#450: Giving Virtual Honor Flights to WWII Veterans with StoryUP VR

sarah-hillAt VRLA, I had a chance to catch up with Sarah Hill, who is the CEO and Chief Storyteller for StoryUp VR. She’s been doing some VR for Good projects including giving virtual Honor Flights for WWII veterans as a part of Honor Everywhere as well as showing the plight of people in third world countries who are in the need of a wheelchair as a part of Gift of Mobility.


Here’s the trailer for Honor Everywhere

And here’s the actual 360 video that they produced for WWII Veterans

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Rough Transcript

[00:00:05.452] Kent Bye: The Voices of VR Podcast. My name is Kent Bye, and welcome to The Voices of VR Podcast. So one of the applications of virtual reality is to give access to experiences to people who otherwise wouldn't have access to these experiences. So in today's episode, I talked to Sarah Hill, who is the CEO and chief storyteller for StoryUp VR, and she's been bringing 360 video footage of honor flights to World War II veterans who are too old or not in good enough health to be able to make the flight themselves. She's also gone to third world countries to be able to show the plight of people who don't have enough resources to be able to have the technology to be able to get around for the nonprofit giftofmobility.org. So we'll be talking about these and some of the other experiences that Sarah has been working on, on today's episode of the Voices of VR podcast. But first, a quick word from our sponsor. This is a paid sponsored ad by the Intel Core i7 processor. You might be asking, what's the CPU have to do with VR? Well, it processes all the game logic and multiplayer data, physics simulation and spatialized audio. It also calculates the positional tracking, which is only going to increase as more and more objects are tracked. It also runs all of your other PC apps that you may be running when you're within a virtualized desktop environment. And there's probably a lot of other things that it'll do in VR that we don't even know about yet. So Intel asked me to share my process, which is that I decided to future-proof my PC by selecting the Intel Core i7 processor. So this interview with Sarah happened at VRLA that was happening on August 5th and 6th at the LA Convention Center in Los Angeles. So with that, let's go ahead and dive right in.

[00:01:56.526] Sarah Hill: My name is Sarah Hill, and I'm the CEO and Chief Storyteller for StoryUp VR. We are an immersive media group of journalists based in Columbia, Missouri, the heart of the Silicon Prairie, as we say.

[00:02:06.912] Kent Bye: All right, so maybe you could talk a bit about what specifically you're doing in VR, then, what type of experiences that you're doing.

[00:02:14.997] Sarah Hill: Yeah, we do purpose-led, social good, immersive media. Journalism, brand journalism, we essentially work with brands, foundations, charities to show their goodness to the world. And we got into VR through AR, through the Google Glass program. We were doing virtual tours for terminally ill and aging World War II veterans who weren't able to physically travel to see their memorial. And then when Google pulled the Glass program, we needed an alternative, and that was VR. And so we created Honor Everywhere with Jaunt, with Veterans United Foundation, and Google as well, about a year ago. And over the last year, that program has enabled thousands of terminally ill and aging World War II veterans to see their memorial. We're losing those guys at a rate of 500 a day nationwide, and sadly most of them have never had the opportunity to see their memorial. So we are reaching out to content creators, anyone who has a Gear VR, a headset, a Google Cardboard. Those devices aren't for you, they're for them. They're for the people who aren't able to physically travel. So we just encourage them to take any kind of content, not just our content, but any kind of content, go in those nursing homes, those assisted living centers, and show them the magic of VR because they may never have the opportunity to see their World War II memorial.

[00:03:30.612] Kent Bye: Do you have any favorite stories or anecdotes of being able to give some of these veterans access to the memorial?

[00:03:39.836] Sarah Hill: Yeah, they are deeply moved by the opportunity. Sadly, all of the individuals that we featured in the film, they passed away just a few months after we shot the film. And what it does is it takes individuals on an honor flight, and an honor flight are physical flights to see their memorial in Washington, D.C., and we follow those veterans as they receive applause from the audience at the airport. As they walk through, they can hear the sounds of the rainbow pool in the center of the memorial. And of those individuals who passed away was a gentleman named Mr. Taylor. And his family member is now able to see him in VR anytime they want. And after he passed away, they said that they were just so grateful, not just for the film that it has the ability to show other veterans, but that they can place Mr. Taylor, the widow can place Mr. Taylor right in front of her every single day, and she can look across to him and feel like he is just within arm's length of her. So, obviously, you know, I'm preaching to the choir when I tell you this is a powerful, you know, medium in order to allow individuals to see things that they normally wouldn't be able to see, but also for people who've lost loved ones, you know, to be able to still share those memories, and I think that's really important for people. We are shooting the second iteration of Honor Everywhere in a couple months for Vietnam veterans and it will feature a Vietnam veteran who lost his legs. He was zipped up in a body bag and left for dead and he went on to run marathons on his hands all the way across the country. So we're telling his story We're allowing Vietnam veterans to feel like they're at the memorial, and he was actually at the original dedication of the Vietnam Wall. Bob Wieland is his name. So it's very fitting that in VR, it's Bob Wieland who is escorting these veterans to see their memorial.

[00:05:31.136] Kent Bye: How did you originally get this idea to start to bring some of these experiences to veterans through immersive technology, starting with the Google Glass, but eventually with virtual reality? Maybe you could tell how that story began and evolved over time.

[00:05:45.840] Sarah Hill: Yeah, so I've been a journalist in the flat world. In the television world, I was an interactive reporter for 20 years. And so I covered a lot of these men and women. And we did a story once about honor flights. that actually triggered something in our heart in order to form a charity, Central Missouri On-Flight Hub in Columbia, Missouri for these veterans. And the reason why we got into doing the virtual tours is because the veterans kept calling us and saying that they were too sick to travel. They were either on too much oxygen, they had a heart condition, their wife had Alzheimer's and they couldn't leave. So we had to find an alternative for them to see their memorials. And that alternative was VR. So my grandpa was a World War II veteran. He was in the Army Air Corps back in the day. And sadly, he passed away before he had the opportunity to see his memorial. So I look at these guys when they take off the headsets. They had tears in their eyes. And they say, can I watch that again? And I know that my grandpa Russ, he would have loved that. He would have loved the ability to see it, perhaps even though he wasn't able to physically travel.

[00:06:49.817] Kent Bye: I think that there's something really powerful with VR to give people who have limited mobility and they are in some ways in a prison where they're not, they're bound by either physical conditions or maybe even mobility if they have some sort of disability. And so it feels like VR is a powerful medium to access a lot of these different people. So I'm just curious your take in terms of what you're seeing, why VR is different than, say, a film or other mediums. It seems like it's giving them something that's totally unique that no other medium can really do.

[00:07:30.137] Sarah Hill: Indeed, and there are actually, we work with a lot of neurofeedback and brain mapping studies. And what it shows on our content and other content is that it opens up certain areas of the brain that makes you feel like you're there, that it makes you feel like there are unique memories. We just released a case study not too long ago. It was for meditative experiences, but basically they hooked EEG wires up and the individual was watching an immersive piece of content. And you can see from those brainwaves the difference between watching a fixed frame content versus the difference on watching a spherical content. And so since we're storytellers, we're kind of geeks in that area in that we don't just want to create the content, we also want to measure it and see what it does to our brains. So we have case studies about not only video engagement, but what do these areas of your brain look like when you're watching this content. And just anecdotally, from talking to these individuals, and we take headsets to nursing homes and assisted living centers, hospitals all the time, and they say that they feel like they're there. I mean, it creates some kind of unique memory. So what the science is exactly, I'm not quite sure. There were some interesting lectures presented here at VRLA. regarding the hippocampus and what VR is doing to our hippocampus as far as those spatial neurons. But all we know as a storyteller is this is something that individuals who aren't able to physically travel need. We have the headsets to provide that for them. So anyone has a headset, if it's not just demos for clients, go into a nursing home and to an assisted living center and say, would you like to see your memorial? Would you like to see the Louvre? Would you like to go to Paris? Would you like to go to wherever? There's all kinds of really important content. And not only that, but the content creators, we finished a documentary in Zambia not too long ago where we allowed people to step inside the story of individuals who have to literally crawl on the ground because they lack mobility. They lack access to wheelchairs. So in VR, we can show them the glass that's on the ground. We can show them the manure and the sharp rocks that they have to crawl through, and it hopes that they will better understand the problem so that they can contribute to the solution, which is a project called giftofmobility.org. So virtual reality for the disabled community and people who support the disabled community is really ripe with a potential to provide them and also us, give us a better understanding of the world that they live in.

[00:10:03.477] Kent Bye: You mentioned the Honor Flight, and this is the first time that I've ever heard of an Honor Flight. It sounds like that you recreated the process of what it's like to be on an Honor Flight. So what does that process look like in the VR experience, and what does it mean to the veterans to be able to do that?

[00:10:18.821] Sarah Hill: Honor Flight Network is a national program, and we formed the Central Missouri chapter of Honor Flight. So if you go to honorflight.org, you can see all of these free flights. that go to Washington, D.C. They take terminally ill and aging and also Vietnam veterans to see their memorials in Washington, D.C. on real flights, and the community pays for them. They come home to huge applause, and they're really recreating that experience, perhaps that they didn't have the opportunity to get during World War II. And so that's a program in the physical world for those veterans. So what we're doing with Honor Everywhere, and if you go to honoreverywhere.com, you can tell us about a veteran who needs a tour and we'll try to hook them up with a headset, is recreating that in the virtual world for those people who can't go on an honor flight. So we followed an honor flight to Washington, D.C. and captured all of those moments. so that those men and women didn't feel like they had to miss a thing because they were on too much oxygen and couldn't travel. And sadly, you know, a lot of these individuals that we've taken on our flights, they've passed away a few days earlier. They are at the end of life. They are 80 and 90 year olds. And it's really important that not only do we get them there on physical flights, but if they're not able to go, that we allow them to experience in a virtual world.

[00:11:36.388] Kent Bye: That concept really reminds me of Michael Mead, the mythologist and storyteller who talks about the initiation process. And I think it's kind of inspired from Joseph Campbell's work, but there's essentially three stages to the hero's journey in that there's the separation where you're at home and you're separated. And then there's some sort of trial, tribulation that you go through. And then the third phase is the welcoming, the coming home. And that often a lot of people who go into these war-like situations, it's like a trauma where they've never been able to be honored and recognized for the service that they did, but also the seeds of the insights that they have to bring back. And so through this kind of ritualistic process, it seems like they're able to have that welcoming and really honoring of their service.

[00:12:27.327] Sarah Hill: Yeah, they are. And one of the most tender moments is at the airport. People come up and shake their hands. They stand on the side and they come out the gate and they applaud. And these veterans are so moved, especially the Vietnam veterans, because that's a welcome home that they never received during the service. But in VR, we can simulate that for them. And they are very appreciative of that. It's our honor to do that for them. They saved the world. Had it not been for them, we'd be speaking German or Japanese here in the United States. So we're eternally grateful for what they've done and for their service.

[00:13:04.107] Kent Bye: You mentioned the documentary that you shot in Zambia. Is there any other big messages that you're trying to carry through with some of that footage? And maybe you could talk a bit about that.

[00:13:14.547] Sarah Hill: Yeah, essentially that there are individuals in this world who lack access to adequate mobility, and these pet carts, they're hand-cranked carts for victims of landmines, polio, poor nutrition, things like that, and they are able to ride on them, and they're all-terrain wheelchairs, essentially. So, you know, the message, the call to action to that is go to giftofmobility.org. and share on your own social platforms about this project. You can donate to it too. We also just finished a documentary in Eastern Congo and the Amazon with the Leonardo DiCaprio Foundation and Empowered by Light. Empowered by Light is a foundation and a charity that provides solar energy to people who aren't able to afford it. And a lot of people don't realize that there are park rangers right now in Virunga in Eastern Congo who are dying because they lack access to solar energy. So what we can do in VR, we can place them on the top of a volcano, Mountain Urugongo in Eastern Congo. We can place them inside a dark village, let them understand what that's like and the risk that these individuals are having to their lives because they don't have solar power to power their radios, to power their cell phones, to communicate. And that project will be out in a couple months. And it's called Are You Listening? Because their radios are really silent for most of the day because they don't have the adequate power in order to power them.

[00:14:38.171] Kent Bye: And you had briefly mentioned that you're also looking at how to use virtual reality technologies for hospice and dealing with grief. So maybe you could talk a bit about that.

[00:14:47.002] Sarah Hill: Yeah, a lot of the individuals we work with through the Honor Everywhere program are individuals who are in hospice and they're so appreciative and I would just like to reach out to any person who is working in the hospice industry or who has access to individuals. You know, get a headset, get any kind of headset, cardboard, gear VR, all the different kinds of cardboard. That is really a tool to provide them an escape, to provide them entertainment and a feeling of the sense of the places that perhaps they aren't able to physically travel. So again, as I say, VR isn't for us, it's for them. So if you work in some of those industries, you don't need anything other than if you have a headset, you have a powerful tool for those people. And I know that people who are listening to your podcast are people who have all kinds of headsets and they could be going to nursing homes and assisted living centers. So I just encourage you to do that because their reaction is powerful and I know that those creators out there, the people who are creating the content will want to do that over and over again because it gives you such a great feeling when you see their reaction to it.

[00:15:52.733] Kent Bye: Yeah, the one question I have is because, you know, I am very sensitive to motion sickness. So some people who have headsets, I think if you're not sensitive to motion sickness, I think that's something to take into consideration with any camera movement or anything that's maybe uncomfortable for other people. So I think before you go into the nursing homes and start showing people, I would recommend people have a good sense of some of the triggers for motion sickness, but to just kind of fresh, you know, get your first Gear VR and start showing people a lot of experiences that are very extreme, I think could actually, you know, be detrimental to their health in some ways.

[00:16:25.858] Sarah Hill: Yeah, absolutely be careful. And matter of fact, we have a test. We put it on for about 20 seconds and then we take it off and we talk. you know, what did you see? Did everything feel okay? And then we also have, you know, hand signals, you know, during the experience at any time, if you feel uncomfortable or whatever, let us know and we take it off. And then throughout the piece, we're also lifting up the headphones. You doing okay, Mr. Taylor? You know, so that they, you know, feel like they're comfortable. But absolutely, their comfort is of the utmost importance.

[00:16:53.812] Kent Bye: Do you have any favorite experiences or stories of showing VR to people in nursing homes?

[00:17:01.127] Sarah Hill: Yeah, just that they are overcome with emotion and they will take it off after, The Honor Everywhere is eight minutes, which is pretty long, you know, a pretty long piece, but they'll take it off and they'll say, can I watch that again? And these are 80 and 90 year olds. So, you know, a lot of people are creating content for people who are far younger than that. But what we're trying to get out is that this content is valuable for the 80 and 90-year-old population. Sure, they're going to need some help in order to view it, but the fact that they, you know, want to watch it again, they have tears in their eyes. and they say that really moves them, gives us hope that this place as far as an industry has a bright future for non-gaming content and for journalists like us who are trying to use it as a tool for better understanding.

[00:17:50.462] Kent Bye: It just makes me think that there is going to be an entire market for creating content that is of an era. I remember seeing a video of someone who had Alzheimer's and very poor memory and not being able to recognize people, but then they put on some music of stuff that they where they're listening to when they were young and they just immediately stood up and started dancing and singing the lyrics and it just sort of showed the power to me of how sometimes our brains have these memories that are so deeply encoded that the content of the music or scenes that may be not as interesting to people who are you know of a millennial or X generation but something that's very specifically tuned to people who are elders and

[00:18:33.953] Sarah Hill: Yeah, absolutely. My mother has Alzheimer's and my mother-in-law, and she lives with us. And, you know, she loves the ability to put a headset on and feel like she goes in another place. So, you know, what we create, we don't make any claims that it has any medicinal use or anything like that. All of this that we're doing comes from anecdotal evidence and some other evidence from Dr. Tarrant, who we work with in order to measure the content we're creating and see what it does to the brain. But, yeah, absolutely. I mean, I think we've only scratched the surface on the power of this, and also the power of the stories with all of the different storytelling inputs that are out there right now. You know, vestibular audio, the ability to, with Samsung's Interim 40 headphones, how they, you know, manipulate your vestibular system to make you feel like you move with the video, or the sub-packs that we're seeing here at VRLA, you know, the haptics that are out there. Storytelling is no longer video and audio anymore as it was in the flat world. There are different inputs. And so the more that we as storytellers can leverage all of those different inputs, the more that we'll be able to create some pretty powerful and who knows, perhaps some pretty healing experiences for some of those people who aren't able to physically travel.

[00:19:49.422] Kent Bye: Great. So what are some of the insights that you've discovered with working with the virtual reality medium in terms of storytelling?

[00:19:57.038] Sarah Hill: Anecdotally, the effect of people after they watch it. So we told stories in the flat world for 20 years, right? And yes, people would get emotional telling our stories. We did immersive docks in the aftermath of the tsunami in Vietnam. We did some docks in Guatemala in the flat world. But it's different in VR because of their reaction once they take it off. It tricks your brain into feeling like you were there. And because of that emotional response, anecdotally, you know, we had been putting headsets on individuals. We call them clinical trials because after we create a piece of content, we put it on a bunch of individuals to see how they feel it because you're not just watching the video, you're feeling the video. And in those trials, when you do that and you see their reaction, it's far different than a piece of fixed frame content. We did some case studies that show that compared fixed frame video to 360 degree video as far as viewer engagement. And it increases the likelihood that that piece of video will be shared. It increases the likelihood, the number of times it will be watched, because again, people think they missed something, so they'll watch it and they'll say, oh, I need to watch it again. It increases the likelihood of peer-to-peer sharing. You know, a lot that's happening with VR experiences right now is somebody watching an experience and then physically saying to your neighbor, passing it, you know, cardboard or Gear VR or whatever, hey, watch this. And so it's not just distribution online anymore, it's distribution of sharing that people share that over and over and over again. So I don't know if that answered your question, but it is definitely a far different world from what I call the fixed frame world. And anecdotally, it's just the reaction after they take off the headset, they watch it longer, they're more emotional, and they make comments that say that they feel like they're there.

[00:21:48.953] Kent Bye: And finally, what do you see as kind of the ultimate potential of virtual reality and what it might be able to enable?

[00:21:56.142] Sarah Hill: I really hope that someday, and perhaps somebody is working on this, I would like to go into home movies, you know, movies of our childhood that were in the fixed frame world. I want to step back into my purple-flowered, pink-flowered wallpaper room when I was seven years old on Clark Street in my hometown. I want to go back into, you know, my mother's birthday party and sit at the table. And, you know, maybe somebody's working on that, but I think that for memories, that's a really powerful tool to be able to go inside the experiences that were filmed with a regular fixed frame camera and perhaps somebody will create an algorithm that we just upload that fixed frame video and then, you know, much like we used to upload VHS tape and it was converted to DVD, we can convert a fixed frame video into VR because if you figure that out, that's pretty powerful.

[00:22:48.972] Kent Bye: Yeah, I know just what's possible with photogrammetry is that usually it's many different photos taken from different perspectives and be able to reconstruct a whole scene within 3D geometry. But usually with fixed frame videos, it's from one perspective. But with perspective lines, I think it's not that far out of the reach for someone to come up with some sort of artificially intelligent algorithm to be able to determine the geometry and the relative size and to be able to then populate with all the textures. Yeah, I think that it kind of brings into the home and family dimension of virtual reality, those different domains of being able to capture your memories and go back into them. And I think moving forward, there's going to be a lot more real-time capture of actual 360 experiences that we have that are captured with a 360 capture that we're able to To visit in the future and have some sort of record of you and your lineage and to have your grandchildren, great-great-grandchildren, and many people down into the further generations of being able to come back and give some sort of like embodied experience with your direct lineage, which I think is really interesting.

[00:23:55.800] Sarah Hill: And for individuals who've experienced loss in their life, the ability to put someone in virtual reality right in front of you and see those memories again, To me, I would love to do that with the people that I've lost in my life.

[00:24:11.333] Kent Bye: Anything else left unsaid that you'd like to say?

[00:24:14.694] Sarah Hill: I enjoy your podcast. I'm a big fan. So again, to those creators out there, VR isn't for you. It's for them. So if you have a headset, share it with some individuals who aren't able to travel. And if you go to honoreverywhere.com, perhaps you know a World War II veteran somewhere you can't get to them. Let me know. Let us know. And we'll figure out a way to get a headset to them so they can see it.

[00:24:37.492] Kent Bye: Awesome. Well, thank you so much.

[00:24:39.233] Sarah Hill: Thank you very much. Appreciate it.

[00:24:41.483] Kent Bye: So that was Sarah Hill. She's the CEO and chief storyteller for Story Up VR. So I have a number of different takeaways from this interview is that, first of all, I think this is a whole category and realm of VR experiences of bringing experiences to people who otherwise wouldn't have the access or mobility to be able to get around. And so the two major organizations that she's been working with has been the Honor Everywhere, as well as the giftofmobility.org. There's also another side effect of some of these experiences, which she was specifically talking about the widow of one of the veterans, who now has a VR experience of her spouse. And so I think this is also something that is going to happen a lot more within VR, is that instead of just taking photos or videos of loved ones, I think we're going to see a lot more 360 video capture of just moments that you want to remember with your family. Another thing that Sarah had mentioned that I think was interesting was the whole Entrim 4D, which is a motion headset that lets you feel and not just see VR. And this is from Samsung. And so this is using some galvanic vestibular stimulation, which is sending some vibrations through your head to be able to kind of trick your vestibular system and to think that it's actually moving. So this is something that I haven't actually got a chance to try out yet but I think it was announced back in March by Samsung and these are just another approach to be able to deal with motion sickness within VR. To me it sounds a bit scary to, you know, kind of artificially stimulate your vestibular system because, you know, what's the long-term implications of that, but it seems like that could be an approach for handling with simulator sickness. This is also just something that I think is important to remember when taking in VR experiences into these nursing homes, because if you're not susceptible to motion sickness and you're going to be showing off some experiences that don't really necessarily follow some of the best practices within VR, then there could be some triggers in there that make people who watch them feel motion sick or nauseous, which with people who are older, they may have more serious implications of their health. Just something to keep in mind when you're doing this. Also, I just think this is a really powerful application and use of virtual reality technologies to be able to actually try to create footage to show what it's like to be in somebody else's shoes, specifically some of the footage that she was shooting in Africa, just showing what the implications are for some people who don't have access to wheelchair technologies and what they have to go through to be able to have to move around in an environment with glass and There's just a lot more serious implications of not having the technology available to be able to safely move around. So that's a gift of mobility.org for more information on that. So that's all that I have for today. I wanted to just thank you for listening to the Voices of VR podcast. And if you'd like to support the podcast, then spread the word, tell your friends, and become a donor at patreon.com slash voices of VR.

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