#733: Community Media PublicVR Labs + How Hyperlocal Organizing is an Emerging Trend for Brands

kathy-bisbeeKathy Bisbee started the first publicly funded VR lab called PublicVR Lab, and she’s leading an initiative for the 1500 community media centers in the United States to start offering kits and programs to help create community media immersive technology projects. Bisbee said that she was surprised to hear that brand managers at major companies are starting to explore using tried and true community organizing techniques in order to do hyperlocal community engagement programs ranging from education, skill sharing, or immersive experiences. This was the first interview that I conducted at the Sundance Film Festival 2019, and this concept of community engagement and outreach came up a number of other times throughout the week as an emerging trend that pairs well with specific VR or AR experiences. Immersive storytelling experiences have the potential to create a shared context for group experiences, which can then facilitate moderated conversations with community groups about topics that are importance to their local community.


This podcast episode is the first of a series of 26 interview with 46 people that I conducted at Sundance 2019, and I’m trying an experiment where I’m releasing all of the conversations that I had at Sundance in sequential order.

This is a listener-supported podcast through the Voices of VR Patreon.

Music: Fatality

Rough Transcript

[00:00:05.412] Kent Bye: The Voices of VR Podcast. Hello, my name is Kent Bye and welcome to the Voices of VR podcast. So I recently attended the Sundance Film Festival covering the New Frontier section for the last week in January. The New Frontier is looking at these emerging technologies, everything from virtual reality, augmented reality, artificial intelligence, projection map, and elements of immersive theater and spatial storytelling. And it's fusing all those things together to see what the new forms of storytelling are proving out to look like. So it's a bit of an experimental curation to see these various different narrative experiences from the lens of storytelling because it's the context of independent film, which is trying to get away from the commercialization of storytelling that happens within mainstream films. And it's really trying to focus on this craft of character and story and plot and stories that may not be marketable, but they're worth exploring and telling anyway. And so I've gone to the Sundance New Frontier for the last four years and each year seen all the different experiences. And so I did that again this year and was able to do 26 interviews with 46 different people covering all the different aspects of both the New Frontier, as well as there was a new experience from Oculus with some immersive theater components. Disney had a piece there and also covering other people from the VR community talking about various things that are happening within the larger ecosystem of virtual and augmented reality. So I'm going to do something a little bit different than I've done before on the podcast, which is this time I'm actually going to release all like 26 interviews. It's about 18 and a half hours worth of content. And I'm going to try to release it in order that I was actually experienced by me. Usually on the very first day, Thursday, there's the press conference, and then there's a couple of opening night films. But on Friday, I have press access to be able to see all the different various experiences. This year I was able to see 22 out of the 24 experiences on the very first day, and then after that I saw the last two experiences on the next day, but after that I had essentially like five full days to be able to talk to as many different creators as I possibly could, unpacking the different aspects and lessons that I was learning from the program. A lot of times when I go to a lot of these festivals, people wanna hear, okay, what is your absolutely must-see experience? And that, for me, is difficult to answer because I see that there's different innovations or things that are interesting about every single one of the different pieces. And so what I try to do is kind of roam around and try to collide and meet up with as many of the different filmmakers as I can, trying to unpack these things that I find either interesting or compelling about these projects. And so it's a little bit of a serendipitous journey. And the very first conversation that I had at Sundance this year happened to be with Kathy Bisbee. She's in charge of the Community XR program. It's called the Public VR Lab, and she's the first publicly funded VR lab. And I have done a previous interview with Kathy that I haven't released yet. I did it back at VRLA 2018. talking about her initiatives that she's having within the Boston area with the public VR lab. There's about 10 out of the 1500 total community media centers around the United States that have signed up to be a part of this community XR initiative that she's been starting up. And so I talked to her about that. But the thing that really intrigued me was she was telling me that she was at this future of storytelling and that she was talking to these brand managers and the brand managers were talking about how difficult it is to connect to audiences these days and that they actually started to suggest like having things like community dinners and moving more towards these hyper local aspects of trying to actually bring people together face to face within local communities. And this is a trend that I've started to hear from other companies that they're starting to move to what would typically be referred to as like community organizing type of functionality. With this move from the information age to the experiential age, people want to have these different types of experiences. And I think that one of the things that I see is starting to emerge is this trend of different companies starting to try to actually bring people physically together face to face to either have conversations or different experiences. So we'll be unpacking that a little bit from the lens of community media, an organization that is already doing this, but trying to contextualize the initiatives that she's doing and connecting it to these larger trends that are happening within the larger ecosystem of brands. And I think throughout the course of these different conversations at Sundance, I started to see that theme start to emerge in different ways. So this interview with Kathy happened on Friday, January 25th, 2018 at the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah. So with that, let's go ahead and dive right in.

[00:04:36.194] Kathy Bisbee: So I'm Cathy Bisbee, I'm the executive director of Brookline Interactive Group, which is the parent organization for the public VR lab. And we're the first publicly funded virtual reality lab in the country. And our goal really is to make VR and AR and all its related technologies accessible to the public. And as far as I know, we're one of the only organizations in the world doing that. We think it's really important that people have access to the tools to create VR and AR, but also to understand the technology as a whole. What is it? How do we use it? What are the implications of it down the road? And how does it really change for us? We're really interested in the storytelling aspects of VR.

[00:05:14.868] Kent Bye: Cool, so we were just chatting here just before we started recording. And you were telling me about being at the future of storytelling and how there is a bit of a consensus from a lot of the big companies in terms of the direction and trajectory of where they're going to be headed in the future. It sounds like they're kind of moving into this more public media type of ideas. Maybe you could recount a little bit of what you heard and where you see some of those trends might be heading.

[00:05:39.532] Kathy Bisbee: Sure. So the conference I was just at was the Art House Convergence Conference, which was the film festivals all around the country and also the art house cinemas. And they had a ton of interest in what we're doing in the VR AR space, but I think in part, partly because they know it's a cool thing and they're interested in the immersive storytelling, but they're also trying to figure out how the technology works and how we can make it a more more easily transferable to cinema, which is a little bit difficult at the moment. We don't really have all the tools to do that. The Future of Storytelling Conference, we were having a discussion. We have a project that's about immigration and migration called Arrival VR. And we were talking about the topic of immigration and all of these high-end corporate worldwide brands, they're ahead of marketing for their whole national, international movement. They were talking about the fact that immigration is such a hard topic to have a conversation about or to think about how you can market your point of view around immigration that really the consensus in the room was that we should just all have dinner parties. And I thought that was kind of astounding because as a grassroots organizer, that's my first instinct, of course. It's like, yeah, we should have house parties. We should have block parties. We should organize neighborhood by neighborhood. We should talk to our neighbors. I think that's really critical right now. But to hear these brand managers for these big companies saying the same thing that is instinctively true for me, I was really surprised by it because it means that with their millions of dollars in research and marketing budgets, they can't figure out how to reach people right now. So I think that in the VR AR space, we have this opportunity not just to have People think of VR as games, which they still think. We've had thousands of people into our facility in Boston, and we've gone to the UN in Africa, and we've been all around the country talking about VR with people, and still many, many people don't understand VR. They think of it as games, really. So I think when we focus on bringing immersive storytelling into the public interest space, so how can we serve the public interest and how can we tell stories that need to get told that traditionally have been underrepresented voices, I think it's a win-win. And if we're doing that and then making it an event where the community can come in, experience VR for the first time or AR, have some level of debrief about it, about how that experience was for them, so that they understand the technology, and then additionally be able to tell their story about immigration and migration in a mobile studio, and then have a dialogue, so a community-facilitated dialogue. at their arts and cultural organization, at their public library, at their community media arts organization. I think that's a real opportunity to do exactly what some of these global brands are thinking that maybe is the only way that we can have any kind of social change or any kind of being able to break up some of that polarization that we have. So our goal with Arrival VR Project is really to be able to tell these incredible stories. We have 15 partners across the country. They're telling all the stories from their community. They're boots on the ground. We don't want to go in and ask the stories, but they already know the folks that they've been working with for years. We have librarians and artists and filmmakers and community media arts centers. film festivals and art houses, all involved in telling their stories in their community and then aggregating it into a VR project with a VR timeline that goes from pre-1620 to 2019. When you go into the project, you type in the year that your family arrived. So the benefit is that when people come into the project, they immediately see themselves in the story. They see themselves in that timeline, and our hope is that they have kind of an aha moment. where they think, oh, OK, right, my story as an immigrant in America or as a migrant in America is very similar to all these other people that we see on this visual timeline. So that's kind of what we're trying to do. We've been working on it for about a year and a half. We also are still doing all the trainings around the country for VR and AR and trying to make it accessible to people. We also have toolkits we've compiled. But I still find that there is really a lack of conversation at some of these conferences that you and I go to around how do we make sure that VR and AR and XR is an accessible space. how do we sort of turn people on to these new technologies that give us this embodied cognitive experience and this, like you say, this lived experience that might be different from our own, but then don't just stop there. I mean, I think it's really important as a community organizer, as someone who wants to see change happen in the world, Without beating people over the head with it, with my own politics, I think it's having a conversation. So projects like some of the ones you've mentioned, I think can do that, but we have to go further than that. And sometimes it means just actually having somebody have an experience and then having a discussion about that experience. and asking them what their experience was like, and maybe not putting any of our own values or value judgments or ideas on top of that, just letting them have this experience, but giving them some opportunities coming out of that, that they can take action if they had an epiphany while they were inside of the experience is a real strong goal of mine.

[00:10:32.729] Kent Bye: Well, what have you been seeing in terms of trying to facilitate those types of conversations? Does it come down to having a local community screening, getting a bunch of people to see something at the same time, and then immediately after they see it, then have a conversation? Or what are the strategies for actually creating a context under which you could actually have these types of conversations?

[00:10:53.674] Kathy Bisbee: Well, I mean, I think, you know, I was a traditional community organizer for 10 years, the first 10 years of my career before I came into tech and media. And I came into media and tech really as a mechanism to further having community dialogue. So I look at the old school labor movement types of tactics that are really effective actually still. in organizing people. When you look at the women's movement and how many people they got to Washington in 2017, we were there. We were there for the inauguration covering it. For our community media centers, we were there covering the Women's March. We actually did an augmented reality project along the Women's March. If you walk along the National Mall, you can actually see photos and video from the march. So I thought it was amazing how it was they were kind of using everything that's in their toolkit in terms of enabling people to feel a sense of power over the situation and there were a lot of people came together under this big umbrella that was really inviting and you saw a lot of different people coming and I think they were doing things like hosting dinner parties, talking to their friends about why you should come to this march. They were using social media for that. Forums, I mean, you know, why am I on Facebook still? I'm on Facebook because all the great groups are on Facebook and I have to go there to talk with people about, you know, women in VR. I'm meeting up with all kinds of people here at Sundance because of a Facebook group. So, I think we have to use both the in-person organizing tools and also the tools of social media and online to bring people together. I mean, we call people and actually we send people notes and it's kind of amazing in this day and age, nobody gets a thank you note in the mail anymore. So some of our donors are like, no one's ever done that before. I'm like, wow. So, you know, there's actually some of those old school Utah Phillips kind of style of changing the world actually is maybe having a stronger impact than it did a decade ago. But people are busier than they used to be. So I think that is one of the biggest obstacles, is how do you get people to care enough to come to an exhibition, to come see a VR installation, to know that it's something they might be interested in, and then want to stay for the discussion afterwards? And then how do you organize them after that? And some of that work of calling them up, asking them to come, having a friend call, you know, if you have a board member having them call somebody and having them call somebody, it actually gets people a lot more invested. A lot of the fundraising folks I talk to say that that one-on-one interaction is having a really high value proposition for their fundraising right now because people aren't getting that kind of one-on-one connection and we're humans. We want to talk to each other. I was so glad to see you here today because I was like, oh, let's do this podcast. And there's this one cast I really thought about this a lot about afterwards. And I was excited to tell you about that. And I think we kind of undervalue that. We don't talk to each other. And when we do, it's such a strong, powerful connection. And we feel really good about it. You know, those of us who want to organize people and get them to just be exposed to things and be educated on things, I think we have to remember that that one-on-one interpersonal connection is really important. Also getting people in groups, too, because people love to come in groups to our VR demos and watch each other. We have a theater, so we hook it up to a monitor, and 50% of the people who came in came in because of VR to our Community Media Arts Center two years ago, and it's totally because they love to watch each other do VR. So I think that one-on-one connection is really important and undervalued.

[00:14:15.246] Kent Bye: Well, one of the themes that I'm seeing in some of the pieces that are showing here at Sundance this year is the value of place and location. Marshall Mathers, also known as MNM, has Marshall from Detroit and they're just driving around Detroit and going to all these different locations and places and he's telling these different stories. and being in conversation. And so if you think about common ground, that's an idiom that we use that's supposed to allude to that these are the things that we have in common, but literally the earth under our feet is the common ground that we have and that these locations, they have stories, they have history. And so it feels like there's going to be a part with public media that is going to both be Capturing those stories for specific locations for people but also helping to share and spread out these location based augmented reality Types of experiences, but also with virtual reality So I'm just curious to hear what you've been starting to see in the context of public media the connection between place and story

[00:15:11.268] Kathy Bisbee: Well, you know, I look at our, we have 1,500 community media arts centers, traditionally known as public access television, across the country. And since you and I last talked, we now have 10 of those folks signed on to our public VR lab initiative. And we're really building a field for community VR, community XR, we call it. And I'm seeing some really interesting things that they're doing with the technologies, you know. some really weird things sometimes, but also really creative things and things that are hyper-local. So, you know, one of the stations created a VR room. They built a room in Unity for their television studio. And you could go in and you could watch content that you could watch on the cable channels. And I was like, that's kind of strange, but that's kind of cool. And I think for them, they were thinking, oh, this is a way to sort of get people to come in or to virtually see what our media center is like and come check it out. They did like a holiday greeting card inside of VR, I think, was one of the other things. But they did it from their town. They did it from their location, doing 360 journalism. I mean, we're part of the 360 journalism. Folks went to the Unconference this summer in New York City and You know, the problems that journalists are having in 360 filmmaking and VR are the same problems that we as public media and community media are having. So we had a lot in common, but they were talking also about the power of local storytelling. And when all of these media companies conglomerated and stopped giving budgets to local origination, you didn't hear those local stories. Why do people still turn on a television? Because they're wanting to watch the weather in their town. Why do they go to Patch or go to MassLive to these local newspapers? It's because they want to know the stories about what's happening to their friends and neighbors. I mean, we are all interested in our tribe, in our community. You know, I hear a lot from sort of the PBS folks that are doing things more on the national level, that they're really interested in our work because we are boots on the ground. We're boots on the ground. We've worked in communities for years and I think are really providing a voice to those who haven't had voices. And we're making sure that those hyperlocal stories aren't going away. And we're doing that in journalism. We're doing that in cable television still, a lot of us have public radio stations as well, and community channels, and community radio stations, and then we're doing it in VR. And so our hope is that we bring people into our media centers, a lot of people come in for VR because they're interested in VR, and then they end up working on like Ferris Bueller's Day Off that we crowdsourced this summer, you know, we may have 25 teams each making a one to four minute scene. That's great. I mean, maybe you come in because of VR and you become a volunteer local journalist and you're creating community media and community journalism. But I think people really value those local stories. I mean, Sundance, you know, is very character-based storytelling, narrative storytelling, and doc storytelling, and really cares about storytelling. And I think that We have to tell those stories because we also have to make sure that those stories are being told because there's a lot of other stories being told as well. So it's really important that the one-on-one stories are being told. You know, I love the Dalai Lama quote where he says, you know, I'm just one human being talking to another human being. And I think when we go out into our communities We're just one human being. We're your neighbor. We're somebody down the street. And that's how journalism used to be. You know, journalists used to go in and just hang out at the local bar and find out the stories of a community. And the way that journalism is now, there's less time for that. And so I think we can kind of fit that niche in some ways in our communities if we keep our funding. I didn't mention this too, but we have two FCC orders that may result in a complete loss of funding for public access television in our 1,500 communities around the country. and it'd be a huge loss. It would be millions and millions, billions. Actually, I think we figured out it was about 5.9 billion in the U.S. Jobs, creative economy, training programs that we have, youth programs that we have, job training programs, and innovation work as well. So we're really worried about that. We won't know for about six months to a year, but my hope is that we can try to be long-term sustainable, and through some of this innovative work that we do, I think we're attracting more interest, and that's really good. And we're bringing people into a physical location. There's not many organizations that do that. And so you can come in, just like the public library, and you can have access to all of the AR equipment. We're getting a HoloLens in a couple weeks. Pretty excited about that. Hopefully get a Magic Leap as well. People can just come in and try it. You don't have to be anyone. You don't have to be associated with the university. You can just come in and try it. And there's not enough spaces like that that are physical spaces where people can have a sense of community. If you come into our facility, you see teenagers hanging out on our couch and senior citizens hanging out on our couch. There's so many places you can do that. and not be required to buy something or do something at. And so I think we're the last bastion of free speech in a way, and hyper-local community voices and journalism and storytelling at its best. And so I'm hoping that I can help kind of rise and tide lifts all boats, help give my colleagues skills, and then they share back what they have taught, what they've learned and teach us too. So that's why we're trying to build a field for community VR. We're doing it with this little Yeti, too. We took an Oculus Go and we put fur all over it because we thought it would look kind of cute. And sure enough, I've been wearing it on my head with the Made by Immigrants sticker right on it here on the front, and everybody wants to talk to me. It's kind of a strategy from my old grassroots community organizing work, but it's so fun. I've had the best time just talking to people about their interest in VR. A lot of them haven't tried it yet, and so they see this kind of crazy-looking furry Yeti thing. We're calling it the hashtag VR Yeti. And they immediately want to try it. And I think the more we can engage people on any topic in person, the better.

[00:20:41.785] Kent Bye: Yeah, well, when I see what is happening in the larger culture and the cultural zeitgeist, both from what's happening in the news, but also as I come here to Sundance and I see different either themes that are emerging with different films, there's a lot of emphasis on journalism and ethics and the crisis of ethics and the larger society on so many different levels of both the companies and corporations, but also technology and the technology companies. And so, I guess for you, what do you see as the theory of change that you see moving forward in terms of what you would imagine like would be a best-case scenario for what needs to happen in order to create different paradigm shifts or shifts within the society through the lens of public media, but also all these other initiatives that you're working on?

[00:21:21.742] Kathy Bisbee: Oh my gosh, that's such a huge question. There's so many ways we could go with that. I mean, I think Someone gave me a chance to create films when I was in eighth grade. I got to get into a program to create films. I was told girls weren't technical. I didn't have any models for technology in the 80s, for women in technology. And so the fact that someone told me, hey, you know, I have this camera and you can be part of this program and you can tell your own stories and hey, you can work as a team with other people and I believe in you and I trust you and I think you could do this as an eighth grader, was hugely impactive. So I think one of the strategies and the theories of change for me personally and for our organization is we invest in not just young people, but we invest in people who maybe think that they don't have opportunities. We provide them with an experience and then they can have agency and decide what they might be interested in. And if we can lead people, if we can give them experiences and lead them to what they think their passion is in the world, I think we'll have just a better world in general. I think people being able to connect with their passion and knowing what it is at an early age and knowing that they can have power is a hugely powerful thing and contributes to the benefit of all of us. I think it's a cultural shift because, I don't like to use the word empowered because people are already powerful, but I think that if you are given trust and agency and opportunity, there's a lot you can do from there. And I see that true in my own life, and I see that true in the young people in our job training programs. You know, I have kids who lived in rough neighborhoods who would say, like, you're going to let me take this home? This, like, $3,500 piece of equipment? I'm like, uh-huh. And that trust, like, building that trust and building that relationship with them helped them know what was possible for them. And I think all of us have a right to have our own potential realized in this lifetime. And to know that we all have a unique potential, unique gifts that we can give to the world, I think has a big impact on the rest of society. Because if everyone's walking around feeling like they know who they are, they know what they love, then they feel like they have a way to contribute in the world. And so maybe then we can kind of move our egos down a notch and understand that that contribution is to benefit the whole. We need to work more closely in public access with PBS, with filmmakers. I think those gatekeepers that are keeping really amazing stories sometimes from being told need to look at how they can make their organizations more equitable and also more inclusive. And that's something that's really important for us. We changed the name of our project from Immigration in Full Frame to Arrival because Arrival really includes everyone's experiences. It includes somebody who migrated across the Bering Strait. It includes somebody who was forced to migrate to this country. It includes somebody who came over on a boat, ship, or walked across the border. I think looking at inclusivity in organizations is important, not from a, you're forced to do this, but from how can we make sure that we're benefiting and we're supporting all of those voices being at the table. And sometimes it's hard to get through those gatekeepers, that not everybody has the same network. So I think those are two really important things, you know, helping people realize their potential by giving them opportunities, trust and agency. And I think VR can do that in a lot of ways. You know, having a director gives you the trust to tell the story however way you're going to tell it. That's pretty big for filmmakers. I think that's pretty hard to do. So I'd love to work more closely with public media, with the bigger players in the space, the PBS's and the and PRs, and we have some great relationships at the local level with those folks. But I think that bringing the hyper-local to the national and to the global awareness is really important, making sure those voices are getting heard.

[00:24:57.295] Kent Bye: Yeah, and we were talking earlier about lived experiences and the power of lived experiences, but also some of the benefits and challenges around empathy. I'm just wondering if you could maybe expand a little bit on some of your thoughts on empathy, the good things, the bad things about empathy in VR.

[00:25:14.566] Kathy Bisbee: Yeah, I was talking about empathy in VR on a panel and at a conference a couple years ago, and I had somebody who does community organizing work in Detroit come up to me and say, you know, I really hate that word. I hate that you use that word because you have no idea what it's like to be me. And I said, you're absolutely right. I don't. And me being in a VR experience is not going to do that. And you're right. And so I think it was really helpful to hear that feedback and to start to think about, OK, as a filmmaker and as a content creator, What am I trying to do and how can I have people have experiences that I hope will bring them to a place of empathy, but I may not be able to simulate that entirely. But I can give them experience. I think when you're a creator, you want to give people an experience that provokes them into some other altered state, whether it's a state of empathy or a Maybe it's more a state of solidarity that I'm looking for. I'm hoping that people won't think like, oh, how can I help these people? Kind of more of a charity mindset. I think we sort of have a charity mindset in the United States. And more think about my future is linked to the future of everyone on this planet. And how can I work together with all of them towards that change? And it may not be that I can walk in their shoes. It probably won't be. But it may be that I can understand the history better than I understand it right now. I can understand what the possibilities are for the future. And I can create scenarios in the technology that I have access to and that I can teach others to have access to that will help make them come out of an experience, take the headset off, and have an emotional reaction to the experience, have them think about something they never thought about before, whether it be their own privilege or maybe their own experience. and think about what the next step is for them. And I think as filmmakers, I'm hoping that we make a connection more strongly. When the heads-ups come off, what are we asking of them? because it's wonderful and it's amazing to listen to stories and create art and view art and be a passive viewer. But how can we maybe use those stories to unlock our own potential or help somebody else see their own potential or help our community see its potential? And I want to look at tools that are going to enable us to help our individual and our collective potential be greater than it is today. And I think VR and AR has a real opportunity to make a dent in that.

[00:27:31.341] Kent Bye: So the last time I talked to you was at VRLA, and I think that you were just getting started this public VR initiative to start to expand out. And you mentioned that you now have like 10 different locations. So I'm wondering if you could give a quick recap of some of the big milestones that you've hit since the last time we've talked, and then what's on the near future of where you're going next.

[00:27:49.994] Kathy Bisbee: Oh my goodness. Well, you know, I think the last time we talked we started having residencies, so we have artist residencies, we've piloted those, we have fellowships now. We're seeing a lot more equipment come into our lab, so we have over 15 different pieces of equipment. Boston VR has been a great partner with us that folks can come in and use, so we're getting the HoloLens next week, next couple weeks, so that's pretty exciting. And then the Arrival project I think was really just kind of an idea and a few partners. Now we have 15 partners across the country that we've been able to get engaged in that project and we're looking to launch in 2020. So my hope is that New Frontier might be interested or some other folks in premiering the project. And then we're trying to find that network and we've been working really a lot on finding the museums, the libraries, We've talked to some big museums in California about hosting us, and the goal would be to really take that nationally and make it an event with a community facilitation conversation. It's really timely to talk about migration and immigration right now, and I have a feeling it's not going to go away for the next couple of years, so we'll continue to work on that. I just joined the MIT Open Doc Lab as a fellow, so that's been really exciting. I also got married this year, so that's pretty cool too. But I think, you know, with the lab, I think we just had a realization. We were kind of all over the place a year ago, really, trying to figure out what was the best thing that we could do to contribute to the industry, and I think we really narrowed down what we're doing because we realized this is the niche that we have the capacity and the background. I mean, for 35 years, we've been providing media training, technology, tools, and telling local stories to the community of Brookline, and we've been doing that all over the country. So let's keep doing that and do it in the VR airspace. Let's train other people and let's help them facilitate their own media content. I think we're doing less of our own content in a way because we're more facilitating that content, those trainings. We've traveled to Berlin this summer to teach high school students how to do VR storytelling. We're going to Switzerland next summer. We really want to empower local arts and cultural organizations to do it themselves. Like, I don't want to go in there and be a vendor. I want to, as the lab, go to communities across the country and say, hey, here's the tools you need. Here's a toolkit and a Pelican case we've customized for you. Here's a training program. Now you guys, the next day, the second day that we're there, we'll stay here, but you guys teach your community. so that we can then leave and they're empowered to continue on and their own path of exploration just like we have in terms of what can we help, how can we serve the media and technology needs of our community through VR. And we do that through traditional media and now we're doing it through emerging media. So I think we've kind of honed in a little bit on what is the best thing based on our experience and background that fits into the mission that expands our mission of accessibility. And that's what we've been really focused on.

[00:30:40.149] Kent Bye: Great. And finally, what do you think the ultimate potential of virtual and augmented reality are and what it might be able to enable?

[00:30:49.713] Kathy Bisbee: I think I might have said the same thing last time, but I really think the power of this lived experience is really something I personally am excited about because the more I am inside of an experience or hear somebody's story and experience their story physically, I'm forever changed at having experienced something similar to their experience. It changes me. It makes me think differently. It's kind of like traveling. When I travel to foreign countries, I come back and I'm just like, whoa, everything's different. It may be a mundane thing to think about VR, but for me, that's so exciting because so many people live inside their own bubbles and they don't ever have the kinds of conversations that I'd like for them to have or I think maybe they might want to have. And when I talk to people who who haven't traveled, they're so fascinated by my experiences of travel, but they say, oh no, I'm not, I just am not somebody who does that. And I think, I wonder if I put them in a VR experience where they could have another person sitting across from them and have this experience of, a lived experience of this other person and what their life is like and what their culture is like and what they find beautiful and what they're passionate about. Would it change them? I think it would. And to me, that's my hope for one of the things that VR can do. I'm sure there's a million other things I could tell you, but, I think it could shift how we think as a culture. I mean, maybe we'll have more of a collective consciousness. I don't know. This could become a really weird conversation if we go down that trail. But yeah, I mean, I think I'll stick to that one-on-one, I'm just one human being talking to another human being. I think there's so much more power in that than we know.

[00:32:23.735] Kent Bye: Anything else that's left unsaid that you'd like to say to the VR community?

[00:32:27.348] Kathy Bisbee: We're building a national network. I forgot to mention that. We're building a database for anyone, anywhere who's doing anything Community XR related. So if you're at a university, if you're at a library, if you're a librarian, if you are a government staff person that's now back to work, shutdown is over. or you're actually a creator, let us know, because we want to put you on the map, and we want to, especially if you have tools that you're providing public access to, we want to make sure that people know, hey, if I live in Kansas, is there someone in Kansas doing VR, and how can I connect in with those communities? If you're a meetup group that does VR, we want to put you on our database, and make sure that people can find you, and that also we're sharing best practices, and we're building it right now, so if you have ideas about how we should build it, and how it can be more inclusive, and really promote digital equity and inclusion, We really want to hear from you. And if you want to have us come out and talk to your organization, if you need us to talk to your board, let me know. I'd be happy to talk to your board of directors about why you should be investing in VR at your media organization or your arts and cultural organizations. And for VR creators out there, thank you so much for sharing what you know. I've learned so much from all of you, and we share that back with our community as well. It's one of the most amazing communities I've ever been a part of. And thanks for all you do, Kent, as well.

[00:33:42.071] Kent Bye: awesome. Great. Well, thank you so much for joining me. So thank you.

[00:33:44.773] Kathy Bisbee: Thank you.

[00:33:46.214] Kent Bye: So that was Kathy Bisbee. She's the executive director of the Brookline interactive group, which is the parent company for the public VR lab, which is the first publicly funded VR lab in the country. So I have a number of different takeaways about this interview is that first of all, well, to me, it's fascinating to hear how some of the things that Kathy's been working on all of her life, some of those skills of community development, I think are going to start to have more and more companies, more and more brands starting to adapt those types of hyper-local events and community events and trying to bring people together. I think with the abstractions of text and social media and everything these days, that it's actually created this contrast where people are actually really hungry to have these physical face-to-face interactions with people within their community. And so this move back to hyperlocal events, I'm seeing different companies that are starting to try to adapt that type of a strategy because the brand managers want to engage this full embodied lived experience type of events, whether it's these community gatherings or things that happen and unfold over time. So whether that's skill sharing within the community or education or these different aspects of experiential advertising or events, I think that we're gonna start to see more and more companies start to move in this direction. And so from a community media perspective, they're trying to discover and tell the stories that are happening within these specific communities. And I think if there's any one critique that I have within the VR industry, it's that it has been taking this very, I guess, monolithic approach of trying to do a little bit of a top-down hierarchical media campaigns rather than to do something that's much more grassroots and building up these types of resources within the local communities. If you look at what's been happening with the community media centers, a lot of those have been funded by the cable companies, but in advent of the internet, there's been no equivalent resources that have been going into generating a similar type of hyper local community infrastructure or resources that are available for people within their local communities. These community media centers are in some ways a bit of an artifact of broadcast television and really come about because of those laws within the United States that has said that for all these cable companies, there needs to be some sort of public media initiatives and so there was money that was bookmarked and coming from these big major media companies to be able to facilitate these types of community media centers. But since the cable subscriptions have been dwindling and in the advent of the internet, these internet companies haven't had that same ethos of reinvesting money into local communities. If anything, There's been a bit of an extraction of ad revenue within these communities that's impacted local newspapers and it's had these impacts into those community resources. And so there's a bit of like an open question for how do we actually like rebuild up this type of community resilience and these types of programs. So I think the program that Kathy is doing with this community XR initiatives and trying to transform some of these community media centers that are around the country into more resources for grassroots public media that is serving the needs of those local communities, like in some ways on the front lines of providing access and allowing people to have the resources to be able to actually get engaged with some of this immersive media technology. So one of Kathy's philosophy and her theory of change is that if you give people trust agency and opportunity Then that is just going to unlock all these different potentials but they can actually have the possibility of finding what their passion is and to be empowered to be able to Have the resources that they need to be able to actually express themselves through whatever their passion may be so I think this is an amazing thing that Kathy's working on and I would hope that get some attention of some of the big major companies from Microsoft and Google and Facebook because a lot of their strategy for spreading VR has been very top down with these different marketing campaigns. And I think that in some ways it may be counterintuitive, but to invest in local communities and to these types of community hubs and these resource centers where they have the access and the resources to be able to to pay people to help educate and spread what is possible with these technologies. And not just as devices to consume these experiences that are produced by other people, but to empower people to learn how to create their own experiences. And I think that is going to be a key differentiating factor that is going to make the virtual reality medium so much more compelling. The more people that are creating diverse content that serves their own interests and needs, the more likely the virtual reality medium is going to have wider and more relevance to more and more communities. And I think that, you know, in some ways, it's the 360 video as well as a 180 video. It seems to be a trend that I heard from Sundance 2019, a movement more towards emphasizing 180 video. 180 video is a lot easier to produce than the 360 video and so that could be easy ways for people to start to start to tell the stories that are happening within their local communities. And I think another huge trend that I saw coming out of Sundance 2019 was this emphasis on place and the the connection between story and place. The Marshall Mathers piece, Marshall from Detroit, was the quintessential example of this, where it's literally Marshall Mathers, Eminem, driving around in a SUV around Detroit, sharing different stories of his experience of Detroit and really making this connection between place and story and the meaning of place into our lives. And I think that looking at the stories that are happening within physical locations, especially at a very hyper-local context, is gonna be one of the things that I think is going to help spread the value of virtual reality. So, that's all that 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, then please do spread the word, tell your friends, and consider becoming a member of the Patreon. This is a listener-supported podcast, which means I do rely upon the listeners of this podcast in order to support and sustain this type of coverage. So, if you enjoy that and want to see more, then become a member at patreon.com slash voicesofvr. Thanks for listening.

More from this show