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Loren and Chris: Developing Virtual Reality for Social Impact

The one question we get more than any other is, “what kind of professionals do you have in your collaborative workspace?” With members working in fields ranging from film and journalism to branded content, game design, and VR/AR development constantly pushing the boundaries of their respected mediums, we like to say that we’re home to anyone who thinks of him or herself as a creative entrepreneur.

Two of those entrepreneurs are Loren Abdulezer and Christopher LoBello of Evolving Technologies Corporation – a high-end boutique shop specializing in creating comfortable VR experiences that seamlessly integrate custom input and other associated devices.

It’s not hard to spot where these “VR guys” are located inside of our workspace. With multiple screens, VR headsets, and other gadgets proliferating around their desks, it’s easy to see where their impactful work gets made.

Loren, a Unity Certified Developer and CEO of Evolving Technologies Corporation, has a passion for seeking out new ways to meld narrative, experience, and virtual reality. Loren has a history of developing solutions for people disabilities; he has created a generalized software tool called the Assistive Portal for individuals with blindness to facilitate spreadsheet utilization, developed a haptic based tool to aid in the teaching of geometric concepts, and guided the development of VR AXS Map, a platform that uses VR to help the disabled pre-visit and share information about accessible public spaces.

Chris specializes in Unity 3D prototyping. He’s focused on creating new virtual reality experiences and some of his recent work includes MTV’s Teen Wolf VR, first shown at the San Diego Comic Con, and Discovery TRVLR, a multiplayer Vive experience where you and two other people are in a futuristic teleportation pod that was shown at CES 2017 in Las Vegas.

The duo recently partnered with media artist Zohar Kfir, a 2016 Made in NY Media Center fellow, to create Testimony, an interactive VR documentary in which five sexual assault survivors share their stories and journeys toward healing. Designed as an advocacy platform, Testimony allows the public to bear witness to those who would have otherwise been silenced. The experience had its world premiere at the 2017 Tribeca Film Festival and quickly grabbed the attention of attendees and press alike. On June 1st, Testimony went on sale in the Oculus Store for both Gear VR and the Oculus Rift, where it was downloaded more than 6,000 times in the first five days and at the time of this article had reached 15,000 unique downloads.

After watching this powerful interactive documentary combining the best of new immersive technology and interactive storytelling we were curious to find out more Evolving Technologies Corporation’s involvement and how this project came about.

Congrats on over 15,000 downloads thus far! Are you surprised over the response?

Thank you! Yes, once we saw that it got over 1000 downloads on the Oculus Store the very first day we knew we had developed something special. Usually there’s an initial hype cycle that happens but the downloads kept growing at a solid pace which is very exciting.

How did you get involved in this project?

Initially we were approached by Zohar for another project she was developing here at the Media Center called LE TEMPS PERDU. Over the course of that project, we formed the foundation for future collaborations. Le Temps Perdu caught the attention of Oculus Studios where Zohar pitched the project using a prototype we had developed for her.The pitch went great and Oculus Studios decided to back the project.

Why VR as a platform?

Watching video interviews on a traditional screen is not nearly as impactful as experiencing the content in a VR setting. In VR there is no one to look over your shoulder. We wanted to create an atmosphere where you are free to explore each assault survivor’s stories. Every account is different, but they are all connected together by common threads: how they were powerless during and after the incident, how they were marginalized by the system of (in)justice, how they overcame adversities, sometimes with the care and help of loved ones, and how they’re now emerging through the medium of VR as a voice to rebalance the equation of inequities.

Can you tell us a little more about the design and VR experience?

One of the things to be aware of when creating a VR experience is that if you’re not careful, the experience can be overwhelming. We specifically created a setting where people can explore the stories at their own pace. When you enter the experience, you will see clips of various people suspended and floating around you. Each person’s story is broken up into a series of individual video clips visually connected by what we have come to call “spirit lines”. When you gaze at one of the people for a few seconds that clip slowly comes closer, faces you at eye level, and that individual begins to convey their story. As stories are told, you might see the flashing lights of a police siren or hear background sounds that add to the mental imagery. At any point you can turn away, perhaps to hear another person’s story, or to just pause a moment to take it all in, and resume that clip when you’re ready. Many people have remarked that this VR experience completely altered their perspective. That is why VR storytelling can be such a powerful agent for change.

After a world premiere at the 2017 Tribeca Film Festival and rave reviews from attendees, Testimony has since been featured on Engadget, Forbes, and PSFK.

We highly recommend watching Testimony and if you are into immersive technology and want to connect with Loren and Chris you can join their VR Meetup on June 28th at the Media Center.

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