Yeah, thank you for having me. Thank you.
[00:49:18.954] Kent Bye: So that was Joanne Aska-Pipińska, an XR director of The Choice as a doctorate in sociology, and then Tom C. Hall as an XR filmmaker and partner and spouse of Dr. Pipińska and also a stereographer who also worked on The Choice. So I have a number of different takeaways about this interview is that first of all, Yeah, so basically they've got a lot of technical innovations that are going on here in terms of trying to create a stereo capture of video and then with the depth sensor capture similar to what the depth kit is doing but putting it into VR and then taking those stereo perspectives and being able to project it on to a these images to be able to come up with some of the specular reflections that preserve some of those stereoscopic effects. So, and because it's recreated within the Unity project, you can kind of move around and it doesn't break as a typical 360 video might. So yeah, it's kind of blending these different techniques of using the stereoscopic capture technologies, but then adding onto it all these other pipeline to be able to actually get a volumetric representation that's using the depth information, but also putting it within the Unity project. So Lots of really key innovations there, worth checking out just for that. The topic, I think, reminds me of the piece called Testimony VR, which was you sitting and bearing witness to stories of sexual assault. It's a piece that premiered at Tribeca in 2017, kind of before the Me Too really broke out into the mainstream later that fall. In that piece, you're just kind of listening to video testimony, and this is similar in the sense that you're listening to video testimony, but it's a volumetric capture, and so it has a little bit more deeper intimacy than what testimony VR is, a little bit more of seeing it through videos that are in a 2D frame, a little bit more of an experimental video project that is in the context of VR. This is a little bit more of a volumetric capture that then also has the dynamic of being able to ask different questions and take you down different paths. It was interesting just to hear that in this case of Texas, the dramatic arc is so much more clear, whereas maybe in the other industries that they do in Canada, where they don't have as many issues with access, although that is still a case in some regions, but it's nowhere near what's happening in the United States, especially in some states like Texas. And to just translate this big political issue down into a personalized story that people on both sides can listen to and think, OK, well, should we live in a world where doctors are able to either deliberately withhold information or to lie to patients to have a situation that politically they believe in rather than someone's life may be put into danger by some of these different decisions. There seemed to be a little bit of confusion as to exactly what that law is. It sounded like it was maybe introduced and brought it into the larger discussion, and maybe some people were following it before it was actually a law. It's a little unclear as to the exact nature, other than that there's this climate of uncertainty and slowly chipping away at access and rights to this as an issue within the context of Texas. Getting back to VR and using the technology is to be able to take these types of issues and then to just feel like you're sitting across from someone and just to hear them talk about their own experiences and how some of these political decisions have impacted their own journey and their own lives. Really being able to ground those concepts into these series of stories. There's just one so far. As you start to go beyond just one anecdote, then you start to have these patterns. I think that was the power, also, of something like Testimony VR, was to start to see the patterns that are universal across all these different stories. Starting with just one story that was a really emotionally evocative story and something that, in its own right, may be able to open people's minds up into these different contexts that go above and beyond what they expect this as a topic would be covering. expanding those archetypes of people that are put in different situations where they have to face these different types of choices, whether it's their choice or not. So it's a powerful piece. And like Joanne said, if you do want to see it, and you are involved, this is an issue, then reach out, and they'll be able to get access to this project to be able to see it and potentially use it within an advocacy context. So that's all I have for today. And I just wanted to thank you for listening to the voices of VR podcast. And if you enjoy the podcast, and please do spread the word, tell your friends and consider becoming a member of the Patreon. This is a listener-supported podcast and I do rely upon donations from people like yourself in order to continue to bring you this coverage. You can become a member and donate today at patreon.com slash Voices of VR. Thanks for listening.