#867 VR for Good: Vulcan Productions on Funding Environmental XR Productions & Hosting the Impact Reality Summit

Vulcan Productions has been producing social impact films and XR experiences since 1997, when it was founded by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, who passed away in October 2018. Their four main topics they’re focused on are climate change, ocean health, biodiversity & conversation, and community.

Vulcan Productions collaborated with Kaleidoscope VR to host the Impact Reality Summit on January 9-10, 2020 at their headquarters in Seattle, Washington. They also funded the $50,000 in prizes awarded to four different projects as a part of the pitch competition that was curated by the Kaleidoscope VR community.

I had a chance to catch up with Vulcan Productions’ creative director of emerging media Matt Milios at the impact reality summit where we talked about how Vulcan Productions has been funding a number of immersive productions in the VR for Good space. We also talk about some of Vulcan’s VR productions including Ghost Fleet VR, which debuted at Sundance 2019, and Drop in the Ocean, which debuted at Tribeca 2019.


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Music: Fatality

Rough Transcript

[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 continuing on in my series of looking at the VR for Good movement, and in this first part, I'm looking specifically at economics and the funding models that are out there. In today's episode, I'm talking to Matt Milius. He's the Creative Director of Emerging Media at Volcom Productions. So Volcom Productions is the setting and the context under which this Impact Reality Summit happened. with Kaleidoscope VR, a number of different funders, a number of different creatives. And Volcom Productions was actually putting up the $50,000 that was going to be given out to these four different creators that were giving these different pitch competition at the second day on January 10th, 2020. So I hadn't actually heard of Vulcan Productions. I think people from Seattle were well aware of Paul Allen and a number of different initiatives that he had with Vulcan, including Vulcan Productions and to create these social impact films. And now these immersive experiences for the last number of years, they've had a number of different experiences at Tribeca. There was a drop in the ocean that premiered last year, 2019. And then at 2019 Sundance, they had Ghost Fleet VR. So I talked to Matt about his journey into this space and what Vulcan Productions is trying to look at in terms of the things that they're funding around both climate change, ocean health, biodiversity and conservation, as well as community. So that's what we're looking at in today's episode of the Vistas of VR podcast. So this interview with Matt happened on Thursday, January 9th, 2020 at the Impact Reality Summit in Seattle, Washington. So with that, let's go ahead and dive right in.

[00:01:40.211] Matt Milios: My name's Matt Milius. I'm the Creative Director of Emerging Media at Vulcan Productions. What I do is I oversee pretty much all of our XR, AR, VR, MR content, particularly in the space that is for good.

[00:01:55.821] Kent Bye: So maybe you could give me a bit more context as to your background and your journey into immersive technologies.

[00:02:03.413] Matt Milios: So I first started doing 360 video and 360 photo content back in the late 90s when I worked for NBCnews.com. And we were kind of on the cutting edge thinking through, you know, how do you tell stories in new ways? How do you reach people in different ways? We were very flat in our presentation still back then. It was internet based. But that's really where I began thinking about how do you tell a story in a 360 space as opposed to, you know, a rectangle. And from there I've just carried that love through for my entire career and have continued to expand on how do you reach people, how do you touch people, how do you create empathy, how do you tell a story in this space that's continually emerging as technology changes seemingly every month now.

[00:02:53.210] Kent Bye: And yeah, maybe could also provide a bit more context as to Vulcan Productions and how you see them fitting into this larger XR space, but also being in the film production business as well, just a bit more of the story of how Vulcan Productions came about.

[00:03:09.668] Matt Milios: So I've been at Vulcan Productions for about five years and started here At that time we were really doing more film and television and quote-unquote traditional media as far as how we were doing our outreach. Vulcan Productions is dedicated to doing storytelling that has impact. Our return on investment is not always financial, but it is always based in how do we change the world? How do we make the world a better place? As technology advanced and as we started doing more and more 360 content, particularly around an internally developed product called the Holodome, we started to figure out that you can tell stories in 360 that, while they're not reaching millions and millions of people, if we're targeting our audience correctly and we are reaching those people that are the decision makers, that we can leverage a larger degree of change. That these projects that are so, in a way, novel still, people are much more willing to sit down and do a 15-minute VR piece than they are, say, a 90-minute film. It reaches them in a different way. It's easier for them to access. It's something that they can go home and tell their children about. You know, hey, I did this great AR piece today. It was something that they have never done before. And it sticks with them. It stays with them a longer period of time. So as long as we're really smart about how we're taking these out to events and how we're taking these to decision makers, you know, we're finding that it's much easier in some ways to get people to sit and listen and to talk about these issues that are so important to the world right now.

[00:04:40.173] Kent Bye: Well, I know that there's been a lot of experimentation over the last six and a half, seven years since the modern resurgence of VR, of consumer grade headsets and introducing these technologies to a whole range of video game developers and filmmakers from 360 video to CGI. So we have this whole flourishing of experimentation for how to actually tell stories with this new medium. And so I know that there's been a lot of different projects that have been done for like XR for Change or VR for Good type of Themes and stories was there any particular turning point or project that you saw that you saw a piece and then? Started to realize the potential after having a direct experience and then seeing what has now been opened up

[00:05:23.087] Matt Milios: You know, I was a doubter. I have to be honest. I mean, I've loved telling stories in this space for a long time. As I said, I really think it can reach a lot of people. But at an industry level, I was looking at it and thinking, oh, it's just not getting pick up, right? We're the $0 billion industry. It's just not there. But then I saw Clouds Over Sidra and started to really get a deeper understanding of how emotional this kind of storytelling can be, but also looking at that as a case study year over year. how much it really did to change the world, and how many people it reached, and how it, in all honesty, just raised a ton of money for a cause that was, and still is, so incredibly important. And that to me, right there, I said, oh, then this is it. This is a medium that, while maybe it won't have the same commercial appeal as film and television for the next few years, it will get there. There's going to be that tipping point. There's going to be that convergence moment where AR meets VR and we can start to skin our world, so to speak, and make stories everywhere we go, as opposed to the location-based experiences we're having now. But it was projects like that that opened my eyes to really the power of this medium and how we can begin to change the world if we get the right story in the hands of the right people at the right time.

[00:06:43.215] Kent Bye: Can you talk a bit about some of the first XR projects that you worked on here at Vulcan Productions?

[00:06:48.520] Matt Milios: So we started with 360 film, non-interactive, about three years ago, with pieces like Guardians of the Kingdom and Ghost Fleet VR. Both are important stories about oceans and ocean health. So the first project I worked on here at Vulcan Productions was Ghost Fleet VR. And Ghost Fleet VR was a companion piece to our film Ghost Fleet. It was the story of a man who was forced into slavery in the fishing trade. And it was a very personal story. It brought you into his world and told you exactly what it was like to be in that position. A very one-on-one, very intimate, and really made, I think, really good use of the medium at the time.

[00:07:31.535] Kent Bye: I think that was at Sundance last year, right? That's correct. Yeah, I had a chance to see it and it was really quite moving just in the sense that people who are essentially kidnapped and put onto these ships to be into forced slave labor of catching fish and whether or not they have different parts of their body get cut off or whatnot, it's very dangerous. But he's talking about like, oh yeah, I was on a ship that was kind of like that and you're sitting maybe on the shore pointing out the different ships, but he's, I don't know if there was like recreations, but there was things of him kind of walking through what it was like for him to essentially have his life be stolen from him, but to eventually get it given back to him.

[00:08:12.332] Matt Milios: Yeah, he was, I think, seven years on the boat without setting foot on land. So yeah, it was just an incredibly powerful story that not very many people know about. And to be able to share that kind of story in that intimate way, even if it's just with those folks who can make the decisions and can pull the right levers to help folks like that going forward, it's just undeniably a powerful tool for change.

[00:08:36.545] Kent Bye: Well the thing that I found so interesting about that story in terms of VR is that he's taking you to the boat and he's giving you different stories that were happening in a boat in different contexts on the boat and so but he's not on the actual boat that he was on obviously because it was a whole ghost fleet but he's walking you through and you get this Direct experience of almost like this guided tour experience. And so maybe could talk about that spatial element of VR that maybe is different than what you get from a 2d version and what you're able to do with playing around with the spatialization of a story like this

[00:09:14.438] Matt Milios: Yeah, you know, I think for me, the power of that story, there is that, right? You are in the place and you have the ability to sit with him and see what he sees and understand the world that he was in. But it's those moments of eye contact and those moments that are really just that intimate, personal connection with him as he's telling his story that drives it home for me as much as it is the place-based storytelling that's going on as well.

[00:09:41.337] Kent Bye: So maybe you could talk a bit about what happened to Ghost Fleet, both VR and the film, after it was released. And since we're here at the Impact Reality Summit, how do you start to either quantify or qualify the impact that it makes, or how do you track it? And what was the story and the journey of this piece as it went out into the world to try to make its impact?

[00:10:05.381] Matt Milios: So between the film, Ghost Fleet, and the VR piece, we were able to generate just a tremendous amount of support for the LPN network who are continuing their work to try to free these men that are on these boats. And that was really the goal the whole time. How do we help them continue to do their work? How do we tell their story in multiple ways, reach as many people as we can, but also reach those people that can make the decisions and help them directly with the work that they're doing? And we've been able to do that, both from a financial standpoint and with some policy change, we're able to continue to help the LPN network out.

[00:10:41.470] Kent Bye: Well, one of the big topics here at the Impact Reality Summit is the funding and the fundraising. I think a deep tension for this gathering is to connect the funders that are out there that are funding the content and the artists who have different pitches and to have $50,000 to be able to give away to the different creators. But if you could give a bit more context as to the dynamics of the funding and then how that is working, not only with the Vulcan Productions, but also this specific gathering and then how you sort of bring together all these different people and kind of have this networking event to try to match up the different funders that are out there with the creators and the pitches that they have. Sure.

[00:11:19.475] Matt Milios: So, you know, the Impact Reality Summit, the goal was to bring together creators and funders, but also impact organizations. technology companies, leaders in the space, in a way that we haven't seen before, so that we can begin to have that discussion of how do we support not just the creators, but how do we support each other in this space. XR, I think, understandably, the economic factors involved is leaning far more towards the entertainment and gaming aspects of the mediums. So it's even that much more important that those of us who are dedicated to telling stories like this, to telling impact-based stories, and creating change in the world, that we get together and share our knowledge, and that we get together and talk about how we can continue to support each other, not just at this event, but beyond this event. And, yeah, that's certainly one of the long-term goals here is to not create an annual event, but to create a discussion that continues month to month and quarter to quarter where we share information about the projects that we're working on, where we talk about new projects that are coming up, where we look back at past projects and say what worked and what didn't, but that we continue to have that discussion ongoing and continue to ensure that we support the creators of this type of content.

[00:12:38.409] Kent Bye: Yeah, well, I know that Rene when he was giving his opening talk this morning about giving an overview of fundraising he made this argument which was essentially that The culture that we have is like the operating system and that in order to shift and reprogram that culture You can create art and stories so we need more artists and storytellers to be able to create those stories to be able to shift the culture in a way that we want to live in the world that we want to live into and So, it sounds like that's a bit of what these different production companies like Vulcan Productions sort of believes in that vision of this highly leveraged point of being able to funnel the money that's out there and put it into these different stories to then shift the culture. There's this complete loop of the money to getting the projects out there and then the audience to receive it. And then either it's a self-sustaining project that has its own business model and actually returns money to the investment. Or if it doesn't, then at least it's able to bring about some deeper change. So where is the money coming from?

[00:13:37.354] Matt Milios: So the money is, currently the money is coming from folks like Vulcan Productions, right, who are in the for-good space, who are looking to do projects that are specific to changing the world and to making it a better place. I think there, you know, there's other organizations, there's even entertainment organizations that are now starting to see the value in telling stories that have the same type of impact component to it, and that they can support with the other work that they're doing. And that's something that I hope to encourage with this as well, is not just looking at XR for good, but looking at the entire XR space and trying to find that right balance of, hey, we know we're gonna start to make more and more money in the entertainment and the gaming space, and how do we funnel some of that money into the documentary and into the for-good space?

[00:14:25.517] Kent Bye: Well, imagine that even as the production company has to have its money from somewhere, has to originate, is there like a fundraising aspect or is it like VC funding? Or I'm just trying to get a better sense of this business model. If it's a number of different individuals who want to make a change with their money and they are kind of investing in Vulcan Productions to be able to bring about that change, or if there's this fundraising process that you have to go through in order to actually get that money.

[00:14:51.906] Matt Milios: You mean for Vulcan Productions in particular? Well, Vulcan Productions is kind of singular, I think, in the way that we approach it, right? Because we are an entity which is fully committed to creating change in this world, and we have the support of people who have the means to do that. So it's, you know, it is unique in a lot of ways, and it's wonderful to be able to work for an organization that is committed to change at that level. but it also gives us the responsibility, I think, to take a leadership role for the rest of the XR community and say, follow along. This is what we should be doing together, learning from each other and supporting each other and supporting the creators of this kind of work.

[00:15:30.171] Kent Bye: Yeah. So how does somebody get involved with getting produced by Vulcan Productions? Is it mostly like non-profits or do you take pitches or how does that process happen for people to kind of get into that pipeline of getting these different projects produced?

[00:15:44.882] Matt Milios: Yeah, we have a similar development process, I think, to any other production company. We certainly take pitches, and we also develop ideas internally. You know, we have our four key areas of climate change, ocean health, biodiversity, and conservation, and a fourth pillar that we refer to as community, which is helping our communities out and making communities a better place. Much broader category, but just as important as the rest. So within that filter, we'll look at numerous projects across the year and talk with the creators and decide which ones fit our model for creating change in the world.

[00:16:24.433] Kent Bye: And so for Vulkan Productions, what are some of the either biggest open questions you're trying to answer or biggest problems you're trying to solve with the work that you're doing?

[00:16:35.714] Matt Milios: It's a good question. I think within those four pillars, they're huge, right? The problems that we're looking at. Climate change is a massive issue. Ocean health, it's tied to everything in the world. Not just climate, but the quality of life for every human on the planet. And conservation and biodiversity, again, they're all kind of tied together and they go hand in hand. And within those, we are looking for the stories that are going to have the most empathy and the most, or create the most empathy and have the most reach, and in our assessment, have that greatest amount of impact within those areas to help steer the world into a better place.

[00:17:13.645] Kent Bye: Great, and is there any specific types of experiences that you want to have?

[00:17:18.927] Matt Milios: In AR, VR? MR? XR? Yeah, you know, I actually am looking forward to a time, I think, in the not too distant future, probably in my mind, three to five years away. where we do reach that point where we can start to tell stories everywhere you're at, where we have to then think about how do we begin to tell stories in a real world space in a 24 hour period. I think we're gonna get to a place where the technology is going to be so interwoven in our lives that things like the internet are just gonna become ubiquitous to the world, not something that's contained in a box. And the challenge for us as storytellers is How do we then crack into that world for people and give them the information they need to know on a minute-by-minute basis and a day-by-day basis so that they can make good choices and have a higher quality of life? And for me, that's going to be when it becomes insane, but also incredibly interesting, triggering stories everywhere you are in the world and being able to reach people no matter where they are at any time with their permission is just going to be an amazing, amazing time.

[00:18:30.815] Kent Bye: Great. And finally, what do you think the ultimate potential of spatial computing and immersive storytelling might be, and what they might be able to enable?

[00:18:41.059] Matt Milios: I don't know if there's a cap to that. I honestly don't. I think before too long, in the not-too-distant future, we're going to get to that place where we can skin the world, where we can see what we want to see, and it can be whatever we want it to be. And that's both a scary thing, but it's also, I think, can be a very beautiful thing. And people will have the choice to decide how they want to live their life and how they want to see their world. And within that, hopefully we can tell good stories that keep them grounded in reality.

[00:19:16.861] Kent Bye: OK, great. Well, thank you so much for joining me today on the podcast. So thank you. Yeah, you bet. Thank you. So that was Matt Melios. He's the creative director of emerging media at Volcom Productions. So I'm going to reference takeaways about this interview is that first of all, well, when I went to the Impact Reality Summit, I hadn't heard of Volcom Productions. So I was unaware of the backstory of Paul Allen and how this was an initiative that he wanted to be able to bring about this larger change. And so the specific areas that they're looking at are the four pillars of climate change, ocean health, biodiversity and conservation, as well as community. And so they're in a position where they're trying to fund these different projects. And I'm happy to see that they've taken on virtual reality as a big initiative to be able to start to fund a lot of these XR for change VR for good types of experiences. And like I said, at the top, they had a number of different experiences. The drop in the ocean that was at Tribeca was really talking about the plastics and the amount of plastic that's in the ocean. And they actually had a whole panel discussion with one of the descendants of Jacques Cousteau, Philippe Cousteau, as well as Ashlyn Cousteau. They had one of the creators from Vision 3 and they had a whole panel discussion talking about it. But Matt said he didn't necessarily want to create an annual gathering, although I think that would be a great idea because I do think there's a lot of value of actually bringing people together. But they want to also just try to help to foster this community and to allow people to just continue to have these different types of conversations. And, you know, they're not necessarily thinking about virtual reality in a way that is at this mass consumer scale. They're really trying to bring about awareness around specific issues first and foremost, but to also think about like alternative ways of getting these experiences into the hands of the right people. whether they're focusing specific policy changes that they want to help bring about or to just raise money in generally, or to just raise awareness of these specific issues. And so when you start to look at not everything is the end all be all is going to end up on the consumer VR experience, but to think about these from location based experiences or other alternative modes of getting these types of experiences out there to bring about different change within the world. And I think that was a big theme that I saw at the Impact Reality Summit is that, you know, it's not necessarily a consumer play for very many people. It's actually trying to just be very specific and targeted as to the stories that they're trying to tell and who gets to see those different types of experiences. Obviously, they're going out to a lot of these different film festivals and that allows the curators from different places that are helping to get these out into these different cultural hotspots and to these other festivals out there. But to just also be aware of the different influencers that are out there and doesn't necessarily have to be seen by millions and millions of people in order to bring about change. It just in some ways has to get to the right people at the right time. And that's a lot of what they're focusing on right now. And it sounds like that the Clouds of Residue was a big turning point for Matt to see like, okay, there's a huge potential, you know, it's a piece by Chris Milk as well as Gabor Awora that they brought together the story about the Syrian refugee camp. And so that was one of the early VR empathy pieces that I think also opened up the minds for a lot of people what the potential is here for to be able to tell these different types of social impact stories and to see how that can bring about specific change. one of the big things actually that came out of that was Chris milk getting a tech talk where he got to talk about the empathy machine, which I think actually has been a very controversial topic or idea or concept just, you know, to say that, you know, VR is going to just, you know, automatically imbue this empathy in people. I think it's, you know, there's a lot that has to still be done on the individual side to actually cultivate that empathy and, you know, how far can you actually go with, knowing what it feels like to be a Syrian refugee when you're here in the United States. So, you know, there's a lot of debates and discussions that have happened around that over the years, but that's certainly one of the outcomes of that piece was to be able to spread that larger meme of how virtual reality technologies could be used for good, which I think has certainly been spread out there. And from this community, I see that people are still trying to take on that spirit of trying to invoke these different aspects of empathy and to look at experiences like Ghost Fleet VR, where trying to maintain that sense of intimacy and eye contact with somebody who was essentially kidnapped for seven years and forced into slave labor onto the ship. And he escaped and was able to tell his story in this VR piece called Go Sleep VR. And so just a very heart-wrenching story and very powerful to see that within virtual reality as well. Anyway, I'm very happy to see what Vulcan Productions is doing and that they're involved in the space and they're helping to try to cultivate the larger community, but also provide some of the funding and the resources to actually create a lot of these different projects. And so I'm excited to see what happens with a lot of these different projects. 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 list-supported podcast, and so I do rely upon donations from people like yourself in order to continue to bring you this coverage. So, you can become a member and donate today at patreon.com slash voicesofvr. Thanks for listening.

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